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Last Updated: Friday, 18 April, 2003, 18:24 GMT 19:24 UK
Eyewitness: A journey to Baghdad
BBC News Online's Martin Asser
By Martin Asser
BBC News Online in Baghdad

Getting to the Iraqi capital overland is a major undertaking even at the best of times, but the journey has taken on extra dimensions for those coming in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq.

Equestrian statue of Saddam Hussein at Iraqi border with Jordan
Saddam Hussein, resplendent on horseback, still appears at the border

Many of the people on the road to Baghdad these days are Iraqis who relocated to Syria during the bombardment and are now returning - often with mixed feelings about the prospect of finding the United States military in control of their country.

There are also hundreds of journalists making the 1,000-kilometre (650-mile) trip from the Jordanian capital Amman.

The journey is far from safe for either group, as a wave of lawlessness has engulfed Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.

This phenomenon has manifested itself mainly in the looting of public buildings - but also in an increase of banditry along the international highway, with armed men opening fire on traffic and robbing unfortunate victims at gunpoint.

The latest information we have is that around Ramadi, a town about 100 kilometres west of Baghdad, is the most dangerous area, with the possibility that media convoys - carrying large quantities of cash and equipment - are especially at risk.

Devil on horseback

It is a journey of two halves: Jordan where everything is dull normality, and Iraq where everything - repeat everything - has changed.

The first surprise actually comes in the no-man's-land between the two countries.

US marines are checking passports along a line of vehicles waiting in front of the grandiose border gates that used to be Iraq's bastion against a hostile, misunderstanding world.

Follow Martin Asser's journey in images

Adorned with the now-ludicrous-seeming trimmings of the former Baathist government, the scene is an instant measure of "New Iraq".

The soldiers are friendly, wanting to be liked, but very wary of possible dangers.

The Iraqis betray no emotion, responding to the instructions in English and the soldiers' gesticulations quizzically, apprehensively, many of them I suppose, experiencing foreign occupation for the first time.

And the journalists - well, they behave just like journalists usually do.

Not quite surveying the scene is a three-metre-high portrait of a once-smiling Saddam Hussein dressed as a bedaggered Bedouin chieftain. Now his face is blotted out and the world "bastard" has been scrawled underneath in Arabic.

All references to the former Iraqi strongman have been erased at the border - all except a magnificently kitsch equestrian statue, arm raised with sword pointed towards Israel and four phallic-looking missiles flying like sparks from the horse's hooves.

Perhaps the statue is seen as such a damning indictment of Saddam Hussein in itself that it might as well be left unmolested.

Road wreckage

The border-gate checkpoint is now the only formality for those entering Iraq. There are no Iraqi officials here, and no US-instigated immigration procedures either, lest the "liberating" forces be seen as an "occupying" power.

So we sail past the former customs and immigration buildings and onto the broad desert highway signposted "Baghdad - 550 kilometres".

Burnt-out bus on highway to Baghdad
The wrecks include civilian and military vehicles

The skeletons of cars and buses do not start appearing until this road joins the one from Syria about 20 minutes into the journey - the metal horribly burnt after being attacked by coalition forces.

They include military vehicles and civilian ones, which may, or may not, have been taking would-be Arab martyrs to defend the Iraqi regime.

The most disturbing site is the wrecked Syrian bus - marked Fourat (Euphrates) tours - which was hit by shrapnel, killing five of its occupants when a rocket blasted a huge hole in the bridge it was crossing.

Bandits and looters

Four hours into our journey, and instructions come over the walkie-talkie for our 10-vehicle convoy to close up, speed up and look out for potential threats.

The road here is theoretically under control of the coalition and we had seen a column of Australian special forces going the other way shortly before.

However, it was still a nerve-jangling 20 minutes as our convoy sped past Ramadi and negotiated the sandbanks in the road that had been set up by Iraqi militias but were subsequently employed by local gunman for hold-ups.

Tractor carrying stolen goods towards al-Ramadi
Looters use all transport available

The last incident we knew of had been about 48 hours before we left Amman - a colleague from Associated Press had been dragged from his vehicle and held at gunpoint by up to 10 masked men who robbed him and released him half an hour later.

With Ramadi behind us, our attention turned to the other carriageway taking traffic away from Baghdad.

The coalition claims that looting is being brought under control, but clearly not enough to prevent the diverse collection of vehicles coming in the opposite direction, weighed down with booty "liberated" from the defunct Iraqi regime.

A stolen fire engine, with perhaps a ton of metal rods strapped to the roof; an Iraqi army lorry (surely a potential US target) weighed down by sacks and boxes; a desert taxi, piled high, not only on the roof, but also the boot and the bonnet; a tractor laboriously towing a bulldozer towards Ramadi.

Into Baghdad

Some of the vehicles coming the other way are so overloaded they have broken down by the side of the road. Others have to stop so drivers can retrieve goods which have fallen off after being so hastily packed.

And on our side, an endless stream of lorries, cars and even motorcycles with side-cars, rushing back to take part in more plunder.

Our driver, a Jordanian-Iraqi resident of Baghdad fluctuates between contempt and sardonic amusement at the bizarre traffic around him.

Iraqis checked wrecked tank in outskirts of Baghdad
Looking for loot: Iraqis check over a wrecked tank

"Yes, the people are reclaiming what's theirs," he says. "But it's tragic that only the ingenious ones are benefiting. The rest have nothing."

As we close on Baghdad itself, the caravan of looters peters out - they appear to have been joining the highway from somewhere to the north of the city.

Now points of interest become the shattered military hardware littering the Baghdad suburbs - burnt-out tanks placed near single-storey mud-brick hovels, the latter miraculously untouched by the precision-guided ordnance.

It has been a long journey, characterised by both high tension and low farce - but now we are here and the real work begins.


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