Roads out of Baghdad become no-go zones

Iraq's National Assembly met for the first time Wednesday. The session was rattled by nearby mortar shells.

Mohammed Ghazi Umron has a front-row seat for the perils of Iraq's roads: the cab of his truck. And while this Shiite in his 30s enthusiastically voted in Iraq's January election, from where he sits the country is as dangerous as ever.

The road north through Baquba? "Pretty dangerous,'' he says. Due south through Mahmudiyah? "It's bad, but I haven't heard of any drivers being killed there in a few weeks." How about west through Abu Ghraib and on to Fallujah? "Very, very dangerous. We try not to go past Abu Ghraib."

The volley of mortar fire that dropped a few hundred yards short of where the opening session of Iraq's new parliament was held Wednesday rattled the ceremonial gathering and was a reminder that the city remains under siege.

Nearly two years since President Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq, Baghdad is still one of the most dangerous cities in the world. It is ringed in peril. Travel in any direction a few miles outside city limits and the risks intensify. The ferocity and growth of these no-go zones underscores the need for additional Iraqi security forces in and around Baghdad as the US begins to reduce its manpower here.

Because of kidnappings and murders on the road immediately south of Baghdad, that area has been dubbed the "triangle of death" by journalists. The areas immediately north and west of the city that have long been called the Sunni triangle has also become shorthand for a no-go zone.

While the term "triangle" makes it seem as if the danger zone is a well defined area with borders, the frontier of danger around the city flexes and shifts almost daily, sometimes surging into the middle of Baghdad and at other times withdrawing to what feels like a safe distance.

These often lawless zones provide staging points for ongoing attacks inside the city. Though the mortars that were fired Wednesday in Baghdad fell harmlessly as legislators were sworn in, the attack on parliament came even as most of Baghdad's main bridges across the Tigris were shut.

"We've arrested some bandits, some really bad people, but it's hard to say that we're making a lot of progress,'' says Col. Faisal Ali al-Doseky, head of an anti- kidnapping task force for the western half of Baghdad. "The police are unskilled, and we have a lot of interference from the Americans. When your house is in ruins, it takes time to build a new one."

While most reporting focuses on spectacular attacks like the Wednesday suicide bombing that killed four Iraqi soldiers in Baquba, 20 miles north of Baghdad, or the one that killed 118 in Hilla, 60 miles south of Baghdad, at the end of February, dozens of Iraqis quietly disappear on the roads around Baghdad every month, and this contributes as much as anything to the average Baghdadis sense of danger.

Kidnap for ransom is big business in Iraq and many kidnappers end up killing their victims whether ransom is paid or not. "I fear for my children the moment they walk out the door,'' says Ghassan Abdul Hussein, a mechanic. "I can't go to visit the shrine cities, not even to Khadimiya in Baghdad. We all know what happens on those roads."

Colonel Doseky says his task force has dealt with 38 kidnappings since it was created at the end of last November but says "many, many kidnappings aren't reported to us. People are afraid for their family members."

One of those kidnappings was three months ago on the road to the Shiite city of Kerbala, 45 miles south of Baghdad. A cab with five passengers and a driver was stopped at an insurgent roadblock. After being taken to a nearby home and questioned about their religious beliefs, the one Sunni Arab in the car was freed. The other four, all Shiites, haven't been heard from since.

"This is what it's like for us now - the good people are in danger and the bad people do whatever they want,'' says the best friend of one of the kidnapped men, having trouble holding back tears. "By now, the news probably isn't good. But if there's a small chance he's alive, getting the Americans or the Iraqi government involved will put him in even greater danger."

Mr. Umron, the truck driver, owns seven trucks and knows the dangers of the road from both sides. In a convoy with four other trucks two months ago outside the southern city of Basra, he used the AK-47 he keeps in his cab to fight off hijackers.

Three months ago he was hauling a load for the US military when he was stopped at a checkpoint by gunmen in civilian cloths. "They were definitely terrorists,'' he says. As he wondered if he was going to live, a US military convoy appeared in the distance and the men melted away.

While US soldiers are often under fire for mistaken shootings like the one last week that killed an Italian intelligence agent while he was ferrying journalist Giuliana Sgrena out of the country, many Iraqi police and citizens complain that US forces aren't tough enough.

"The Americans are part of the problem - they should either take over responsibility for everything, or leave,'' says Doseky. "We arrest criminals - the Americans take them from us and then let them go in three days. But we know who the bad people are. They should leave it to us."

"Sometimes I feel like the Americans must be helping the insurgents - they're not tough enough,'' says Jassim Mohammed, a carpenter in Baghdad. "I'm glad they got rid of Saddam [Hussein], but we should bring back a lot of his security agents. They have a lot of experience and know how to deal with criminals. We were safer then. "

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