Once-perilous road to Baghdad airport now smooth sailing
It used to be the most dangerous highway in Iraq, five miles of bomb-blasted road between Baghdad International Airport and the cityscape...
The Washington Post
BAGHDAD, Iraq — It used to be the most dangerous highway in Iraq, five miles of bomb-blasted road between Baghdad International Airport and the cityscape. To reach Baghdad or leave it, you had to survive the airport road.
For 2 ½ years, the road in many ways was a symbol of the U.S. failure to secure Iraq. Military convoys roared past in a frantic attempt to escape the looming dangers of suicide bombers, grenades, rockets and booby-trapped litter.
In April, 13 people died along the route, including U.S. aid worker Marla Ruzicka. In the median, the flying-man statue — a landmark that pays homage to a medieval astronomer who tried to fly, and died, using homemade wings — was the silent witness. People died on this road in fiery, awful ways, and the flying man seemed to take it all in.
Then, two months ago, the killings stopped. In October, one person was wounded on the road and no one was killed, according to the U.S. Army. Credit simple, boots-on-the-ground military tactics, Army officials said.
Lt. Col. Michael Harris, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division's 6th Battalion, 8th Calvary Regiment, or 6/8, last summer was given the task of securing the road, which had become a huge embarrassment for the military.
He started by slowing convoys, forcing soldiers to see the passing landscape. He sent troops into surrounding neighborhoods. Barriers went up, preventing cars and trucks from reaching the airport road unless they passed through a military checkpoint.
"We've kept up a vigilant presence," Harris said. With his convoy parked underneath an overpass, he was making another point: It was safe to stop here, to linger, to chat.
Between April and June, the road was the scene of 14 car bombs, 48 roadside bombs, officially known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, and 80 small-arms attacks. Sixteen people were killed.
There have been no car bombs and nine IEDs in the past two months. One Iraqi soldier has been killed.
"In order to control the route, you have to control the terrain on each side," Harris said.
One night last week, Iraqi soldiers, with a handful of U.S. troops at their side, walked the dusty roads of the surrounding neighborhood. Weapons drawn, they searched alleys and courtyards. Mostly, though, they just walked, calling out greetings to Iraqis gathered outside their homes. The sweet scent of spice-infused meat and vegetables filled the air, as women scurried home with stacks of piping-hot flat bread.
"If there's bad things on [the road], the neighbors on either side are influencing it," said Capt. Justin Reese, 30, from La Porte, Ind. He stood side by side with Iraqi Lt. Omar Tarik Ali, 24.
Ali said the Iraqi soldiers had been influential in helping control the neighborhood. "We are Iraqis, and we know strangers from their faces," Ali said. "We can stop them, and we know if they lie to us."
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