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Remembering "The Highway Of Death"

By Malcom Lagauche

28 February, 2010

Headless Iraqi soldiers: trophy photo for U.S. troops

Nineteen years ago, one of the most diabolical slaughters in war history occurred in Iraq. Despite the assurances of the Bush I regime that retreating Iraqi soldiers would not be attacked, just the opposite happened. Iraqi soldiers and civilians were massacred after Saddam Hussein called for their exit of Kuwait.

More than 100,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed in five weeks, the majority during the 100-hour ground war. You may say, "This is war and people get killed." That’s true, but tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers were killed by illegal weapons in a most brutal manner that contradicted international laws that apply to war.

When then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, was asked about the number of deaths the Iraqi military suffered, he said, "I don’t have a clue and I don’t plan to undertake any real effort to find out." This is the same man who stated several months after Desert Storm that his goal was to "make the world scared to death of the United States."

We all know how Powell as Secretary of State lied to the world about Iraq in 2002 and 2003, yet few remember his affinity for killing during the Gulf War. He was just as vicious and untruthful in 1991 as he was in the early part of the 21st century.

Prior to the start of the ground phase, many countries were trying to dissuade the U.S. from attacking. Moscow came up with a peace plan that Bush called "a cruel hoax." Bush kept saying that the only objective was for Iraqi troops to leave Kuwait. When one reporter asked him how the Iraqis could retreat while they were still being heavily bombed, Bush answered, "That’s for them to find out."

On February 22, 1991, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater played his own "cruel hoax." He stated, "The United States and its coalition partners reiterate that their forces will not attack retreating Iraqi forces."

Despite all the efforts to bring a peaceful conclusion, none was accepted by the U.S. Saddam Hussein ordered a retreat of Iraqi troops from Kuwait on February 25, 1991. This order, with Fitzwater’s earlier statement, appeared to be the beginning of the end of violence in Kuwait and Iraq.

Bush looked at it another way. He now had his chance to slaughter tens of thousands of defenseless soldiers and one of the most barbaric massacres in history began.

On February 25, 1991, at a junction of roads leading from Kuwait City, U.S. Marine aircraft, flying close support for ground troops, arrived and saw a five-vehicle-wide stream moving on the highway out of Kuwait City. The vehicles were occupied by Iraqi military personnel (mostly unarmed) and civilians of many nationalities.

The Marines allowed the vehicles to get out of the city and then laid down an aerial barrage of anti-armor mines across the road, making it impossible for the vehicles to move ahead. There were miles of vehicles and thousands of passengers who were not able to move. Kill zones were assigned to groups of eight aircraft sent into the target area every 15 minutes. According to Major General Royal N. Moore, commander of the Marine Air Wing 3, "It was like a turkey shoot until the weather turned sour."

By the morning of February 26, the 2nd Marine Division and its augmenting armored brigade (the Tiger brigade) of the Army’s 2nd Armored Division, arrived on the scene. Other ground division followed. Now, the slaughter on what has become to be known as "The Highway of Death" began in earnest.

U.S. troops observed thousands of Iraqis trying to escape up the highway. They attacked the defenseless soldiers from the high ground, cutting to shreds vehicles and people trapped in a miles-long traffic jam. Allied jets repeatedly pounded the blocked vehicles. Schwarzkopf’s orders were "not to let anybody or anything out of Kuwait City."

On February 27, the first words hit the outside world about this carnage, however, it still would be a few more weeks until photographs of the destruction made their way to the public, and then only a few were seen. A pool reporter with the 2nd Armored Division wrote:

As we drove slowly through the wreckage, our armored personnel carrier’s tracks splashed through great pools of bloody water. We passed dead soldiers lying, as if resting, without a mark on them. We found others cut up so badly; a pair of legs in its trousers would be 50 yards from the top half of the body. Four soldiers had died under a truck where they sought protection.

The Iraqi retreat extended north of Jahra, where the two main roads going into Iraq split at al-Mutlaa. Because the main road was so jammed, Iraqi troops were being diverted along a coastal route. These soldiers suffered the same fate as those on the Highway of Death. According to a U.S. Army officer on the scene (the coastal road):

There was nothing but shit strewn everywhere, five to seven miles of just solid bombed-out vehicles. The Air Force had been given the word to work over the entire area, to find anything that moved and take it out.

Surrendering Iraqi troops were also slaughtered. According to a media pool report of February 27:

One Navy pilot, who asked not to be identified, said Iraqis have affixed white flags to their tanks and are riding with turrets open, scanning the skies with their binoculars. The flier said that under allied rules of engagement, pilots were still bombing tanks unless soldiers abandoned the vehicles and left them behind.

The first British pilots to arrive at the scenes of slaughter returned to their base. They protested taking part in attacking defenseless soldiers, but, under threat of court martial, they eventually took part in the massacre.

According to a report by Greenpeace called On Impact:

Aboard the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Ranger, air strikes against Iraqi troops were being launched so feverishly … that pilots said they took whatever bombs happened to be closest to the flight deck. S-3 Viking anti-submarine patrol aircraft were brought into the bombing campaign, carrying cluster bombs. The number of attacking aircraft was so dense that air traffic control had to divert planes to avoid collisions.

On March 10, the scenes at the coastal road were still horrendous. Reporter Michael Kelly described them:

For a 50 or 60-mile stretch from just north of Jahra to the Iraqi border, the road was littered with exploded and roasted vehicles, charred and blown-up bodies … I saw no bodies that had not belonged to men in uniform. It was not always easy to ascertain this because the force of the explosions and the heat of the fires had blown most of the clothing off the soldiers, and often too had cooked their remains into wizened, mummified, charcoal-men.

General McPeak took great pride in the slaughter. He said, "When enemy armies are defeated, they retreat. It’s during this phase that the true fruits of victory are achieved from combat, when the enemy’s disorganized." Less than a week after the White House spokesman assured the world that U.S. forces would not attack a retreating Iraqi army, most of the army was destroyed while it was retreating.

When the operation was completed, Iraq was stuck with the bill. One of the conditions of the cease-fire was that Iraq had to pay Kuwait $50 billion in reparations for damage caused by the U.S. When the oil-for-food program began, the first 15% of all revenues taken in by Iraq went to Kuwait.

The most appalling aspect of this end to Desert Storm was the bravado of the U.S. government and the top military officers. They ordered this unnecessary slaughter and took glee every time they publicly spoke of it. Powell and McPeak gained the military accolades that had diverted them a couple of decades earlier in Vietnam.

In addition to the Highway of Death carnage, an incident occurred that has since been forgotten by most of the world. On the first two days of the ground war (February 24 and 25, 1991), U.S. troops, using tanks and earthmovers that had been specially-fitted with plows, buried thousands of Iraqi soldiers alive.

Three brigades of the 1st Mechanized Infantry Division (the Big Red One) used the tactic to destroy trenches and bunkers that were defended by about 10,000 Iraqi soldiers. These combatants were draftees, not seasoned troops such as the Republican Guard.

The assault was carefully planned and rehearsed. According to U.S. participants, about 2,000 Iraqis surrendered and were not buried. Most of the rest, about 8,000, were buried beneath tons of sand — many trying to surrender. Captain Bernie Williams was rewarded for his part in the burying with a Silver Star. He said, "Once we went through there, other than the ones who surrendered, there wasn’t anybody left."

According to a senior Army official who, under anonymity, was questioned by The Spotlight about the tactics, the use of earthmovers is standard procedure in breaching obstacles and minefields. The heavy equipment precedes armored and infantry units to level barriers, then the vehicles can move quickly through enemy defenses. The official stated that any Iraqi troops who remained in their bunkers would have been buried and killed. He added, "This is war. This isn’t a pickup basketball game."

Colonel Anthony Moreno, commander of the 2nd Brigade, said, "For all I know, we could’ve killed thousands." A thinner line of trenches on Moreno’s left flank was attacked by the 1st Brigade, commanded by Colonel Lon Maggart. He estimated that his troops alone buried about 650 Iraqis alive.

After the cease-fire, in an interview with New York Newsday, Maggart and Moreno came forward with some of the first public testimony about the burying alive of Iraqi soldiers. Prior to their interview, then Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney, never mentioned the atrocities, even when he submitted a report to Congress just prior to the interviews.

The technique used in burying the soldiers involved a pair of M1-A1 tanks with plows shaped like giant teeth along each section of the trench line. The tanks took up positions on either side of the trenches. Bradley fighting vehicles and Vulcan armored personnel carriers straddled the trench line and fired into the Iraqi soldiers as the tanks covered them with piles of sand.

According to Moreno, "I came through right after the lead company. What you saw was a bunch of buried trenches with peoples’ arms and things sticking out of them." Maggart added, "I know burying people alive sounds pretty nasty, but it would be even nastier if we had to put our troops in the trenches and clean them out."

The attack contradicted U.S. Army doctrine, which calls for troops to leave their armored vehicle to clean out trenches or to bypass and isolate fortified positions. Moreno admitted that the assault was not according to policy:

This was not doctrine. My concept is to defeat the enemy with your power and equipment. We’re going to have to bludgeon them with every piece of equipment we’ve got. I’m not going to sacrifice the lives of my soldiers — it’s not cost-effective.

The most disturbing aspect of the incident was the secrecy involved. When Newsday broke the story, many were taken by surprise. According to members of the U.S. House and Senate Armed Forces Committees, the Pentagon had withheld details of the assault from the committees. Senate Chairman, Sam Nunn, was unaware of the assault and after he was notified, he stated, "It sounds like another example of the horrors of war." Quickly, the incident was forgotten.

The killing of defenseless soldiers and civilians did not end with the cease-fire. On the morning of March 2 (two days after the cease-fire was announced), a convoy of Iraqi vehicles was reported moving through the demarcation point of allied operations on Highway 8 about 50 kilometers west of Basra.

According to a pool reporter from the UPI, a platoon of the 24th Infantry Division reported that the "massive Iraqi convoy … had just shot a couple of rockets at it." The Washington Post added that the convoy of 700 wheeled vehicles and 300 armored vehicles "opened fire in an effort to clear a path toward a causeway across the Euphrates." Lt. Chuck Ware, the battalion commander, received permission to return fire and the battalion received backup from Army artillery and 20 U.S. Cobra and Apache helicopters.

The ensuing fighting was one-sided and several thousand Iraqis (civilian and military) were killed in two hours. There were few Iraqi survivors.

According to a Washington Post report on March 18, 1991:

U.S. tanks were shooting Iraqi tanks off heavy equipment trailers trying to haul them to safety. Bradley fighting vehicles shattered truck after truck with 25mm cannon fire as Iraqi civilians and soldiers alike ran into the surrounding marshes.

Lt. Col. Ware said, "They shot first, we won big." Another U.S. officer stated, "We really waxed them."

This massacre took place after the cease-fire had been announced. At the time, it was thought that the convoy was not aware of its position; therefore it ran into the U.S. Army personnel. All the equipment was being transported on trucks — it was not in position to use in battle — so the U.S. forces had nothing to fear in terms of casualties. Some Iraqi soldiers were lying down on the vehicles and sleeping or obtaining a suntan.

When the post-cease-fire massacre occurred, the U.S. news agencies mentioned a "skirmish" between Iraqi and U.S. troops and said there were no U.S. casualties. They did not mention the slaughter.

The information made it appear that the unlucky Iraqis had taken a wrong turn somewhere and happened to run into a trigger-happy group of soldiers. The truth, however, is much more diabolical.

In May 2000, The New Yorker published an article by Seymour Hersh called "Overwhelming Force." Hersh spent years tracking down some of the participants in the slaughter, which was given the moniker the "Battle of Rumaila."

Instead of a wayward convoy of Iraqis who had the bad luck to shoot at U.S. forces, Hersh paints a picture of U.S. General Barry McCaffrey intentionally giving wrong location information to his superiors so he could concoct a battle with the hapless Iraqis who, in reality, were exactly where they were supposed to be according to the "safe" routes of return designated by the U.S.

According to the article:

McCaffrey’s insistence that the Iraqis attacked first was disputed in interviews for this article by some of his subordinates in the wartime headquarters of the 24th Division, and also by soldiers and officers who were at the scene on March 2nd. The accounts of these men, taken together, suggest that McCaffrey’s offensive, two days into a cease-fire, was not so much a counterattack provoked by enemy fire as a systematic destruction of Iraqis who were generally fulfilling the requirements of retreat; most of the Iraqi tanks traveled from the battlefield with their cannons reversed and secured, in a position known as travel-lock. According to these witnesses, the 24th faced little determined Iraqi resistance at any point during the war or its aftermath; they also said that other senior officers exaggerated the extent of Iraqi resistance throughout the war.

The slaughter may have been forgotten and never discussed if not for an anonymous letter sent to the Pentagon that accused McCaffrey of a series of war crimes. The letter stated that McCaffrey’s division began the March 2nd assault without Iraqi provocation and it included information only an insider would know. An investigation ensued, but, eventually, McCaffrey was exonerated.

Despite the prospect of an inquiry, McCaffrey openly bragged about his unit’s performance in the massacre. He told another general’s battalion that the 24th Division had carried out:

"absolutely one of the most astounding goddamned operations ever seen in the history of military science … We were not fighting the Danish Armed Forces up here. There were a half million of those assholes that were extremely well-armed and equipped."

Some participants of the battle say that Iraq did not fire the first shot. Others maintain the Iraqis shot first, but only once. Authorities differed on the time between the supposed Iraqi shot and the beginning of the U.S. actions. Some say it was about 40 minutes, while others say the time lapse was close to two hours. Either way, it was evident that if Iraq did fire a shot, there was no follow-up or change of formation for the convoy. It still went forward with its equipment not in place for battle.

Soon, a call came asking for every available unit to come to rescue the U.S. troops. Sergeant Stuart Hirstein and his team rushed to the site. When Hirstein arrived, he said there was no attack and no imminent threat from retreating Iraqi tanks. According to Hirstein:

Some of the tanks were in travel formation, and their guns were not in any engaged position. The Iraqi crew members were sitting on the outside of their vehicles, catching rays. Nobody was on the machine guns.

Despite the intelligence that stated the Iraqis were no threat, and the doubts of other officers about an Iraqi attack, McCaffrey still wanted to go to battle. There were more discussions and Captain Bell, who had been involved with the talks before the U.S. "counterattack," believed that McCaffrey moved his brigades to the east of the original cease-fire line to provoke the Iraqis. He added that there is a huge difference between a round or two fired in panic and McCaffrey’s determination that the Iraqis were "attacking us." He added, that "is pure fabrication."

Hersh described the beginning of the hostilities that wiped out thousands:

The division log placed the time of McCaffrey’s first known battle order at five minutes after nine o’clock. According to Log Item 74. McCaffrey directed that the causeway "be targeted," thus blocking the basic escape route for the retreating forces. The division’s Apache helicopters were to "engage from south with intent of terminating engagement." Within moments, the assault was all-out. One company reported that it had engaged a force of between a hundred and two hundred Iraqi "dismounts." By ten o’clock, division headquarters had begun receiving reports of extensive damage to the Iraqi forces. One group of Apache helicopters reported in mid-morning, "Enemy not firing back, they are jumping in ditches to hide." Forty minutes later, according to another log item, McCaffrey ordered artillery to be "used in conjunction with personnel sweep to 'pound these guys’ and end the engagement."

The 24th Division continued pounding the Iraqi column throughout the morning, until every vehicle moving toward the causeway — tank, truck, or automobile — was destroyed

McCaffrey was triumphant at battle’s end. "He was smiling like a proud father," John Brasfield told me …

… A couple of evenings later, Pierson was driving toward the causeway. "It must have been a nightmare along this road as the Apaches dispensed death from five kilometers away, one vehicle at a time. I stopped as a familiar smell wafted through the air … It was the smell of a cookout on a warm summer day, the smell of seared steak."

After the battle, a captured Iraqi tank commander asked again and again, "Why are you killing us? All we were doing was going home. Why are you killing us?"

Shortly before his troops flew back to Fort Stewart in the U.S., McCaffrey told them he had never been:

"more proud of American soldiers in my entire life as watching your attack on 2 March … It’s fascinating to watch what’s happening in our country. God, it’s the damnedest thing I ever saw in my life. It’s probably the single most unifying event that has happened in America since World War II … The upshot will be that, just like Vietnam had the tragic effect on our country for years, this one has brought back a new way of looking at ourselves."

McCaffrey weathered the storm and received his fourth star in 1994. In 1996, he retired from the Army and was appointed by the Clinton administration as the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, more commonly known as the U.S. Drug Czar.

Hersh’s article received much pre-publicity in 2000 and many people were anticipating the piece. Then, a couple of days before The New Yorker was to appear on the stands with the article, a press conference was called to address the issue. A Clinton spokesman took to the podium and criticized the article. He called it "old wine in a new bottle." In the space of about five minutes, an article that should have been read by the American public was dismissed as rubbish by the Clinton administration. The curious aspect of this denigration is that the article had not yet appeared. Normally, an administration tears apart something in the press after it is published. This fact alone should have piqued the interest of the public. However, the opposite occurred. Within a couple of days of its publishing, few spoke of the article again. It became a non-issue.

The entire article is a must-read for anyone who wants to know the truth about how the U.S. military conducted itself in Desert Storm. Not all the personnel were as bloodthirsty as McCaffrey, and Hersh interviewed participants who opposed the decision to slaughter thousands of Iraqis who could not fight back. It is available online at many websites. Punch in the name of the article on a search engine and you will be able to find the entire piece.

Marlin Fitzwater’s statement that retreating Iraqi troops would not be attacked was an outright lie, yet neither he nor the administration paid a price for the deceit. Up to 100,000 retreating Iraqis were slaughtered after he made the statement to the world. Among the retreating Iraqi soldiers were civilian men, women and children of various nationalities. Their deaths were, according to various U.S. military officers, the "spoils of war."

Those soldiers who did make it out of Kuwait were still not out of the woods. As soon as they approached Basra, they came under attack from Iranians who crossed the Iran-Iraq border during the U.S. bombing and their Iranian-backed Iraqi stooges. Much bloodshed on both sides occurred, creating more deaths for Iraqi troops. When the hostilities ended, the Iraqi army, by putting up a fierce resistance to the attempted coup, came out on top.

Marlin Fitzwater lied about not attacking retreating Iraqi troops and despite the horrendous circumstances they endured to get back to Iraq, their war was not over. Iran, with the blessing of the U.S., tried to finish off the Iraqi army. But, in the end, the heroic army kept Iraq intact by its brave fighting. Even this part of history has been re-written by the U.S. Instead of stating that Iraqi soldiers faced yet another ambush, the West put its propaganda machine in full gear and the perception of this incident has been attributed to Iraqi soldiers attacking and massacring Iraqi Shi’ite Muslims.

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