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On this occasion, to my relief, the guy next to me is a fellow journalist and veteran of the nightmare landings. Even so, as we begin the descent, I move my hand away from the armrest. Looking over my shoulder, I see a familiar expression on the faces of my co-passengers: a mixture of fear and resignation. Sister Benedetta is staring up at the ceiling, her lips moving in prayer. I reach into my shirt pocket and surreptitiously rub my fingers over that laminated picture. When the Fokker's wheels hit the tarmac, 50 people sigh in unison, 50 stomachs unclench. But the relief is temporary; most of us still have to negotiate the Highway of Death. There have been hundreds of insurgent and terrorist attacks along its length since the U.S. military established its largest Iraqi base, Camp Victory, next to the airport three years ago. Many of the attacks are directed at U.S. patrols, but they have also killed scores of Iraqi noncombatants. Last summer two of my Iraqi colleagues were badly wounded when a roadside bomb went off next to their car on the Highway of Death; twice I've been caught in cross fire between insurgents and U.S. soldiers.
Recently the highway has become less deadly--perhaps the only place in Baghdad that can make such a claim. The once daily attacks along the road have given way to occasional strikes, like the twin suicide bombings in May that killed 14 Iraqis near Checkpoint 1, where arriving travelers meet transport waiting to take them into the city. U.S. officials claim the decline in attacks as a victory for military strategy, attributing it to the greatly increased visibility of Iraqi soldiers along the road. My contacts in the insurgency offer an alternative, equally plausible explanation: there are fewer U.S. patrols and convoys on the road than before, fewer targets to attack.
Although a ride on the Highway of Death once exaggerated the dangers lurking in Baghdad, it now does the opposite, lulling newcomers into a false sense of security. Even as the airport route has got somewhat safer, huge portions of the Iraqi capital have become far more dangerous. I pass one of those on the drive into the city: Amariyah, the mainly Sunni suburb adjacent to Camp Victory and home to Mahmud, one of my Iraqi colleagues. (The names of most of TIME's Iraqi employees have been changed in this article for their protection; working for a foreign company makes them targets for insurgents, and many lie, even to their closest neighbors, about what they do for a living.) A couple of years ago, it was easy to visit with Mahmud's family in their sand-colored two-story home; last year it became too perilous for foreigners after insurgent groups began operating in the area. Now, even Iraqis feel unsafe in Amariyah. Mahmud began to move out his extended family earlier this year when the neighborhood was taken over by a jihadi gang that imposed an extreme interpretation of Islamic law. Women were forbidden to drive, men were ordered not to wear shorts, and shops selling Western goods were firebombed.