Highway of Death
|Highway of Death|
|Part of the Persian Gulf War|
Wrecked and abandoned vehicles along Highway 80 in April 1991.
| United States
|Casualties and losses|
|Estimates range from ≈200–300 to >10,000 killed and ≈2,000 captured
Est. 1,800–2,700 vehicles
The Highway of Death refers to a six-lane highway between Kuwait and Iraq, officially known as Highway 80. It runs from Kuwait City to the border town of Safwan in Iraq and then on to the Iraqi city of Basra. The road had been used by Iraqi armored divisions for the 1990 Invasion of Kuwait. The road was repaired after the Persian Gulf War and used by U.S. and British forces in the initial stages of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
During the United Nations coalition offensive in the Persian Gulf War, American and Canadian aircraft and ground forces attacked retreating Iraqi military personnel and others attempting to leave Kuwait on the night of February 26–27, 1991, resulting in the destruction of hundreds of vehicles and the deaths of many of their occupants. U.S. attacks against the Iraqi columns were actually conducted on two different roads. Between 1,400 and 2,000 vehicles were hit or abandoned on the main Highway 80 north of Al Jahra (the "actual" Highway of Death). Several hundred more littered the lesser known Highway 8 to the major southern Iraq military stronghold of Basra.
The scenes of devastation on the road are some of the most recognizable images of the war, and were publicly cited as a factor in President George H. W. Bush's decision to declare a cessation of hostilities the next day. Many Iraqi forces, however, successfully escaped across the Euphrates river, and the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency estimated that upwards of 70,000 to 80,000 troops from defeated divisions in Kuwait might have fled into Basra, evading capture.
Highway(s) of Death
|This section needs additional citations for verification. (March 2013)|
The 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing's A-6 Intruder aircraft blocked Highway 80, bombarding a massive vehicle column of mostly Iraqi Regular Army forces with Mk-20 Rockeye II cluster bombs, effectively boxing in the Iraqi forces in an enormous traffic jam of sitting targets for subsequent airstrikes. Over the next 10 hours, scores of U.S. Marine and U.S. Air Force aircraft and U.S. Navy pilots from USS Ranger (CV/CVA-61) attacked the convoy using a variety of ordnance. Vehicles surviving the air attacks were later engaged by arriving coalition ground units, while most of the vehicles that managed to evade the traffic jam and continued to drive on the road north were targeted individually. The road bottle-neck near the Mutla Ridge police station was reduced to a long uninterrupted line of more than 300 stuck and abandoned vehicles sometimes called the Mile of Death. The wreckage found on the highway consisted of at least 28 tanks and other armored vehicles with many more commandeered civilian cars and buses filled with stolen Kuwaiti property.
The death toll from the attack remains unknown and controversial. British journalist Robert Fisk claimed to have "lost count of the Iraqi corpses crammed into the smouldering wreckage or slumped face down in the sand" at the main site and to see hundreds of corpses strewn up the road all the way to the Iraqi border. American journalist Bob Drogin reported seeing "scores" of dead soldiers "in and around the vehicles, mangled and bloated in the drifting desert sands." Some independent estimates go as high as 10,000 or more casualties (even "tens of thousands"), but this is a highly unlikely number. A 2003 study by the Project on Defense Alternatives (PDA) estimated fewer than 10,000 people rode in the cut-off main caravan; and when the bombing started most simply left their vehicles to escape through the desert or into the nearby swamps where some died from their wounds and some were later taken prisoner. According to PDA, the often repeated low estimate of the numbers killed in the attack is 200-300 reported by journalist Michael Kelly (who personally counted 37 bodies), but a minimum death toll of at least 500-600 seems more plausible.
Iraqi forces including the elite Iraqi Republican Guard's 1st Armored Division Hammurabi were trying to either redeploy or escape on and near Highway 8 east of Highway 80. They were engaged over a much larger area in smaller groups by U.S. artillery units and a battalion of AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships operating under the command of General Barry McCaffrey. Hundreds of predominantly military Iraqi vehicles grouped in defensive formations of approximately a dozen vehicles were then systematically destroyed along a 50-mile stretch of the highway and nearby desert.
This engagement was not publicly known until almost two weeks later and remains relatively obscure; although most of the graphic images of scorched corpses considered among the iconic images of the war, and attributed to the Highway of Death, were actually taken on Highway 8 rather than Highway 80. The PDA estimated the number killed there to be in the range of 300-400 or more, bringing the likely total number of fatalities along both highways to at least 800 or 1,000. A large column composed of remnants of the Hammurabi Division attempting to withdraw to safety in Baghdad were also engaged and obliterated deep inside Iraqi territory by Gen. McCaffrey's forces a few days later on March 2 in a controversial post-war "turkey shoot"-style incident known as Battle of Rumaila.
The offensive action for which Highway 80 is infamous became controversial with some commentators alleging disproportionate use of force, saying that the Iraqi forces were retreating from Kuwait in compliance with the original UN Resolution 660 of August 2, 1990; and the column allegedly included Kuwaiti hostages and civilian refugees. The alleged refugees included women and children family members of pro-Iraqi, PLO-aligned Palestinian militants and Kuwaiti collaborators who had fled shortly before the returning Kuwaiti authorities pressured nearly 200,000 Palestinians to leave Kuwait. Activist and former United States Attorney General Ramsey Clark alleged that these attacks violated the Third Geneva Convention, Common Article 3, which outlaws the killing of soldiers who "are out of combat." Clark included it in his 1991 report WAR CRIMES: A Report on United States War Crimes Against Iraq to the Commission of Inquiry for the International War Crimes Tribunal.
Additionally, journalist Seymour Hersh, citing American witnesses, alleged that a platoon of U.S. Bradley Fighting Vehicles from the 1st Brigade, 24th Infantry Division opened fire on a large group of more than 350 disarmed Iraqi soldiers who had surrendered at a makeshift military checkpoint after fleeing the devastation on Highway 8 on February 27, apparently hitting some or all of them. The U.S. Military Intelligence personnel who were manning the checkpoint claimed they too were fired on from the same vehicles and barely fled by car during the incident. Journalist Georgie Anne Geyer criticized Hersh's article, saying that he offered "no real proof at all that such charges—which were aired, investigated and then dismissed by the military after the war—are true."
Another, relatively minor, controversy regarded looting of functional Iraqi weapons after the battle, before the Military Police were deployed to guard the wreckage. Some scavenging Saudi civilians allegedly sold Iraqi assault rifles on the black market to buyers from the broader Middle East.
Not all agreed with this point of view. In Clark's report, Joyce Chediac, activist of the U.S. communist Workers World Party (which supported the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein), claimed that "all" of "tens of thousands" Iraqis were killed in "surely one of the most heinous war crimes in contemporary history" (the UN resolution in questions had actually demanded the Iraqi forces to leave the occupied Kuwait "on or before 15 January 1991"):
Colin Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the future Secretary of State, said the "shooting gallery" scenes carnage was the reason to end the Persian Gulf War hostilities after the Liberation of Kuwait campaign. Powell wrote later in his autobiography My American Journey that "the television coverage was starting to make it look as if we were engaged in slaughter for slaughter's sake."
In popular culture
- In 1991, The Guardian commissioned British anti-war poet Tony Harrison to commemorate the war, and in particular the Highway of Death. His poem, A Cold Coming, began with an ekphrasic representation of a graphic photograph taken on Highway 8 by photojournalist Kenneth Jarecke.
- The 1992 film Baraka features a brief bird's eye shot of the Highway.
- Stock footage of destruction at the Highway is featured in the music video of Iron Maiden's "Afraid to Shoot Strangers" from their 1992 album Fear of the Dark.
- Referenced in the song "Hero" from the 1992 album Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs by Ministry.
- Referenced in Alex Garland's 1996 novel The Beach.
- The 2005 film Jarhead, based on the 2003 book, contains a scene of the Highway of Death.
- In the 2010 video game Splinter Cell: Conviction, a flashback mission reveals that the protagonist Sam Fisher, at the time the leader of a four-man SEAL team, was captured while on a routine patrol during an operation on the "Highway of Death" following an Iraqi ambush. The player, as Fisher's SEAL teammate Victor Coste, follows a portion of the highway to an enemy military outpost, where he rescues Sam from being tortured by his captors.
Notes and references
- Taylor, Scott. Among the Others: Encounters with the Forgotten Turkmen of Iraq. p. 92. "Canadian CF-18 fighters based in Qatar were only equipped with air-to-air missiles, as their role was to provide rear area combat air patrols. However, upon hearing from allied pilots that there was a massive "turkey shoot" taking place in Kuwait, unofficial arrangements were made to equip the Canadians with U.S. bombs."
- Spencer C. Tucker, The Encyclopedia of Middle East Wars: The United States in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iraq Conflicts: The United States in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iraq Conflicts, page 710
- Highway (of Death) Robbery | Battleland | TIME.com
- Seymour Hersh, OVERWHELMING FORCE: What happened in the final days of the Gulf War?, The New Yorker, May 22, 2000
- Hammurabi Division. GlobalSecurity.org
- The Wages of War: Iraqi Combatant and Noncombatant Fatalities in the 2003 Conflict. Appendix 2: Iraqi Combatant and Noncombatant Fatalities in the 1991 Gulf War
- Scoop Images: The Last Iraq War Looked Like This, Scoop, 27 January 2003
- Death Highway, Revisited, Time, Mar. 18, 1991
- Elaine Sciolino (February 22, 1998). "The World: Theater of War; The New Face of Battle Wears Greasepaint". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-12-21.
- Ramsey Clarke and Others. "WAR CRIMES - A Report on United States War Crimes Against Iraq to the Commission of Inquiry for the International War Crimes Tribunal".
- Georgie Anne Geyer, Seymour Hersh's Gulf War Misconceptions, Universal Press Syndicate, May 19, 2000
- Clip from a CBC news broadcast depicting the incident's aftermath
- Giordono, Joseph (February 23, 2003). "U.S. troops revisit scene of deadly Gulf War barrage". Stars and Stripes. Retrieved 2009-07-27.
- UNHCR | Refworld | Resolution 678 (1990) Adopted by the Security Council at its 2963rd meeting, on 29 November 1990
- Clark, Ramsey (1992). WAR CRIMES A Report on United States War Crimes Against Iraq to the Commission of Inquiry for the International War Crimes Tribunal. Maisonneuve Press. p. 90. ISBN 0-944624-15-4.
- David D. Perlmutter, Photojournalism and Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy Research Institute, January 27, 2005
- The Unseen Gulf War. Peter Turnley, Digital Journalist, December 2002
- Harrison, Tony (14 February 2003). "A cold coming". The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-07-27.
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