- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 28, 2004

BAGHDAD — The last time trucker Walid Mohammad Waij faced death on the highway, he screamed in its face.

He was driving his Volvo tractor-trailer toward the Syrian border when armed men pulled up alongside and ordered him to stop. It was the third time in as many months that bandits had attempted to rob him, and he decided he’d had enough.

Mr. Waij kept driving. A bandit stuck an assault rifle out the window of his car and opened fire into the sky. Still, Mr. Waij kept driving.

“I yelled out the window at them,” he recalls. “I told them, ‘Even if you fire at my head, I am not going to stop.’ ”

Luckily, the bandits fell back in search of easier prey. But for Mr. Waij, that was it. “I’m getting out of the business,” said the 47-year-old trucker. “The roads are too dangerous. Anything is better than getting killed.”

The truckers who traverse Iraq’s long, desolate stretches of highway say that outside the three northern provinces under Kurdish control, much of the countryside has become a no man’s land where criminals collude with police to rob and occasionally kill truckers.

“Once, I gave them all the money I had,” said Karim Amin, a grizzled 60-year-old trucker who has been robbed three times driving between Baghdad and Kut in southern Iraq.

“They said, ‘That’s not all you have. You’ve got money inside the car.’ So they searched the car and found nothing. And they were so angry they nearly beat me to death.”

Under Saddam Hussein, the biggest headaches truckers faced were corrupt police officers who collected bribes at checkpoints. Now, truckers say they toss and turn at night for fear that bandits will steal their vehicles or leave them dead on the side of the road the next day.

Each of Iraq’s roads poses its own special peril. Each band of criminals has its unique appetite for loot.

On the road between Baghdad and Basra, for example, robbers seek truckers carrying electronic equipment that can be resold on the black market.

On the road across Iraq’s vast western desert, Islamic rebels fighting the U.S. military in Fallujah and Ramadi steal foodstuffs to feed their troops. “God help you if they suspect you’re working for the foreigners,” said Ra’ad al-Tamimi, a Baghdad driver.

The road to Syria is where many trucks — and sometimes drivers — are seized for ransom.

“They took my friend and demanded $15,000 for the truck and driver,” said Haydar Yassin Ahmad Turkowi, who hauls goods from Syria. “The company didn’t have enough, so we took up a collection to free our friend.”

The U.S. and Iraqi governments have made a point of their plans to recapture insurgent-held cities such as Fallujah and Ramadi before elections in January. But the problems on Iraq’s roads are only getting worse, according to truckers.

Officials of the Transportation Ministry, which oversees some of the trucking industry, insist they are trying to restore security and order on the roads.

“I don’t envy the truckers,” said Atta Nabeil, deputy transportation minister. “We admit there are big problems.”

Occasionally, the ministry assigns armed police to escort truck convoys. But truckers contend that the police often seem uninterested in their plight.

On one occasion, the truckers learned that one of the criminal kingpins tormenting them was living in a house near Abu Ghraib, just west of Baghdad.

“We went to the police and told the exact location where this gang leader lived,” Mr. al-Tamimi said. “They refused to do anything.”

Many of the truckers share tales and safety tips at the Shorjah truck-loading depot, the main transport hub of postwar Iraq’s consumer economy. Here, truckers and porters load kitchen rugs from India, fluorescent light bulbs from China, children’s shoes from Turkey, shampoos from Syria and sweets from Iran.

With sanctions gone and salaries higher, many ordinary Iraqis can afford to buy mundane consumer goods once denied them. But the truckers see their industry in peril.

Every trucker here has been robbed or shot at. Everyone has a friend who has had his truck stolen or been shot and left for dead along Iraq’s barren roads. Everyone is considering a career change. By some estimates, a quarter of all truckers have left the industry out of fear for their lives, with no one replacing them.

“I have to support my family,” said one who gave his name only as Amin. “But now I’m thinking of leaving the job just to ensure my safety and get away from the robbers.”

Each small truck company operates a line from Baghdad to another city such as Basra or Mosul. Except for the companies that head to the safe Kurdish-controlled north, all of them have been struck hard — with an estimated one-third of all truck convoys coming under attack.

Companies that deliver to Fallujah and Ramadi have stopped operating altogether, and dozens of companies have already folded, according to truckers.

“The government must put more checkpoints on the road and road patrols,” said Mazen Ali, whose 19-truck firm operates along the Basra line. “We need the government to do something.”

A quarter of his trucks sit idle because he can’t find enough drivers willing to brave the roads, he said. “We’re at the end of our line here.”

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