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Rotation In Iraq Crowds Highways
By Seth Robson
Stars and Stripes
European Edition

April 1, 2004

BAGHDAD The gunner manning the .50-caliber machine gun mounted on the back of the last truck in the convoy was waving civilian vehicles through.

There was heavy traffic on the dark, four-lane freeway south of Baghdad and the Iraqi motorists were getting impatient. When the gunner waved, two vans sped through to the right of the convoy followed by a small, blue Suzuki Escudo.

But when the Suzuki pulled alongside the gunner's truck, another soldier leaned out a side window brandishing an M-16 and screamed, "Get back or I'll shoot you."

For a moment the Suzuki driver hesitated before deciding to fall back, swearing angrily at the Americans for giving him contradictory signals.

Such is the lot of Iraqi motorists attempting to move about their country while sharing the roads with military units. During the transition of U.S. forces, billed as the largest movement of troops and equipment since World War II, the roads have been even more crowded.

A coalition spokeswoman, Maj. Carolyn Dysart, said Iraqi communities were informed that there would be an increase in traffic during the transition.

"We apologized for the temporary inconvenience," she said. "We warned them that coalition forces will be traveling under heavy security. We recommended that they avoid military convoys if they can for their own protection. And, we asked them to report any suspicious activity."

The coalition does not release details of how convoy operations are conducted and does not keep records of the total number and types of attacks on convoys or the number of soldiers killed and injured while riding in convoys, Dysart said.

What Iraqi motorists see of U.S. convoys on their roads suggests that soldiers traveling in them employ a variety of driving tactics.

Some convoys take up all available lanes, with the rear vehicles driving in a zigzag pattern to stop Iraqi motorists from passing. At night, rear gunners occasionally spotlight following motorists to get them to back off.

Other convoys allow Iraqi vehicles to get by in a passing lane or by crossing the median barrier and commandeering one of the oncoming lanes.

Some become entangled in the local traffic with Iraqi vehicles intermingled with military vehicles in the convoy.

The soldiers who spend the most time in convoys work for support units delivering supplies to U.S. bases in Iraq.

A typical day in March for soldiers from the 296th Brigade Support Battalion involved a convoy from Marez Forward Operating Base in Mosul to Company B, 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment's home at Firebase Aggie, half an hour's drive south.

Before the vehicles left the gate, a liaison officer from the 5-20th let the 296th know how much food, water, fuel and ammunition Company B needed.

James Nickens, a chief warrant officer and the logistics package commander, then planned the mission, deciding which personnel and vehicles were needed to transport the supplies in this case six large deflatable containers containing 3,000 gallons of water and 1,500 gallons of JP8 fuel for Company B's Stryker armored vehicles.

The convoy included an M978 fuel tanker, a flat-rack pulling a trailer with another flat-rack of water containers, and three Strykers providing security.

Convoys must have at least three vehicles during the day and four at night, Nickens said.

"If the Strykers were not with us, we'd have to have at least two gun trucks with .50-cals on them," he said.

Everyone in the convoy, including the drivers, had an M-16 rifle or an M249 machine gun.

If they are attacked, convoys return fire and keep moving, Nickens said.

"We only stop if we have a disabled vehicle. The infantry engage, somebody pulls security, and they extract the personnel. If somebody is injured they call medevac," he said.

In just over three months riding convoys in Iraq, Nickens has yet to be attacked, but he knows of at least one bomb attack in Mosul that has killed a soldier riding in a convoy.

The convoy headed out of Mosul, taking a rural back road instead of the main highway to Firebase Aggie. Soon, the vehicles were lost in a sea of green fields broken by the occasional small village of mud huts where wandering donkeys and geese gambled with death beneath the wheels of the Strykers.

The road was bumpy and Sgt. Baleenda Ward had to keep one hand on the wheel of her M978 fuel tanker and another on her M-16 balanced on the dashboard.

"They train us to drive and shoot at the same time," she said.

Ward's first and only attempt at shooting and driving was while training in Kuwait. She hasn't been attacked in Iraq yet and doesn't spend much time worrying about it.

"I know I am well-trained and know how to handle it if I do come under attack," she said, steering the truck down a winding hill track.

It was no trouble for Ward to handle the massive vehicle. She has been driving trucks for seven years.

Her brother and father are truckers back home in Georgia, but she wants to go to law school.

Trucking would mean too much time on the road away from her two children, Kwequeona, 8, and James, 4, Ward said, waving to a group of Iraqi children beside the road. The Iraqis smiled and waved back.

"I always wave at the kids. I have a whole lot of sympathy for them because they are suffering the most," Ward said.

The convoy arrived safely at Firebase Aggie and began unloading its cargo. A short time later the drivers were heading back to Mosul to prepare for another mission.

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This article is provided courtesy of Stars & Stripes, which got its start as a newspaper for Union troops during the Civil War, and has been published continuously since 1942 in Europe and 1945 in the Pacific. Stripes reporters have been in the field with American soldiers, sailors and airmen in World War II, Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Bosnia and Kosovo, and are now on assignment in the Middle East.

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Copyright 2004 Stars & Stripes. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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