A tougher journey to stock US troops in Iraq

Increased violence is slowing supply lines on which five contractors were kidnapped in November. They appeared unharmed in a video released last week.

At this dusty border crossing in northern Kuwait, more than 200 18-wheelers wait to cross into Iraq. Braving Sunni insurgents, Shiite militias, and criminal gangs, these trucks are vital links in the supply chain that keeps some 130,000 US military personnel in Iraq afloat.

"Why you come to Iraq? You come again, I kill you," says a Bangladeshi driver, describing the vitriol that he and other contractors supporting the American effort routinely face.

Asked how long he intends to take his chances, he says: "Until I'm dead. I need work, I'll carry on."

A stark reminder of the perilousness of the 400-mile journey from here to a US logistics hub in Iraq came last week in a videotape of five kidnapped security contractors – four Americans and one Austrian. It was the first word from the men since their convoy that originated from this outpost was ambushed on Nov. 16.

The tape was "a good sign" but not one that signals that their release is imminent, says the spokesperson for their employer, Crescent Security Group.

Another American contractor was kidnapped Friday in Basra, according to the US Embassy in Baghdad. The Associated Press reported that the two Iraqis he was traveling with were found dead following the abduction.

Due to such dangers, security is the issue on everybody's lips at the Rabha al-Sahara (Desert Springs) truck stop, within sight of the Abdaly crossing. "It's worse than before ... [the trucks] come under fire more frequently," says a Pakistani businessman who asked not to be identified. He's a logistics operator who leases trucks that are driven into Iraq.

Last month, at least 113 US service members were killed, making December the deadliest month in 2006. The month also saw the death of more than 1,900 Iraqi civilians.

The rise in violence has affected the flow of convoys traveling into the country. "[There are usually] eight movements in a day, but nowadays it's reduced to five. In one movement there are about 45 trucks," the businessman says.

Multinationals such as the Kuwait-based Public Warehouse Company that transport fuel, food, and water receive first priority to the limited number of convoys escorted by the US military. Fuel is then distributed to army bases around Iraq by Halliburton-subsidiary KBR, also under US military protection.

Smaller logistics operators often depend on organizations such as Crescent Security Group. The Pakistani logistics operator says, however, that his drivers often don't like to travel with private security companies and prefer US military escorts. "[The private groups] use ... Silverados or F-350s, while the Army has fully armored gun trucks and Humvees."

To be sure, the high value of the cargo makes these convoys targets for criminal gangs. A truck can carry between $30,000 to $200,000 worth of cargo – the most expensive loads being generators or four-wheel-drive vehicles. The importance of Kuwait as a logistics hub for the coalition forces in Iraq cannot be overstated. Camp Arifjan in southern Kuwait is the main staging area for troops and supplies deploying to Iraq.

"The supply line from Kuwait is absolutely crucial. You cannot supply the level that is required by air," says Paul Rodgers, professor of peace studies at Bradford University in West Yorkshire, England, who has written monthly security briefings on Iraq since 2003.

And with the possibility of increasing US forces by some 20,000 combat troops seeming more likely, the supply route from Kuwait will be ever more vital. "A very big proportion of the food and water [used by the US military] comes from Kuwait," says Robert Soussa, the managing director of Kuwait & Gulf Link Transport Co., a group heavily involved in this logistics business.

"There are hundreds of fuel tankers a day ... shared between many companies. They don't have many [petrol] refineries in Iraq, the Kuwait government supplies them with petrol," he says.

Regarding protection for their convoys, Mr. Soussa says that the security companies they hire depend on local Iraqis for safe passage. "They have connections on the ground, they recruit from local tribes, you must create jobs for these people."

Soussa adds that the upsurge in violence has impacted the logistics business. "Because of the incidents in Iraq, they have reduced the number of trucks [per convoy]," he says.

This reduction was also confirmed by a US contractor, who has driven trucks inside Iraq. US Department of Labor statistics show at least 650 American contractors have been killed inside Iraq.

Professor Rodgers says that a more substantial US combat presence in Iraq could cause insurgents to avoid direct confrontation and intensify attacks on supply lines.

"In the longer term, they [insurgents] may respond [to a troop surge] by attacking the supplies, rather than the troops themselves," he says.

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