Truckers shift gears to outsmart bandits on deadly highways of Iraq

Sahir Kadairiyakam is about to begin the half-month race of his life. His goal: to deliver beef and vegetables to hungry US troops in Iraq. But to succeed, this soft-spoken, diminutive Indian will need to speed his 40-foot refrigerated truck along a dark and dusty highway littered with booby traps of boulders and highway bandits eager to loot his truck - or take his life.

India's government wants him to stop. His family wants him to stay safe. He just wants to get paid.

The risk for the truck drivers such as Mr. Kadairiyakam who negotiate a key supply line between Kuwait and US bases in Iraq has never been higher.

More than 70 foreigners have been taken hostage in Iraq since April. At least two have been executed in a bid to spur coalition members to withdraw from the war-torn country. And kidnappers have been emboldened since Filipino forces departed Iraq last month in exchange for abducted Filipino trucker Angelo de la Cruz. Despite the perils, Kadairiyakam says he must make the trip.

The US military estimates that 600 trucks carrying food, building materials, dry goods, and other supplies cross the border from Kuwait every day. It's crucial transport, and despite the recent spate of kidnappings, the flow of goods into Iraq continues at a steady pace, says Kadairiyakam.

His voyage began innocently enough. Hailing from Kerala in southern India, Kadairiyakam paid about $1,600 to a Kuwaiti recruiting firm for a job in this oil-rich emirate.

In January 2003, he came to work as a personal driver for a Kuwaiti family. But then Kuwait's transport industry boomed after the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. Many Kuwaiti companies - including Kadairiyakam's employer - rushed to grab a slice of the lucrative market. He bought a tractor-trailer and contracted Kadairiyakam out.

Starting in February, Kadairiyakam began working with the Public Warehousing Company. His job was to haul food like frozen meats, vegetables, and concentrated juices to US military bases in Iraq.

Because he moves supplies for KBR (formerly known as Kellogg, Brown and Root), a subsidiary of Texas-based Halliburton, Kadairiyakam's convoys are provided with US Army escorts. Even with the military backing, travelling to Iraq has become extremely dangerous in recent days.

The trouble began in April. Using a "Mad Max"-inspired attack scheme, road gangs began tipping massive stones into the middle of the highways in order to create havoc for speeding trucks. These "gangs" would then swarm the wrecked vehicles and loot them in a free-for-all snatch and grab. Dressed in traditional dishdashahs, the men are covered so that only their eyes are visible, a technique that further intimidates frightened drivers.

Vulnerable convoys

After May, truckers began to avoid the stones-in-the-middle-of-the-road tactic, so looters took to target practice on passing trucks' tires. The convoys Kadairiyakam travels in are bracketed by machine-gun armed US military vehicles. The convoys are long, however, snaking down Iraq's back roads with up to 40 vehicles at a time. The armed escorts protect the front and back but leave the middle vulnerable to attackers.

On July 19, a truck in the middle of Kadairiyakam's convoy was targeted. One Indian driver was shot. "I thought we would be attacked," Kadairiyakam says when recounting the experience, implying that a direct assault would follow the shooting.

The convoy stopped a quarter-mile up the road, snatched the wounded driver, torched the truck so as to leave nothing for would-be looters, and then resumed its journey. The injured man was taken by the US military to a hospital in Baghdad. "The US Army never leaves anyone behind," Kadairiyakam notes.

Kadairiyakam, who makes regular trips into Iraq, says that the window of his truck has been hit with rocks dozens of times, requiring eight replacements in the last year and a half.

He knows the risk he faces. "Any moment you are expecting death," he says about his days on the road. Still, he thinks the money makes it worthwhile. After shelling out about the recruiting firm fee, Kadairiyakam needed to recoup his expenses. But he made only $136 a month working as a personal driver.

Driving trucks into Iraq, he makes $509 a month plus $102 in allowance for each trip he takes. In an average month, with two trips into Iraq, Kadairiyakam clears about $712 or around 33,000 Indian rupees. This is the wage of a mid-level government official in India and enough to support his wife and child.

In June, Delhi tried to prevent its nationals from driving in Iraq. The move triggered unrest among the Indian community in Kuwait. About 120 truckers staged a protest in front of the Indian Embassy. The result was a deal among the drivers, the Indian government, and some Kuwaiti trucking firms. Delhi asked that Kuwaiti trucking firms to provide life insurance for its truckers. Not all complied, but Kadairiyakam's company did.

Safety precautions

When they agree to the jobs, truckers are thinking about the money that will provide for their families. Behind the wheel, their minds are focused on safety. Constant vigilance is Kadairiyakam's best defense. "When you're driving along you only think of staying alive," he says. The drivers take note when passing places where attackers may hide.

Some trucking firms are taking other precautions as well. Truckers drive 155 miles before taking their first break. Many firms have been asking truckers to drive only during daylight.

Typically, truckers avoid the searing heat and dust-clouded roads by traveling at night since few, if any, of their cabs are air-conditioned.

Kadairiyakam traveled mostly mornings and evenings during his last trip. He says he will continue to do so - despite calls to travel only during the day when it is reputed to be safer.

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