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Blast Wall Haulers Face Dangerous Gamble on Iraqi Highways

Traveling Iraq's highways is a perilous undertaking, and few understand the risks as well as the country's truckers. It is a job where ambushes are expected and breakdowns can be deadly. But one group of truckers hauling high-profile cargo for the U.S. military faces even greater danger from both insurgents and the Iraqi army. VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from northern Iraq.

The most common signs of Iraq's violent insurgency are four-meter-high blast walls that ring military bases and government buildings throughout the country.

For the "77 Group" company in Irbil, making and transporting these barriers has been lucrative. Group Executive Hersh Al-Tayyar says the company's net worth has grown from about $400,000 in 2003, to $300 million today. Al-Tayyar says over the years it has been awarded $1 billion in U.S. military contracts. He says that while he hopes for peace in Iraq, the war has been profitable.

He says for some businesses, dangerous situations mean more profit and peace means less. He says his group has learned how to operate in Iraq's current dangerous situation.

The company has flourished because its truckers deliver. Nearly everyday, they drive on highways that run through the heart of northern Iraq's Sunni insurgency. And their enormous cargo makes them easy to spot.

Hunar al Tayyar is in charge of security for 77, as the company is known by both American soldiers and insurgents. He says convoys are even targeted by Iraqi soldiers who spot cargo destined for U.S. bases and help insurgents set up ambushes.

"Iraqi checkpoints in the middle Iraq, they have contacts with terrorists," said Hunar al Tayyar. "When they see our trucks, they say, okay, in one hour or two hours they will be in, for example Fallujah."

Al Tayyar says 32 employees have been killed since the start of the war, despite armed guards and heavy machine guns on pickup trucks that travel with the convoys.

A few weeks ago, the company suffered one of its deadliest ambushes, when militants attacked on a highway north of Baghdad. Two drivers and two guards were killed in the fighting.

Mohammed is a 27-year-old guard who was shot in the arm in the fighting. He says as the convoy drove through an Iraqi army checkpoint shortly before the ambush, the soldiers slowly drew their fingers across their necks, telling the drivers they would be killed.

He says 30 minutes after passing the checkpoint, the terrorists attacked us at 11:00 am and we fought until 3:30 in the afternoon. He says more than 50 people attacked us and nobody came to help.

Mohammed says he will return to work after his arm heals because he is proud of his job and it pays well.

Guards make $1,000 to $2,000 a month, well above the average monthly salary of $250 in Iraqi Kurdistan. The employees' high salaries can vastly improve their families' lives. But working a dangerous job also puts families at risk.

One of the drivers killed in the ambush outside Baghdad left behind a family of 12. At a garage in Irbil, where mechanics are repairing his bullet-riddled truck, his oldest son, who is 22, talked about the family's difficulties.

He says there are 12 people in my family, and no one person can support us because there are no jobs. He says there are hundreds of families like us here and when they lose the one who supports them, they do not know what to do.

The 77 Group says it pays death benefits to employees killed on the job. But this driver worked for a local subcontractor and his family says they have received nothing.

Earlier this year, a driver for 77 was kidnapped by insurgents while changing a flat tire near Baghdad. Sardar says he was tied up in a rat-infested basement and threatened with death. His Sunni kidnappers later decided to ransom him instead of killing him. After several days of captivity, he escaped at night and wandered for hours before finding refuge in a mosque.

When asked why he continues to drive for the company, when he already had one brush with death, he says he needs the money. But he also says the job is important for the future of the country.

He say this job, it not only helps the Americans. These concrete walls will stay here for the Iraqi people after the Americans leave. He says the Iraqi people will need them.