April 18, 2004

U.S. Closes Long Sections of 2 Routes to Baghdad


New York Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq, April 17 — The United States military command on Saturday closed down long stretches of two strategic highways leading to Baghdad, as American troops labored against insurgent attacks that have severely reduced the flow of food, fuel and other supplies into the capital.

The closings appeared to confirm the effect of two weeks of heightened violence in Iraq. American soldiers, stretched thin, have already been deployed in large numbers to contain serious and unresolved uprisings in the cities of Falluja and Najaf. Now they have been sent to face the growing problem of keeping crucial sections of highway open for the passage of critically needed convoys reaching the Iraqi heartland from Turkey, Jordan and Kuwait.

The American command's hope appears to be that by keeping all civilian traffic off the roads on the approaches to Baghdad, it will be more difficult for insurgents to mount ambushes against the trucks and convoys in the most dangerous sections of the highways.

On Saturday, travelers heading north to Baghdad on the main highway from Kuwait saw at least three highway bridges destroyed in a 60-mile section immediately south of the capital. Munadel Abdul Ellah, 44, a Hilla resident who drove to Baghdad on Saturday, said large numbers of American helicopters flew overhead and hundreds of troops patrolled the roads.

"It's a very bad situation," said Mr. Ellah, who spent nearly eight hours making a round trip that usually takes only two hours. "There were so many troops on the highway. It was like when they first came to occupy the airport last year during the war."

American forces had already effectively lost control of long sections of the 375-mile highway leading west from Baghdad to Jordan. The road runs through the battle zone around Falluja, 35 miles west of the capital. Ambushes near Falluja and the adjacent city of Abu Ghraib have destroyed numerous convoys carrying fuel and other supplies for American troops in the past two weeks.

The attacks have also resulted in the kidnapping of about two dozen foreigners, including an American soldier, Pfc. Keith Maupin, 20, who was shown Friday in a videotape released by his captors.

The announcement on Saturday of the the closing of the highways running north to Turkey and south to Kuwait was accompanied by an American military statement saying that the routes "are damaged and too dangerous for civilian travel," and that anybody driving on the closed sections could be subject to attack. "If civilians drive on the closed sections of the highways, they may be engaged with deadly force," the statement read.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the chief spokesman for the military command, was dismissive when asked if the closings had been forced by threats from insurgent groups to enter Baghdad in force and attack Western targets. "If the fighters would like to take the fight to Baghdad, they'll have the First Cavalry Division waiting for them," he told reporters here in the capital.

Still, American officials here and in Washington have been frank about the disruption in supplies reaching Baghdad.

On Friday, General Kimmitt said American commanders believed that there was "a concerted effort on the part of the enemy to try to interfere with our lines of communication, our main supply routes," but said the main effect would be on ordinary Iraqis, who would eventually pay higher prices in the capital's shops and markets.

The general said American military supplies were less of a problem because there were "alternative methods" of delivering ammunition, food and fuel, presumably by air. But even at the bases, commanders have been rationing use of critical stockpiles and urging decisive action to ensure that road convoys get through.

But a senior American official said Saturday that the cutoff in supplies reaching the American occupation authority's headquarters in Saddam Hussein's former Republican Palace in central Baghdad were approaching a critical point. Canteens feeding 2,000 people, civilians as well as military personnel, may soon be forced to serve combat rations in plastic sleeves, known as meals ready to eat.

"We're getting back to where we were a year ago," he said, referring to the privations that American civilian and military officials lived with during the early weeks after the invasion brought American troops to Baghdad on April 9, 2003.

American officials said early last week that Kellogg Brown & Root, a private American military contractor and a Halliburton subsidiary, had stopped all convoys running into Iraq after the ambush on a fuel convoy at Abu Ghraib on April 9 of this year. In that attack, Private Maupin, another soldier and seven Americans working as drivers and security guards disappeared. Only Private Maupin has been accounted for. [Page 18.]

On Friday, the company issued a carefully worded statement that it had resumed convoys into Iraq, but it did not say at what level. A senior American officer said the company was responsible for delivering 40 percent of drinking water, food and fuel consumed by the American occupation authority and the 135,000-soldier command.

"Convoy operations resumed this week after additional security efforts were put in place by the military to provide the new level of security necessary to move supplies into Iraq," the statement read. "K.B.R. is resolved to continue support of the U.S. troops and to fulfill all contract obligations."

One report circulating in the Baghdad hotel where the company is headquartered here was that 80 convoys running into Iraq had been ambushed in the past two weeks. General Kimmitt, asked to confirm the figure at a briefing on Saturday, said he had no figures.

The military statement announcing the road closures said the main road north to Turkey, Highway 1, would be closed from Baghdad to a point near the city of Balad, about 70 miles north. To the south of the capital, the statement said, the road running to Kuwait, Highway 8, would be closed along a section from Baghdad to Rakkab al-Muktif, midway between Hilla and Iskandariya.

"These highways will be closed for an indefinite period of time for public use," the statement said, giving the safety of travelers as the primary reason.

General Kimmitt said there were many other routes that travelers could use to reach the capital, but the detours seems likely to lengthen trips and increase an already high level of frustration among Iraqis at the American occupation.

Progress was mixed in efforts on Saturday toward resolving two serious standoffs between Iraqi insurgents and the American military. In Najaf, south of Baghdad, talks between the occupation forces and representatives of Moktada al-Sadr, a rebel Shiite Muslim cleric who led a broad uprising against U.S. forces this month, stalled amid continued skirmishes between his militia and U.S. troops. In the same area, the U.S. military reported on Saturday, an American soldier died from wounds suffered in attack by Shiite militiamen on Friday. The soldier was at least the 93d American soldier killed since a sharp increase in violence in Iraq beginning on March 31.

But a tentative peace continued to hold in the restive Sunni Muslim city of Falluja on Saturday as American officials extended their talks with leaders there.

American military commanders said that the number of attacks on American troops was decreasing and that the cease-fire established a week ago finally seemed to be holding firm.

"We have made some good progress," said Richard Jones, the deputy administrator for the occupation authority, at the close of a six-hour meeting with sheiks and religious leaders from Falluja. "One day does not a cease-fire make. But last night was the quietest night we've had in some time."

Iraqi negotiators were also optimistic, saying they were beginning to take concrete steps toward disarming militias and returning Iraqi police officers to the city.

"Peace is winning," said Hashem al-Hassani, a leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party and one of the intermediaries between American officials and Falluja representatives. "The elders here are in continuous touch with the fighters in this city and the fighters are listening to them."

Falluja has been overwhelmed by violence since the end of last month.

Edward Wong contributed reporting from Baghdad for this article, and Jeffrey Gettleman contributed from Falluja.