For local truckers, job brings rewards, risks

The Baltimore Sun

FORWARD OPERATING BASE Q-WEST-- Compared with the American military, Khalid Nooh Karoomi looks like the most underdressed man at the war.

The 52-year-old truck driver from a village outside the city of Mosul wears no helmet, no Kevlar vest, no protective goggles. His cab is not outfitted with armor, the latest bomb-sensing gadgetry or even a radio connecting him to his own military escort, who resort to beeping at him to get his attention in a supply convoy. His wife and six children live far away, and a visit to them every six weeks is a rare gift.

Like many independent drivers of military goods across Iraq, Karoomi is alone. Except for his Christian faith. "We want for better life," he says. "I put everything in His hands."

On a recent blazing afternoon, Karoomi waited, as he often does, for permission to leave the convoy storage yard at this base north of Baghdad. It is a fenced, prison-like yard within an armed camp of a military base. Truckers from various countries, but mostly Turkey and Iraq, must wait here to join one of the convoys. If they're hauling fuel or potable water, the wait might be a few days. Carrying an empty flatbed or nonessential goods means the stay here could last more than a week.

Only when the drivers complete their routes are they paid, at least $250 per load, according to American military officials. Waiting here earns them nothing. On this day, 500 to 600 trucks stand idle, but at times their numbers have swelled to 900.

Drivers sleep in their cabs or just outside them on cots. They shower in the open, on the gravel yard lined with rows of tractor-trailers.

At Q-West, this yard is guarded by Alpha Company of the 1st Regiment, 175th Infantry Battalion of the Maryland National Guard. They took over that mission this month from a quartermaster unit out of Virginia. That Virginia unit's advice to the Maryland unit? The conditions - long waits, limited food, no working showers - can lead to scuffles and fights among the drivers, so be careful. Smuggling of alcohol, drugs and other contraband, they add, is fairly common.

Twice a day, Karoomi and the other drivers receive between four and five bottles of water and one bag of ice, which they say is not enough. Food is brought in by American military contractors. Drivers play dominoes in a dark shack to beat the daytime swelter outside.

Like many war veterans, Karoomi has the battle scars to prove his service. His truck was hit by a roadside bomb Oct. 4, 2005. He had no insurance, so the $4,000 to repair his cab came out of his own pocket, he says. His driver's seat still has puncture wounds where the shrapnel tore into the cushion.

On his chest are the other scars.

He is proud of a document he unfolds. The explosion that almost cost him his life "was no fault of the driver," the military ruled. The finding was essential, Karoomi says, if he ever hoped to return to hauling American military convoys.

"I like working with the U.S. Army," he says, but adds that he can't go into Mosul because insurgents have targeted him for assisting Americans. Why would he continue with the risks so high?

In Iraq, he says, "there is no other job."

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