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07-17-07, 06:48 AM
July 16, 2007, 1:56 p.m.

The road to victory is paved with IEDs.

By Michael Yon

Baqubah, Iraq — Route Tampa is the major supply route for Coalition forces in Iraq. Billions of dollars worth of gear and supplies are pumped up the northbound artery, while rumbling down the southbound vein back to Kuwait are damaged vehicles, units returning from a year or longer at war and convoys of empty trucks. Along the way, thousands of blue, black, and clear plastic bags twirl, swirl, and skitter in the hot dusty winds. The bags ramble about like so much plastic tumbleweed; aligning along the wind, drifting along the desert currents until they catch on nettles, concertina or the shards of wreckage. On those summer days so hot machines and bodies begin to falter, the air inside the bags is heated just a few degrees more, enough that some bags spontaneously buoy and drift away.

The convoys, sometimes hundreds of semi-trucks long, are guarded by gun trucks, but they have no real safety, apart from numbers. Down near Kuwait, Route Tampa is mostly safe, save for normal driving hazards such as crazy drivers rocketing around in their BMWs and Mercedes. A couple years back, I saw a spray-painted warning on a concrete barrier that said something like, “Watch out for dumbass camels.” Only a combat soldier could have written that, I thought, or maybe a Marine. After he and his buddies had just crawled out of a flipped-over Humvee, its wheels still spinning, maybe one of them stepped over a couple of dead camels on the searing pavement, picked up a can of paint and sprayed that caution for all who followed.

Once inside Iraq, although there are relatively few bombs down by the Kuwaiti border, convoys have to watch for the lunatic local drivers, slicing through at 120mph, practically ripping the paint off trucks that more typically travel along at about 40 mph. I remember my first journey down Tampa from Mosul to Kuwait in a Humvee back in 2005. I was tagging along with CSM Jeffrey Mellinger, who seemed to be checking under every bush in Iraq to see how the troops were doing. The CSM could have flown in helicopters or whatever, but I’ve got photos of him on two separate occasions changing his own Humvee tires on Route Tampa — in extremely dangerous areas.

Of the enemy, Mellinger would say things like, “We’ve already killed all the stupid ones. Stay on your game. You can relax when you get home to momma, but not when you’re with me.” CSM Mellinger would tell his crew, “If there is the slightest notion in your head that something is not right, listen to it. Call it up on the radio. Tell everyone. If you make a mistake and call up something that’s nothing, that’s okay. But if you make a mistake and don’t call up something that is something, your Iraq tour might end under a flag. And that’s not okay.” He was very direct like that. His patrols were eventually hit a total of about 30 times.

Many of the attacks in Iraq are complex ambushes. The first part of the attack is more of a shaping move. It might kill some of our people, but it’s designed to move the rest of our soldiers where the enemy wants them for the follow-on. Early in 2007, I drove with CSM Mellinger to Samarra where an instance of that type of complex ambush had just happened. He talked with the platoon from the 82nd. Some of them looked pretty banged up. One of the young soldiers whose face was scratched up just kept staring in complete silence. I think they had just had about five killed in action when the enemy hit the rescuers. Happens frequently.

For convoys heading up Route Tampa, the safety of numbers collides with statistics as the frequency curve of attacks seems to climb to nearly vertical. The sights and smells of burning semi trucks becomes more common the closer one gets to Baghdad. On a busy day and a long haul, it’s not unusual to be diverted or delayed a half-dozen times or more due to real or suspected bombs. The thousands of miles of roads circulating traffic around Iraq leave many advantages to the attackers, and there must be more species of attackers here than of frogs on the Suwannee River.

As Tampa stretches up to Baghdad, the road becomes like the jugular of Iraq, surprisingly vulnerable for something so critical to maintaining life here. Keeping just that one highway open is a 24/7 job, because it gets bombed many times every day of the week. All the jets coursing overhead peering down, and all the countless “cool gadgets” that make contractors shamefully rich, simply do not stop the bombs. While most bombs are detected before they can be detonated, or least cause no casualties if their discovery comes only after their detonation, thousands deaths and severe injuries — Coalition and Iraqi — result from bomb attacks each year. The bombs are as bad today as ever.

The enemy learned several years ago, for instance, that during dust storms or bad weather, their advantages multiply because not only are they better able to lay the explosive, but we are less likely to have air support or med-evac. Since the bad weather itself can serve to camouflage or cloak the bombs, the enemy is more likely to successfully mount a sustained attack and get away. This is no secret or it would not be on this page. The enemy knows these things.

The job of sweeping roads for bombs is called “route clearance,” and it’s a constant activity, serving like windshield wipers in heavy storm. No matter how furiously the wipers (or route clearance teams) work, the storm keeps coming, and each swipe is only good for a brief period, it at all. For small IEDs terrorists can “seed” a road with “pop and drops” as fast as a mailman can deliver packages. Or they can lay an EFP—which can fit in a backpack and yet still destroy any vehicle in any arsenal in the world, including tanks — nearly that fast. Given the ease with which bombing crews can operate, constant high-skilled route clearance is needed on the main roads. Otherwise, the roads would be so riddled with deep buried bombs as to be "impassable," and many in fact are just that.

Some IEDs — massive ones — are emplaced like money in the terrorist's bank. They know where the IEDs are, and can use them as desired. So bombs can lie in wait for months, even years, with the wires running off hundreds or even thousands of yards into a village or other secluded area. Some of the bombs are so big, that the enemy buries them with backhoes. The route might have been “cleared” a hundred times, then kaboom! game over. In a city like Baqubah, where I write these words and was on those roads today when soldiers I was with shot and killed two armed men just hours ago (July 15, 2007). Al Qaeda and other groups have so seeded many of the roads that areas remain “black” (off limits to travel), nearly a month after the launch of operation Arrowhead Ripper. The terrorists’ main target is not Americans, but other Iraqis.