Rebuilding Baghdad's Infamous Airport Road


By Lennox Samuels

If it seems a little … premature, that’s because it could well be. As American and Iraqi military forces continue their drive to pacify Iraq by battling remnants of Al Qaeda and rump militias incongruously called “special groups,” teams of local workers spend their days on a multi-million-dollar project to repair and beautify a stretch of road in Baghdad.

This is not just any road. It is the highway from the city center to Baghdad International Airport, once described as the most dangerous six miles in the world. For more than two years beginning in 2003, the airport road was a virtual killing field, a place many hardened war veterans feared more than the prospect of vengeful insurgents on the battlefield. Driving along the highway routinely involved trying to escape an ambush, roadside IED, car-bomb attack or a suicide bomber waiting at an on-ramp. The road was an emblem of the ferocity of the Iraq war itself.

That helps explain why Iraqi and Baghdad civil authorities have decided to launch this particular construction project now, even as they and the U.S. military continue to warn that the fight isn’t over yet. Renovating the road is a powerful symbol that the nation is turning the corner and that the insurgents are no longer the threat they once were. “On the one hand I think, what are they doing when there’s still open sewage around? Then I think, no, that’s great. Fixing the road to the airport is a very important signal. It makes sense,” says Brig. Gen. Keith Walker, commander of the Iraq Assistance Group.

Construction teams manning tractors and other heavy equipment bustle along the roadway, starting just outside Camp Prosperity and continuing past neighborhoods like Qadisiyah, Hay al-Amil, Yarmouk and Jami’ah and on toward the airport. Baghdad municipality is spending almost 50 billion Iraqi dinars (about $42.5 million) to repair and pave the road itself; rebuild four bridges across the highway, along with access roads leading to them; construct 8-foot walls on the perimeter of the highway, complete with watchtowers, and plant date palms and other trees as well as erect statuary in the wide median separating westbound and eastbound lanes.  A stream and several fountains also will be installed in the median and work has begun on a new car park near the airport.

“We think that the airport road is the first part of Baghdad to be seen by any foreign visitor and it needs to be in good shape,” says Latif Abdul Wahab, the chief engineer in charge of the project. “We hope this will be the first step to reconstructing the whole country.”  He says the Americans agreed to provide cover for the construction workers. But the three crews have worked steadily, unhindered by any attempts on their lives.

Work, which began last July, is expected to be completed in three more months. Also on the drawing board are restaurants and a cafe to be built in gardens being installed off the highway. But this is still Iraq and there’s still a war being waged. The Americans are building new checkpoints at all nine entrances to the road, Wahab says.

--With Salih Mehdi