The flight to Amman, Jordan, is delayed for almost seven hours. A man on the previous flight from Amman has died. It is odd watching his covered body roll its way past those of us waiting to board. Is this just the beginning? It feels like a foretelling of the brand of death we are to see along the way: clearly visible yet covered in a shroud determined to hide certain truths against prying, inquisitive eyes.
Indeed, death in many guises accompanies us as our vehicle hurtles toward Baghdad. I am traveling with Anna Bachman, a peace friend I met in Baghdad last year; Nathan Mussleman, a young Mennonite who has been studying Arabic in Syria and is making his third trip to Iraq; and our favorite driver, Sattar. The highway itself, once inside of Iraq, is a modern marvel: a very nicely paved road, two to three lanes in each direction. We are traveling 100 to 145 kilometers per hour in a loosely connected convoy with two other suburban-type vehicles—other drivers with other passengers. Not many signs of war along this highway: a few blackened areas where some sort of bomb or missile had exploded—no hole in the ground, just greasy splotches 20 to 40 feet in diameter. Hulks of burnt and gnarled vehicles appear here and there. Were these bombed or had cars crashed?
And then come the toppled power-line towers. Some are 25 feet tall, others much larger, and one after the other is broken in half. It goes on for miles and miles. It is as if a giant Ali Baba and his thieves came riding along, smote down each tower at its middle, and then magically swept away the connective lifeline of electrical wire. “There are two stories,” Sattar offers. “Some say the Coalition forces knocked the towers down on the way to Baghdad to make certain there would be no electricity. And others say thieves toppled the towers, stole the wire, and sold it for profit. They come at night so no one sees them.”
The sides of the road open to vast expanses of desert vistas for as far as the eye can see—that is, visible only once the sun comes up, which is the case when we come upon the crash. The vehicle had taken at least one roll and landed right-side up. The woman passenger had already been taken to the hospital, but the dead bodies of her husband and the driver are still inside. The driver, Sattar tells us, after we spend two hours at the site, was a good friend who drove this way with him just the day before. Exhausting, 12-hour, back-to-back journeys between Baghdad and Amman have become the norm as suvs and smaller vehicles carry those now thronging to Iraq: journalists, private security guards, mothers seeking to visit with their children in the military, contractors, peace groups, business people of every persuasion, and even tourists. With two to three trips being made per week by each driver, this may be one of the more dangerous jobs in the country. And yet as the highway death toll rises, many come to replace the dead—and claim the $250 one-way fee.
Dissection of a Murder
Not more than 24 hours after my arrival in Baghdad, I find myself in yet another taxi. This time it’s a compact car belonging to our Iraqi translator, and we’re heading north to the region of Balad and the much written-about farming village of Abu Hishma, located in the center of the Sunni Triangle, where resistance to American forces has been especially strong. “It is as if I have just been a thousand years into the past,” our translator says later, on the way back to Baghdad, “and now am driving back to the present.” The most recent problems in Abu Hishma go back to October, the Islamic Holy month of Ramadan. Americans eased up on their operations, but the resistance here only increased. In Abu Hishma, mortar attacks were traced back to villagers' orchards, road bombings increased, and army convoys were shot at from a house a few miles outside the village. The month of November saw 81 troops killed in Iraq, the largest death toll in one month at that point.
On November 17, a group of guerillas fired a rocket-propelled grenade into the front of a Bradley armored personnel carrier. Its armor-piercing tip burrowed into the Bradley and struck Staff Sgt. Dale Panchot in the chest, killing him. The kid gloves came off. Before the dust settled, the soldiers of the First Battalion, Eighth Infantry, part of the Fourth Infantry Division [4th ID], reportedly surrounded Abu Hishma, searched for the guerrillas, and unfurled razor wire around its five-mile perimeter, leaving only one entrance and exit. The next day, an American jet dropped a 500-pound bomb on the house that had been used to attack the troops. Eight sheiks were arrested along with the mayor, the police chief, and most members of the city council. All the men in the village aged 18 to 65 are now required to carry ID cards written in English with no Arabic translation. A sign posted near the wire reads, “This fence is here for your protection. Do not approach or try to cross, or you will be shot.”