It might just be the most hairy truck route in the world – a nail-biting, long-haul, Mad Max-style endurance race from the Jordan border through the black heart of Isis territory.
Some days, only dozens of truckers hungry for big paydays make the vital run to deliver everything from apples to antibiotics to Iraqi civilians, many of them living under siege in territory controlled by the radical Islamist group.
The truckers’ journey provides a window into a dangerous region that has become even more terrifying. Since the militants took over northern and western Iraq this year, the route has become, the truckers say, the highway through hell.
On the run to Baghdad, drivers face miles of empty, lawless roads, prowled by brigands and militias, punctuated by rolling roadblocks operated by Isis militants in pickup trucks and purloined Hummers. The route to Mosul is worse, drivers say, following oil pipelines, narrow macadam roads and military tracks along the overrun Syrian border, with nobody left but Isis warriors and smuggling crews.
Sallah Ali Addin, an Iraqi driver from Fallujah, has been behind the wheel for a quarter-century in Iraq – dating from the Saddam Hussein era to the US invasion and occupation, through a decade of Sunni rebellions, al-Qaeda uprisings and, now, the self-proclaimed “Islamic State”. He said he has never seen the highways so perilous.
“There are Iraqi government troops. They are dropping bombs out of the sky. The cities are under siege. Checkpoints. Detours. You can’t go. There are bandits – everybody wants a piece of your cargo. And between the Islamic State and the Shia militias, you are taking your life in your hands,” he said in an interview near the Jordan border.
The town of Ruwaished isn’t much to look at, but drivers such as Addin are happy to find refuge here on their way coming and going. It is a trucker’s town, dotted with military garrisons and the main drag full of machine shops stacked with used spare tires and interspersed with stands selling litres of gray-market gas from Iraq. As far as the eye can see, there is black basalt rock and sand and desert. It is freezing in winter. The drivers wear dishdasha robes and sandals, and their eyes are red with fatigue.
Another driver reminded Addin to mention the jets they hear streaking overhead, piloted by members of the US-led coalition.
“The airstrikes scare us to death,” said Addin, who had just returned to Jordan after a 12-day run hauling fresh vegetables from the Jordan valley to Baghdad. A driver in his convoy, Nijm Mahmoud, called Isis a “mafia”.
None of the Iraqi drivers interviewed had any first-hand knowledge of any trucker being kidnapped or killed, but they knew well the militants’ reputation for brutality. “They can shoot you on the side of the road,” said Mahmoud. “No one can do a thing.”
The trucking route from Jordan to Iraq was once a prosperous route that generated as much as $1bn in trade a year, according to some estimates. During Hussein’s rule, 2,000 trucks might have entered Iraq daily from Jordan, a number that gradually dropped to 400 in the years after the US invasion, according to the Jordan Truck Owners Union.
Since Isis captured Mosul and large swathes of Anbar province in June, the number of trucks crossing into Iraq from Jordan has plummeted to 30 on some days, according to Mohammed Kheir Dawood, the union’s head.
But as the conflict has deepened, demand for Jordanian goods has risen in western Iraq. Importers, wholesalers, traders and even private individuals order thousands of tons of dry goods, pharmaceuticals, vegetables and building supplies – materials that the besieged towns of Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul are largely cut off from.
So a hardcore brotherhood of Jordanians, Pakistanis, Yemenis and, especially, Iraqis – many from hard-bitten Fallujah – still make the run, lured by the double and triple wages. And they make sure to drive in convoys.
“Right now, Jordan is western Iraq’s lifeline,” Mr Dawood said. “We warn [drivers] that the road is very, very dangerous, but they can’t say no to the money.”
Drivers working the Iraq trade can triple their usual monthly salary in a week. According to the union, shipping companies are also offering bonuses, hardship pay and additional allowances for food and fuel for wheelmen willing to work the route. Owner-operators who drive their own rigs, and who now dominate the trade, can make $2,000 for a run, though journeys that once took several days can now last a week or two.
“Is it dangerous?” Abdul Kareem Athamat, a Jordanian who had just returned from a 10-day run from Amman to Basra in southern Iraq carrying a load of crisps, said. “Of course it’s dangerous.”
Athamat bought his own beater of a Mercedes-Benz 1635 rig six months ago to cash in on war-zone rates being paid to drivers who have the grit to make the trip. “Where there’s fear,” he said, “there’s money to be made.”
Mr Dawood said none of his members has been killed or kidnapped, as far as he knows. He was not sure about the Iraqi drivers who now dominate the trade. On the Jordanian side of the border, security forces are omnipresent. On the other side, it’s the Wild West.
The Iraqi government operates a lone outpost close to the Jordan border, where officials quickly inspect cargo and stamp passports. Then the truck drivers roll into Isis country. About 110 miles into Iraq, near the town of Rutba, the jihadists collect $200- $300 from every driver.
“We cannot move forward or go back until we pay,” said Mohammed Omar, a veteran Jordanian trucker who has been making three-monthly trips to Iraq since Isis began seizing land. “They say it is the tax to enter the Islamic State.” The truckers said they are given a receipt, complete with an Isis stamp, which they can show the next group of militants who stop them, to prove they paid their way.
To get to Baghdad, the drivers cannot pass directly through Ramadi and Fallujah – where there are sporadic fights and roadblocks – but instead take a long detour south to Karbala. That route is notorious among the drivers here, who are mostly Sunni. It passes through Shia-dominant provinces and, they say, areas controlled by Shia militias. Drivers, once back in Jordan, seem almost giddy with relief and stoked by the wad of extra money they get paid.
Mohammad Abu Bakar was getting his truck washed after returning from Baghdad, where he delivered a load of pomegranates. He owns four trucks and hasn’t been home in months. He is from Fallujah but moved his three wives and children to Mosul before Isis came to town. “You see the road, it looks good, then they come out of nowhere,” he said. “You pay. In the end, we work for whoever is carrying the guns.”
© Washington Post
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