The Road of Death

Kurds fear for their lives when traveling along the notorious Baghdad to Kirkuk highway.

The Road of Death

Kurds fear for their lives when traveling along the notorious Baghdad to Kirkuk highway.

Friday, 7 July, 2006
In October 2005, Shamal Abdulkareem, a Kurdish trader, was driving his new BMW from Baghdad to Kirkuk when gunmen ambushed him on the Uzem road.

They stole his car and the 30,000 US dollars he was carrying to purchase goods. He was locked up in a house for two weeks, beaten and given little food or water. Eventually, the kidnappers let him go in exchange for a 50,000 dollar ransom, which his family paid.

Although the abductors claimed to be members of an Islamic group, Abdulkareem believes they were common criminals in search of financial gain. He says he never once saw them pray.

"Those gunmen have no morality - they are beasts,” said Abdulkareem.

While there are no statistics available on how many people have been kidnapped on the Uzem road, it is quickly developing a reputation as one of the most dangerous thoroughfares in Iraq. Kurds have taken to calling it the “Road of Death”.

In August 2005, convoys of Iraqi president Jalal Talabani’s guards were attacked on the road and five of them were killed.

Named after the Uzem district between Baghdad and Kirkuk, it stretches for 110 kilometres across the plains and serves as the main highway between the capital and the north of the country.

Because it is the most direct route to Baghdad, it was used a lot after the fall of Sadaam when it became possible for Kurds to travel to the capital.

Now, however, militants stalk the road, ambushing and kidnapping Kurds. Some of the militant groups are in it for the money and target Kurds because they believe them to be wealthier than Arabs.

Others are likely remnants of the Baath regime, who’ve long regarded Kurds as their enemies.

And yet others are Islamic groups who accuse the Kurds of collaborating and cooperating with American troops.

Sometimes, according to police sources in Kirkuk, the groups cooperate and sell victims to one another.

Policing the road is difficult because Uzem is part of Tikrit province, which is controlled by a largely Arab police force that has no links with the mainly Kurdish law enforcers of Kirkuk.

Many who travel the road say that both tribes and security forces aid the kidnappers and that the police turn a blind eye.

Abdulkareem said he recognised one of the people who beat him as the son of one of the tribal leaders in the area in which he was abducted.

"Most of the deals the militants do with the families of kidnapped people are done through tribal leaders," he said.

When taxi driver Nuri Hamasalih was kidnapped and beaten in December 2005, his family went to the police for help. They advised them to pay the 32,000 dollar ransom the kidnappers were demanding.

“The Iraqi police have given them [kidnappers] more strength," complained Hamasalih.

In December 2005, the Kirkuk police arrested what it described as two of the main kidnappers working the Uzem road - both Arabs. They reportedly confessed to kidnapping 70 Kurds whom they either killed or handed over for ransom.

They also confessed to sexually abusing some women.

The kidnappings diminished somewhat following the arrests, but the Uzem road remains dangerous.

Ata Osman, who runs a transport company from Chia, said that his drivers have stopped traveling to Baghdad because of the danger, and that this has hurt his business.

"When the militants catch a Kurd they feel like they have got a precious thing," he said. “Whatever they want you have to give them, if you don’t have it you should get it somewhere, or they will kill you."

Frman Abdulrahman is a Sulaimaniyah-based IWPR contributor.
Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
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