We've been getting some reports about the improvement in security in Anbar in the last few months but little was said about the highway that runs across the province.
The several hundred kilometer western section of the international highway is technically Iraq's second "port" in a way as it connects Iraq with Syria and Jordan and was for years the only window to the world when all airports and the southern ports in Basra were closed to traffic in the 1990s.
For most of the time between 2004 and 2007 taking this road was considered suicidal behavior as the chance someone would be robbed or killed was too high.
But with the tribal awakening in Anbar that cleared large parts of the province from al-Qaeda the highway is expected to be safer, but how much safer?
My family returned yesterday from a vacation in Syria and they have used this road twice in six weeks. I had tried hard to convince them not to do that and take a flight instead but now after hearing their story I'm convinced that my fear was not justified; the road is safe…
This is good not only for Iraq's economy and traveling but also for the American troops who can use this road as an alternative supply route in case the British troops withdraw and leave the strategic southern highway between Kuwait and Baghdad unguarded.
Back to the story; there are two travel plans for passenger SUV's and buses from Damascus to Baghdad; one includes leaving Damascus between 10 pm and midnight, reaching the Syrian border control before dawn, entering the Iraqi border control at 8 am and arriving in Baghdad around sunset. A total of approximately 20 hours with 6 to 7 hours lost in waiting and passport control.
The second plan includes leaving Damascus at noon and here convoys carrying the passengers continue to move all the way until a short distance northwest of Ramadi. At this point the time would be between midnight and 2 am and since that's within curfew hours in Baghdad, the drivers park their vehicles and everyone gets to sleep 3 or 4 hours and wait for the sun to rise and then the journey would continue.
Now the first plan sounds predictable, safe and well planned given the distance and necessary stops. But look at the second one carefully and try to picture the scene; dozens of passenger SUV's (GMC trucks mostly) and buses parking in he middle of nowhere in a zone that was until recently the heart of al-Qaeda's Islamic state! Obviously the drivers and families feel safe enough that they know they won't be robbed and slaughtered by cold-blooded terrorists. Even more interesting, this parking and resting zone was not designated nor protected by the Iraqi or American forces but simply an arrangement the drivers managed on their own perhaps with cooperation from the local tribes.
I still laugh every time I think of this incredible change and I honestly wouldn't have believed it if the story teller wasn't my father.
This sign of positive progress brings to my mind a sad irony. Back in 2004 when taking the Anbar highway was out of question for me, the Sunni dentist, I made the trip back and fourth between Baghdad and Basra countless times without any fear.
Now, I'm ready to try the trip through the west, but going south through the militia infested land is something I'd never dare do at this stage.
Aside from security my father told me one more thing that shook the common idea about the numbers of Iraqi refugees fleeing to Syria. Apparently the direction of movement is influenced by the season to a certain degree.
When my family's turn to pass through the passports control on the Iraqi side came, the vehicles that were still behind them on the Syrian side outnumbered the ones coming from the Iraqi side.
And that's not the only indication to the seasonal aspect of Iraqis' migration.
Six weeks ago when my family hired a driver to take them to Damascus the fare was $110 for each passenger since finding a car to take you out of Baghdad was difficult while the return trip from Damascus would cost only $25 per passenger because drivers were ready to accept any amount of money rather than to return to Baghdad empty handed.
Guess what, the opposite is now true!
It's supply and demand 101, this change in cost reflects a change in demand on the two ends of the route suggesting that a good percentage of Iraqis who flooded Syria in the beginning of the summer season were just trying to escape the summer heat and enjoy a simple vacation, like my family did.
It doesn't mean a refugees issue doesn't exist, but it does mean that Iraqis could sometimes be just normal tourists...