Sunday, November 06, 2005

More Road To Nowhere

A report in the Sunday Times of London today suggests that Pentagon propaganda types are being "economical with the truth" when they tell imbedded reporters that the airport road they are flying over in a Blackhawk chopper is now safe. Two media types from Britain had to make the journey along the road this Ramadan just passed when the US Army didn't have one of those choppers available. See what you think.

An officer from the Irish Fusiliers tips up, all perky green hackle and steely Ulster confidence. "There's absolutely nothing to worry about," he says, and instantly you know there's nothing to worry about because worry is too weedy and snivelly a civvy word for what we ought to be feeling. He doesn't mention that they've just shot their way in here or that they sent an unmanned drone down the route to check it out first.

We wear body armour and helmets in the car. This doesn't make you feel safer, just an oven-ready prat. Our folksy safety briefing boils down to: if by the merest chance anything worrying occurs, close your eyes, put your fingers in your ears and pretend to be a prayer mat.

We travel in a small convoy. Two armour-plated Range Rovers with what they call top cover: Land Rover snatch vehicles in front and behind with a pair of soldiers sticking out the top. Being a human turret is a bad job. "We do this a bit faster than the Americans," a lance corporal tells me as we gingerly pull out of the airport perimeter. That's because the Americans do it in tanks. This road is code-named Route Irish. Guinness World Records has just authoritatively announced that Baghdad is the worst place in the world. Presumably in a photo finish with Stow-on-the-Wold. This 25-minute stretch of blasted tarmac from the airport to the Green Zone is, as Jeremy might say, the most dangerous drive — in the world.

Unsurprisingly, there's not much traffic. Surprisingly, there is some. "It's relative," says the corporal. "The worst road in the world is the one the bus runs you over on. The rest are a doddle."

The fusiliers drive with a practised authority, zigzagging, never contravening each other's line of fire. The top-cover soldiers swivel with their rifles to their shoulders, eyes pressed to the sights. There is a purposeful tension, a tunnel-visioned concentration. Going under bridges and flyovers is the worst: they traverse the parapets with a gaunt expectation and I begin to see everything in hyper-real detail. Every pile of rubbish and burnt-out car waits to jump out at us screaming "God is great" in a flash of hot light.

The convoy slows down; not a good thing.

A car ahead crawls to a stop. The soldiers emphatically signal to it to move on. Maybe it's someone taking a moment to tell God to put the kettle on; maybe it's just a clapped-out motor that's stalled. Army convoys, particularly the American and private-contractor ones, are really dangerous for Iraqis. Lethal force is everyone's first and last option. On a slip road, lopsided purposeful Toyotas packed with grim men seem to race to catch us. Perhaps they just want to get home to break their fast. Perhaps not.

Now, does that sound like the airport road is safe to you?

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