News: They’ve given me a machine gun and 180 rounds of ammo, and told me not to pee for six hours.
By Nir Rosen
April 24, 2007
Evening in Erbil, Kurdistan, what passes for an oasis of peace in Iraq. It’s March 2006, and I’m waiting for a ride down to Baghdad along one of the world’s most dangerous roads, a six-hour drive through the Sunni Triangle. A few years ago, I would have taken a taxi, but now the insurgents run roadblocks looking for targets—soldiers, contractors, journalists. I can’t rely on the Iraqi police, who are as likely to turn me over to insurgents for money as to be insurgents themselves. And then there are the improvised explosive devices, hidden in rubbish, wreckage, dead goats. I had a close encounter in 2003, when I rode with a convoy of trucks ferrying mail and supplies through the Sunni Triangle to U.S. Army bases. An ied detonated a second too early, exploding just in front of us rather than beneath us. We drove through the cloud of shrapnel, dust, and smoke before I had a chance to get scared. This time, though, I have a long trip south to consider all the possible dangers.
The only way to avoid being seized by one of the many militias that terrorize Iraq is to travel with your own militia, and so the documentary film director I am working for has paid $7,000 to a private security company to take us to Baghdad. Our convoy of four armored Ford F-350 pickup trucks, each containing four or five men apiece, is commanded by two American security contractors whose call signs are Steeler and Pirate (for security reasons, several contractors in this piece asked that I not identify them or their companies). Steeler is a taut guy from Pennsylvania; a former Army Ranger, he served in Iraq with the National Guard and then returned for a salary several times higher. He will take the lead vehicle, eyeing the road for potential threats, a task suited to his taciturn nature. Pirate is the convoy commander. A burly, bearded former Green Beret, he has worked as a private security contractor in Haiti and Africa. I ride in his truck, its window bearing evidence of a recent attack near western Baghdad’s Spaghetti Junction, where heavy-caliber machine-gun fire spiderwebbed the bulletproof glass. On the bed at the back of each truck, reinforced “up-armored” housings hold rear gunners and their belt-fed Russian machine guns. Our gunners are all Kurds. The insurgents are mostly Arabs, and the company Pirate and Steeler work for believes Kurds are less likely to be infiltrated, plus Kurds have a long tradition of guerrilla fighting against heavy odds.
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