BAGHDAD, Nov 16, 2005 (AFP) – Cars roll to a stop under the bright half moon as Iraqi soldiers stretch rolls of razor wire across the road in a neighborhood near Baghdad’s airport.
“Turn on your passenger lights and open your trunks,” a soldier shouts as the line of cars begins to lengthen. “Be ready to show any weapons and permits.”
The temporary checkpoint is a key element in keeping safe the roads leading into the airport highway, once considered one of the most dangerous places in Iraq.
The platoon commander, First Lieutenant Amir Abdul Aljiel, orders his soldiers to frisk all adult males and check their identification documents. In case of trouble a US Bradley fighting vehicle is parked nearby, and a platoon of soldiers stands ready to offer backup and advice.
Until recently the drive between downtown Baghdad and the airport was a hair-raising half-hour trip, the scene of random shootings, suicide car bomb attacks and so many roadside bombs it was nicknamed “IED Alley.”
The highway is the most direct route between the airport and the heavily fortified Green Zone, where the US and British embassies and much of the Iraqi government are located. It was an embarassment for the US-led forces.
In April alone 13 people were killed and 23 wounded on the highway. Between May and July, 39 people were killed and 17 hurt, mostly police and civilians.
A new US army unit took over highway security in April and began to change tactics, funnelling traffic through seven entry points. In June, Iraqi police began to check cars passing through the checkpoints.
And there has not been a single roadside bomb or car bomb attack since June, after the number dropped from nine in April to six then.
In the past three months, an Iraqi civilian has been the only person killed on the road.
Nevertheless, top US officials visiting Baghdad take a helicopter from the airport to the Green Zone.
And US military and State Department personnel travel in the pre-dawn curfew hours aboard special armored buses called “Rhino Runners”, escorted by low-flying helicopters.
The commander of the US army unit responsible for highway safety, Lieutenant Colonel Mike Harris, says Iraqi security forces deserve most of the credit.
According to him, random neighborhood roadblocks disrupt insurgent plans to set bombs and are also key to success.
Joint neighborhood foot patrols near the highway are also important, Harris said.
“At first they were nervous, but now the people like it,” he said. “In the end, we want to build confidence.”
After Lieutenant Aljiel packs his men back into their trucks, with the two Bradleys in escort, he moves on to another neighborhood of tightly packed two storey brick houses for a foot patrol.
Only a few people peek out of their windows as some 30 soldiers — including a few Americans — walk down the street in two columns, carefully watching the houses.
After a few blocks the soldiers come upon a parked black BMW sports car. “Black BMWs, Opels and Daewoo Princes — those are the cars most used by the terrorists,” said Aljiel.
They knock on a house door and a man who claims to own the car comes out, but can’t prove that he owns the car. “The documents were stolen,” he said.
Aljiel leads a group of soldiers into the house, which the man is renting, but find nothing.
But suspicious of his story, Aljiel takes his soldiers across the street to the man’s landlord.
A middle-aged man in a black dishdasha and a thick moustache opens the main gate, keys shaking in his hand. “I have nothing to hide,” he said, as he let the soldiers in. “You are welcome to look around.”
The man, who gives his name as Abulhassan, nervously escorts Aljiel, his men and some US soldiers through the living room, into a garage and then upstairs.
A little girl cries when she sees the armed men and runs into the kitchen, where two women try to ignore the commotion and continue to feed three young children.
The soldiers are polite as they search the house. In the end, they find nothing incriminating, and Abulhassan convinces Lieutenant Aljiel that his tenant has nothing to hide.
He even shakes the soldiers’ hands as they file out of the house.
“Thank you, thank you for working in our neighborhood. I sleep better every night when I see Iraqi soldiers patrolling our streets.”
An elderly woman, apparently Abulhassan’s mother, also praises the soldiers. “I am like a mother to you,” she calls out to them.