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Iraq: Foreign Truckers Drive In Fear As Kidnappings, Killings Mount

By Sami Alkhoja and Charles Recknagel

Baghdad, 4 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The business of reconstructing Iraq has lured a lot of foreign entrepreneurs to the country. But now these same individuals find themselves targeted by insurgents seeking to sabotage the new order by driving both foreign troops and civilians from the country. Few of the foreign contractors have suffered more than truck drivers, whom insurgents find particularly easy to seize as hostages.

Muhammad al-Sudani is standing in a Baghdad freightyard beside the truck he just drove from Egypt with cargo for some Iraqi entrepreneurs. He's resting now after an exhausting, several-day haul across desert highways in temperatures that at noon hover around 45 degrees Centigrade.

"I was never kidnapped or robbed," he said. "But I have heard about the kidnappings. I saw the resistance. Once when I was transporting a container from Egypt to Baghdad, the resistance stopped me and asked what I was carrying, and if I was carrying anything to the Americans. I told them that I was transporting goods to an Iraqi businessman. I was scared, of course. When I looked around me I saw about 50 to 60 gunmen. Of course I was scared."

It is a trip that, until he crosses the Iraqi border, is safe and routine. But as soon as he enters Iraq, fear takes over.

Al-Sudani is a brave enough man to admit when he's been scared. And he says having 50 armed and hostile men surround you while their chief studies your cargo list is a terrifying experience. He knows he is free -- and alive -- today only because the list proved he was not hauling anything for American troops or foreign contractors.

Al-Sudani's boss -- the man who owns the truck -- is standing nearby. Like many truck operators in the Arab world, he is a small independent businessman whose transport company consists of his single vehicle. He takes turns at the wheel and decides how many hours they drive before they stop.

The owner, Imad Rashad Salim, says that in Iraq his truck doesn't move after nightfall, though it's the coolest time to work. In the dark, the danger of gunmen, kidnappings, and death is too great: "Of course these incidents have affected our work. There is no security on the motorway. Being scared for our lives and the goods that we are carrying, it's our responsibility, the truck is mine. I was never threatened [but] we try not to put ourselves in danger and we stop at night."

Kidnapping is much on the truckers' minds these days after a week of unusually bad news.

On 2 August, Islamist extremist websites showed a videotape of Turkish driver Murat Yuce urging Turkish companies to pull out of Iraq and criticizing the presence of U.S. forces in the country. The tape, provided by Yuce's kidnappers, ended with one of them shooting him in the head with a pistol.

Following the killing, the Turkish company that employed Yuce said it is withdrawing from Iraq. And one association of Turkish truckers (UND) that represents some 40 companies said its members would stop transporting cargo for U.S. forces until their security is guaranteed.

Many Turkish drivers have complained that while U.S. forces provide escorts for convoys of trucks traveling toward American military bases, they provide none for the truckers as they return home. Yuce was taken hostage as he was homeward bound.

But most drivers know that -- despite their anger over the killings -- there is little real pressure they can exert to change the situation. If some truck companies try boycotts, competing firms simply take their business. Today, a much larger Turkish truckers association representing some 670 transport firms (RODER), said its members will keep driving to Iraq.

The head of the association, Saffar Ulusoy, said: "It would not be possible for us to give up transporting goods to Iraq unless a war broke out between Turkey and Iraq. This is a route on which 50,000 Turkish families depend [on to make] a living."

He noted that Turkish trucks made some 700,000 trips to Iraq last year, earning Turkey billions of dollars in exports.

Driver al-Sudani puts his own position on hauling goods to Iraq in simple, more personal terms. So long as nothing happens to directly scare him away, he says, he will keep working: "Look, as long as it is safe and we don't see anything [too frightening], we will [continue to] come to Baghdad. But whenever there is an incident, of course we get scared. [And if it is too bad] then we will never come to Baghdad [again]."

For the truckers, it's a gamble in which high profits are balanced against the odds of losing everything.

Since a wave of kidnapping began in April, at least 70 foreigners have been taken captive by gunmen and nine have been brutally murdered. They include two Pakistani truckers killed a week ago.

Today, there was some good news to slightly improve the record. Militants said they freed four Jordanian and two Turkish drivers after taking them hostage to put pressure on their companies to stop working in the country. The motives for the release were not immediately clear.

At the Baghdad freightyard, the Egyptian truckers are preparing to make their long drive home. Here in the sprawling compound of warehouses and mechanic shops -- guarded 24 hours a day -- they unload their cargo and the Iraqi businessmen who ordered it send small trucks to fetch it. The men's life appears temporarily calm and normal.

The other drivers at the freightyard come from Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Like the drivers who have been killed by the insurgents, they are all Muslims.

Truck owner Salim says he just can't understand how being a fellow Muslim counts for nothing with the kidnappers: "The [kidnappers'] story is that the kidnapped person helps the Americans and the coalition forces and that this is the proper punishment for a Muslim collaborator. But if [a driver] helps the Americans, does that give them the right to do anything to him? I'm a Muslim and the Iraqi [kidnapper] is a Muslim and I'm an Arab and the Iraqi is an Arab. How can I use the knife to kill my brother?"

Still, to be on the safe side, Salim says he is going to keep carrying freight only for Iraqi businessmen. The money is less than he could made from the Americans, but the security is greater.