BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Only six months ago, many Iraqi travellers considered it a suicidal risk to take the insurgent-controlled desert highway that stretches from Baghdad to neighboring Syria and Jordan.
But now Iraqi driver Jamal says the Sunni Islamist al Qaeda insurgents who used to abduct and execute his Shi’ite passengers before robbing him and fellow Sunnis are virtually a thing of the past.
“A lot more people are using this road these days,” said Jamal as he waited for passengers to fill his seven-seater vehicle as he prepared to go to Syria.
“Some are visibly reluctant, but you will always hear them admit at the border how safe it was going through the countless checkpoints with no gunmen in sight.”
Security along the Anbar highway has been transformed by the emergence of a tribal alliance of Sunni sheikhs and their fighters who have managed to suppress Anbar’s volatile insurgency — after repeated failures by Washington and Baghdad.
Iraqis had long moaned about the insecurity of the highway, which heads west out of Baghdad into the Sunni Muslim province of Anbar towards Jordan and Syria.
For Shi’ites travelling through Anbar, the risk increased dramatically after the bombing of a Shi’ite mosque in Samarra in February 2006 triggered a wave of sectarian bloodletting.
But travelling the 10-hour journey by bus through the vast desert to Amman costs as little as $35, and few travellers could afford the alternative — airline tickets for the short return trip by plane can cost up to $900.
Abu Qusay had not used the highway in years but decided to travel after relatives insisted it was safe again.
“This is the first time I will use the highway for four years. I had friends who were killed by terrorists on this road last year. But since then everyone seems to be using it and we’re not hearing of any incidents,” he said.
Although some cases of sectarian killings and highway robberies are still reported, violence has fallen sharply since the tribal alliance took the initiative earlier this year.
The alliance, called “The Awakening”, declared war against al Qaeda in Iraq after the militants had alienated many of the Anbar population by their indiscriminate killings of locals.
U.S. President George W. Bush visited Anbar earlier this month in a symbolic trip aimed at highlighting its new sense of stability.
More than 20,000 policemen, most of them local, provide security for the province now largely free of al Qaeda.
Shi’ite businessman Talib Muhsin said despite the improved security, and the fact that he travels frequently on the route, his nerves are never calm before a trip.
“I’m always afraid that something is going to happen, but whenever I’m on the road I’m reassured by the sight of many checkpoints,” he said shortly before taking his seat in a large car charging $50 for the journey.
“A little illogical paranoia still exists but that’s only because you can’t disregard such a violent past so easily.”
Eleven days ago, the assassination of Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, the charismatic founder and leader of “The Awakening” who met Bush during the president’s visit, showed al Qaeda were still active in western Iraq.
But 43-year-old travel agent Ayman Mohammed believes Abu Risha’s killing has had less impact on travel than the onset of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
“There have been fewer people on the road in Ramadan because people are too tired to travel when they’re fasting. The road hasn’t changed since Abu Risha’s killing because his men are still there providing security,” said Mohammed in his central Baghdad office.
Planned visa requirements for Iraqis travelling to neighbouring Jordan and Syria, a measure to reduce the influx of fleeing Iraqis, have also slightly slowed business according to travel agents.
Despite the slowdown, Mohammed is happy just to be back in business.
“I closed my office last year for several months because too many travellers had been robbed, kidnapped and killed on the road,” he said.
“But after the tribes took control of Anbar we saw a lot of people coming back to travel on the road, including Shi’ites who thought they’d never see Anbar again.”