Highway of Death
The Highway of Death refers to a road between Kuwait and Basra on which retreating units of the Iraqi army and Palestinian militiamen were attacked and completely destroyed by American aircraft and ground forces during the United Nations Coalition offensive in the Gulf War, on the night of February 26-February 27, 1991, resulting in the destruction of hundreds of vehicles and the deaths of an unknown and disputed number of Iraqi soldiers and some civilians. The scenes of carnage on the road are some of the most recognisable images of the war.
The Highway of Death is known officially as Highway 80, and it runs from Kuwait City to the border towns of Abdali (Kuwait) and Safwan (Iraq), and then on to Basra. The road was repaired during the late 1990s, and was used in the initial stages of the 2003 invasion of Iraq by U.S. and British forces.
American attacks were conducted on two different roads: some 1,400-2,000 vehicles on the main Highway 80 north of Al Jahra (the "actual" Highway of Death) and few days later another 400-700 or so on the much-less known coastal road to Basra.
February 26 - February 27 airstrikes
On the main highway, aircraft bombed the front and rear of the massive vehicle column, trapping the convoy, and leaving sitting targets for later airstrikes. When visited by journalists the main highway had been reduced to a long uninterrupted line of destroyed, damaged, and abandoned vehicles, sometimes called the Mile of Death. The wreckage predominantly consisted of stolen civilian vehicles which were manned by Iraqi Army conscripts and the allied Palestinian militiamen aligned to the PLO, accompanied by their family members fleeing the impending Kuwaiti retribution . A large portion of the vehicles were reportedly manned by Iraqi civilians who had been encouraged to loot Kuwaiti property; this was eagerly carried out due to the scarcity of food and fuel in Iraq after the onset of war since the Iraqi regime failed to create reserves.
March 2 attack
On the coastal Highway 8, known as the place of the Battle of Rumailah/Rumaylah or Battle of the Junkyard, vehicles of the elite Iraqi Republican Guard 1st Armored Division Hammurabi had been destroyed over a much larger area in smaller groups and attacking Allied ground forces (namely the U.S. 24th Infantry Division) played a key role in the attack. The vehicles, practically every one of which was destroyed, were predominantly military. The American commanding general described the carnage as "one of the most astounding scenes of destruction I have ever participated in." While the Hammurabi Division ceased to exist, only one U.S. soldier was injured and a Bradley IFV and an Abrams tank were destroyed, all of them by flying debris from exploding Iraqi vehicles."The brigade losses were one wounded, one M-2A1 Bradley damaged, and one M-1A1 Abrams lost when secondary explosion of a T-72 set sleeping bags stowed on the M-1 on fire." US Army The attack took place two days after the war was officially halted by American ceasefire, when the Iraqis and the Allied coalition were scheduled to begin formal peace talks. Probing a Slaughter, Newsweek, May, 2000Seymour Hersh, OVERWHELMING FORCE, The New York Times, May 22, 2000
The offensive action for which the road is infamous became a controversial point, with some commentators alleging that the use of force was disproportionate, as the Iraqi forces were retreating and the column included Kuwaiti captives as well as the Palestinian civilian refugees. Some argued that the mostly Shia Iraqi regulars were on the verge of mutiny, and that the attack on them actually helped the regime of Saddam Hussein to stay in power during the 1991 uprisings in Iraq. The bombings were called by some as a war crime the deliberate bombing of a stretch of highway where "returning home" and out of combat Iraqi troops were stuck in a frenzied traffic jam.
Although no reporters were present during the action, and media accounts did not appear for almost a month, photographs taken afterwards showed dramatic scenes of burned and broken vehicles. The U.S. military, however, stated that only a few dead bodies were found in the wreckage and that most of the occupants had abandoned their vehicles when the road became impassable. According to a PBS Frontline interview with American journalist Rick Atkinson, when asked whether we know how many Iraqis were killed on the Highway of Death, he answered:
United States Air Force Major General Mark Welsh, in a 1999 speech describing his Gulf War experiences to Air Force cadets, painted a different picture of where personnel on the ground was when U.S. aircraft began strafing and bombing the stopped convoy:
According to the then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, the "shooting gallery" scenes of carnage was the reason to end the Gulf War hostilities after the liberation of Kuwait. He 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."
According to the Foreign Policy Research Institute, however, "appearances were deceiving":
Photojournalist Peter Turnley published photographs of mass burials at the scene;
it has been asserted that this constituted a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Turnley wrote:
This suggests that the lack of bodies found on the scene was due to "graves detail" as suggested by one of the first reporters on the scene.
In popular culture
The film Jarhead contains a scene of the Highway of Death.
Footage of the Highway was seen in the music video of Iron Maiden's "Afraid to Shoot Strangers" from their album Fear of the Dark.