| Shias walk to Najaf on way to a pilgrimage in Karbala for the first time in 26 years since it was banned by Saddam Hussein. (Reuters)
Along the road to Baghdad: It is five hours to the Karama border crossing from Amman, Jordan, on a biting cold night. Then it is 660 km to Baghdad. On the Jordanian side, the desert is a rocky, undulating stretch of black vastness and jagged outlines in the light of the full moon.
Daybreak brings Iraq and American soldiers and military Humvees: Americans in the Iraqi desert, Americans checking passports of Iraqis and either turning them back or letting them in.
On the Jordan side, the camps of white tents set up by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees are mostly empty. A few Sudanese had crossed over.
In Kuwait, near the border at Umm Qasr in southern Iraq, US military civil affairs officers say this is a war without refugees. “We planned it that way. We dropped millions of pamphlets advising people to stay at home, we were convincing when we said we will not target civilians.”
Here, the road to and from Baghdad — all of 1,000 km long — is a long reason, one of several why the war has not caused an exodus. Under the UN sanctions regime, the Amman-Baghdad highway is the only legal entry and exit point to Iraq. (In their dash to Baghdad, the American forces did not take this route).
The road is wider on the Iraqi side, six-laned, an endless strip of black asphalt on hues of brown. The desert stretches end to end, rising sometimes into mesas and dropping into gullies. Two or three bedouin herd sheep every hundred kilometres or so.
The road to Baghdad is a stretch of fear. Few dare travel it on their own in these times. All traffic plies in convoys. All traffic is a potential target: for lawless bands of militia from a disintegrating Iraqi army, from desperados in invisible desert settlements, or from “friendly fire” of buzzing US aircraft.
There is traffic on the road to Syria, too, in the wake of the war. Syria is to the north of the Amman-Baghdad highway. That is also the route, the US suspects, taken by fleeing leaders of Saddam Hussein’s regime. (The Russian ambassador’s convoy was attacked on that road. It was headed for Damascus.)
Rutbah is the first town from the Jordan road, 160 km inside Iraq. The local hospital is destroyed. Patients are either treated at a local health centre or sent to a hospital in Ramadi 300 km away.
The highway passes over a bridge near a crossing. The bridge was bombed — the Baghdad side of the road here is blocked. A gaping hole in the concrete eats into the lanes on the other side. But traffic passes through: the vehicles drive in single file through a narrow gap between the hole and the edge of the highway. This is really the only serious damage to the road that otherwise affords speeds of upto 140 kmph.
The detritus of war is all along the stretch: the median is torn away every few kilometres, burnt-out cars, buses, pick-up vans, charred, shot-up chassis of tanks, armoured carriers and anti-aircraft guns have been pushed to the sides. Burnt and exploded tyres have been gathered into piles since the war peaked and the road was cleared.
The convoy stops for a breather by the skeletal remains of a bus lying on its side. It has no wheels, its windows are smashed, its insides charred. There is not a bird in sight, just brown desolation and a mad wind that howls.
The Jordanian drivers decide to leave suddenly. On the horizon, someone has seen the threatening shape of a sandstorm. In the event, it is not one. The wind has whipped up loose sand and the road is vanishing in a watercolour effect.
Some 100 km short of Baghdad, the convoy stops to refuel. It is the first time in weeks that benzene is available. The blackmarket is functioning. Iraqi fuel is dirt cheap (80 litres cost $35 in Jordan and just $5 here) and the Jordanians fill up their jerricans here. The fuel station is at a crossing where the road from Al Qaim near the Syrian border heads south to Ramadi.
Raad Mohammad,with his family in two shiny Mercedes, is headed towards Baghdad. They had left the capital and taken refuge in Qaim. Raad is about 50. He studied fuel engineering, wears a pricey leather jacket, horn-rimmed glasses and flashes a Tucson, Arizona, driver’s licence. “I’m returning after three weeks,” he says.
The family had first thought they would go abroad but then decided on a friend’s place in the north. If the situation got worse, they had decided, they would slip into Syria.
Raad is a businessman who speaks English with an American twang. He is uncomfortable speaking to journalists who are not from the States. He is unabashed about his prosperity. “I don’t know,” he replies when asked if he would rate himself as rich. “Maybe I’m just smart.”
An hour later, the road passes through abandoned gun positions on either side. The sandbags from the bunkers have burst open. Half the road is swallowed by six Abrams tanks, their youthful American soldiers stripped to the waist and washing or smoking.
“Saddam International Airport,” a signboard reads. Two Iraqi tanks, their turrets and tracks blown off, are on either side. A column of thick black smoke rises from a gutted factory shed.