U.S. Sees a Vital Iraqi Toll Road, but Iran Sees a Threat

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BAGHDAD — The highway from Baghdad to Amman, Jordan, cuts through the insurgent badlands of the western Iraqi desert, and these days any truck driver risks confrontation with roving bands of gunmen.

In the future, though, the United States envisions the road as something like the New Jersey Turnpike, with service stations, rest areas, cafes and tollbooths.

As part of an American effort to promote economic development in Iraq and secure influence in the country after the fight against the Islamic State subsides, the American government has helped broker a deal between Iraq and Olive Group, a private security company, to establish and secure the country’s first toll highway.

This being Iraq, though, the project has quickly been caught up in geopolitics, sectarianism and tensions between the United States and Iran, which seems determined to sabotage the highway project as an unacceptable projection of American influence right on its doorstep.

Already, Iraqi militia leaders linked to Iran, whose statements are seen as reflective of the views of Tehran, have pledged to resume attacks against American forces if the Trump administration decides to leave troops behind to train the Iraqi military and mount counterterrorism missions, as appears likely. And the militia leaders have specifically singled out the highway project for criticism.

At the center of the tensions is Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has promoted the highway deal and positioned himself closer to the United States at a time when Iran’s influence has become more prominent in Iraq.

Map | Baghdad to Amman Highway

A prominent Shiite leader and former lawmaker here, Izzat Shahbander, has become a leading voice of opposition to the highway project. Asserting that the Iranian-backed militias here are more powerful than the Iraqi Army, Mr. Shahbander said he believed Iran could ultimately seek to remove Mr. Abadi from power should the project be finalized.

For American diplomats in Iraq, the deal is seen as serving two purposes. One would be promoting economic development in Anbar Province, a vast Sunni-dominated area whose citizens have felt marginalized by the Shiite-led central government and where Iran’s militias currently operate. Another would be pushing back on the influence of Shiite Iran, whose growing power in Iraq has alarmed important Sunni allies of the United States like Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Mr. Abadi has awarded the development project to Olive Group, although the final details are still being worked out. The project would include repairing bridges in western Anbar Province; refurbishing the road, known as Highway 1; and building service stations, rest areas and roadside cafes. It would also include mobile security by private contractors for convoys traveling the highway.

In a recent speech, Mr. Abadi denounced the “mafias” that operate on the road, a reference to militias and insurgent groups that currently terrorize drivers and extract bribes for safe passage.

“This is an investment. It’s about rehabilitating the road,” Mr. Abadi said. “Neither the central government nor the local government will pay anything. We will get profits instead.”

The deal would last for 25 years and is known as a concession agreement, meaning the Iraqi government would put no cash upfront. The multimillion-dollar investment by Olive Group, in theory, would be recouped by tolls, a cut of which would also go to the Iraqi government.

And there is talk of eventually setting up three other toll highways in Iraq that would also be managed by American companies: from the Saudi Arabia border, through Karbala to Baghdad; from the port city of Basra to Baghdad; and from the Syrian border to Baghdad.

Filtered through the prism of Iraq’s many media outlets that are linked to militias supported by Iran, the highway deal has become seen here as a conspiracy by the United States and Israel to occupy the country. One report claimed that the American security company involved in the highway “belongs to the Zionist Mossad.” A statement from one powerful militia invoked the Sykes-Picot accord, the World War I-era deal by colonial powers to divide the Middle East, as it called the highway a plot by the United States to divide Iraq.

Playing on painful memories and fears of Iraqis, news outlets have also run false reports that Blackwater — the private security firm that acted with impunity in the early days of the American occupation and gunned down innocent Iraqis in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007 — had taken on the project.

“The politics of this country are challenging,” said Christian Ronnow, executive vice president of Constellis, the parent company of Olive Group, a private security firm that has worked for years in Iraq.

Mr. Ronnow added, “We hope the Iraqi people and the Jordanian people will see this for what it is — an economic lifeline.”

In prosperous and safe times, the highway from Baghdad to Amman was an important conduit of commerce — with close to 1,500 trucks moving back and forth each day, accounting for about $1 billion in trade per month, Mr. Ronnow said. In dangerous times, as these recent years have been, the official border crossing with Jordan has been closed, even though truckers have continued to use the road, taking their lives into their own hands.

While the major cities in western Anbar Province, like Ramadi and Falluja, have been freed from the Islamic State, the surrounding deserts to the west on the way to Jordan and Syria remain dangerous and ungoverned spaces, where Islamic State militants are still able to move freely.

The project is expected to bring thousands of jobs in construction and security to beleaguered Anbar, and tribal leaders have lined up to support it.

“We are very happy with this project,” said Sheikh Ahmed Taha Alwan, an important tribal leader in Anbar. “There is big hope that this project will benefit the province in two important ways, security and economically.”