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Road grim testament to war

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 24, 2003

AL QADIAAIYA, Iraq -- Last chance for gas.

Reem Allehdood doesn't have to put up a sign: Motorists stare at the empty highway disappearing into the desert and know it's now or never. So a few hundred yards from the Jordanian border, Baghdad-bound taxis and buses sidle up to Allehdood's oil truck to top off the tank.

[Times photo: Kinfay Moroti]
A massive crater, caused by the U.S. military's campaign in Iraq, gapes along the main highway linking Jordan and Baghdad.

Is business good? Allehdood's answer is a big, toothy grin. He has been here two days and has already made 300,000 Iraqi dinars, or about $100. The customers are happy too: A gallon is just 35 cents.

Until a few weeks ago, the Iraqi government ran its own gas station at the border. Then the war started, the government collapsed and the station closed. With an old tanker and a new capitalist zeal, Allehdood stepped into the void.

To travel the Jordan-Baghdad highway these days is to see in 12 hours and 400 miles how much Iraq has changed. It's a surreal journey that can feel like a trip on the old Route 66, another legendary highway that many have driven and few will forget.

As part of its punishment for invading Kuwait in 1990, Iraq lost almost all commercial airline service. The highway became its main link to the outside world, and the border post became a monument to plodding bureaucracy. As foreigners waited to enter the country, Iraqi authorities searched their luggage and recorded the serial number of every camera and computer.

After several hours and the payment of many "tips," travelers would finally be on their way. But when the United States began bombing last month, the border personnel vanished. Now American soldiers make a quick check of I.D.s and wave motorists through. A huge portrait of Saddam Hussein still welcomes them to Iraq, but someone has carefully painted out the face.

The first stop is usually Allehdood's ancient oil tanker. It serves as a mobile gas station complete with meter perched on a concrete block. Allehdood used to work in a factory in Ramadi, a town 80 miles west of Baghdad. But as the war wound down, Ramadi's local government asked if anyone would like to drive a tanker to the border and sell gas. Allehdood said yes to the offer, which earns him a commission and the town some badly needed money to start repairing bomb damage.

On this morning, Allehdood, 33, is busy filling vehicles occupied by journalists, humanitarian workers and Iraqis returning home. One, a middle-aged man who speaks fluent English, is happy to be rid of Hussein, but thinks Americans should act less as soldiers and more as peacekeepers.

"It's better to be in police form than in army form," he says. "In army form, they get a very bad reaction."

A medical equipment dealer, he was attending a convention in Europe when war broke out. Like many Iraqis, he is glad to talk but reluctant to give his name: "A lot of people still have fear inside them. They feel like a shadow is behind them."

And that fear, he warns, will linger unless the United States can prove Hussein is dead or captured: "Iraqi people don't believe anything: They have to see it."

After leaving the border, the road expands from two lanes to four and becomes a divided highway as good as anything in America. There are even picnic areas with tables and umbrellas.

But you don't have to go far to see you are entering a war zone. Less than 100 miles into Iraq is the ruined hulk of a Fuorat Tours passenger bus- "Happy Travels!" is still legible on the side. A few days after the war began, a group of Syrians who had been working in the nearby town of Ratba were trying to get home when a U.S. missile struck a highway bridge as their bus was about to cross.

The missile punched a hole through concrete and rebar, buckled two large sections of bridge and mangled the guardrails for several hundred feet. Five Syrians were killed, and many others were injured. The outlines of their bodies are a rusty red on the yellow seat covers.

Three weeks later, the eastbound lanes of the highway are still so covered with debris that traffic has to detour to the westbound side, careful to avoid the 50-foot, unprotected drop-off to the dry riverbed below.

A bit farther along is another gruesome roadside attraction: a wrecked service plaza. On the first day of bombing, a Jordanian driver was in the post office making a phone call when an American missile pulverized the building. Chunks of fused-together bricks litter the parking lot for hundreds of feet in all directions.

On Monday, another Jordanian driver stopped to look. Blaring from the tape deck of his GMC came an oddly appropriate rock 'n' roll hit of the '50s:

I've been to Nagasaki, Hiroshima, too

The same I did to them, baby, I can do to you

'Cause I'm a Fujiyama mama, and I'm just about to blow my top!

* * *

[Times photo: Kinfay Moroti]
From atop his family's truck, Randy Muslim surveys a rest stop that was targeted by the U.S. bombing campaign.

As the highway approaches Baghdad, the desert gives way to lush stands of palm trees and the shimmery ribbon of the Euphrates River. There are many more signs of war: overturned cars and trucks; flattened guardrails where tanks lumbered from one side of the highway to the other. And everywhere, images of Saddam Hussein deftly altered with spray paint.

Dressed in a business suit, he now sports horns and a goatee. In traditional robes and head garb, he has sunglasses and a huge donkey-like tongue hanging halfway down his chest.

The road here is lined with factories being stripped of everything but the walls. The pickings are getting slim -- from one building, two men cart away a rickety metal file cabinet. From another comes the sound of looters banging away at the pipes, probably the only thing left to steal.

The Jordan-Baghdad highway goes past a now-headless statue of Hussein and on to the Peace Roundabout, where his son, Uday, was shot and seriously wounded by one of his many enemies a few years ago. At the nearby Rasheed Bank, the doors are wide open and a dozen or so U.S. soldiers stand guard outside.

Sitting cross-legged on the pavement, hands cuffed behind his back, is a man that Sgt. Rentao Abenotar caught trying to loot a Baghdad TV station for the second time.

"He claimed it wasn't him -- he said it was Ali Baba," says Abenotar of Fort Stewart, Ga.

The man's son, no older than 8 or 10, waits patiently for his father to be released. That likely will be soon; the man dropped whatever he had grabbed and the soldiers don't have any grounds to hold him.

"On the next patrol," Abenotar says, "you just catch them again."

The highway finally disappears in a jumble of city streets, just as a blood-red sun burns through a haze of cloud and smoke. The streets are crowded now, but they will be deserted soon: Baghdad at night is no place to be outside.

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at .

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