Abandoned cars and trucks clog the Basra–Kuwait highway out of Kuwait City after the retreat of Iraqi forces during Operation Desert Storm. In the foreground is an Iraqi DShKM 12.7 mm anti-aircraft gun mounted on a tank turret.
The Highway of Death
Once the ground war commenced, Iraqi troops quickly decided to abandon Kuwait and retreat behind the Republican Guard screen. The US Marines’ feints had convinced them that they also faced an amphibious assault from the Gulf that would turn their flank. The Iraqis’ flight from Kuwait City began on the night of 25 February 1991, and the roads north to Basra soon became choked with massive numbers of fleeing vehicles. The next day about a thousand Iraqi vehicles on Highway 80 were destroyed by air strikes after the Muttla Pass was blocked.
The SAAF and Kuwaiti forces were almost in Kuwait City by 26 February, heralding the beginning of the end for the remains of the Iraqi Army in the KTO. The US Marines were on the outskirts, whilst XVIII Corps was in the Euphrates Valley and VII Corps was making progress against the Republican Guard. Nonetheless, units of an Iraqi armoured division decided to stand and fight in Kuwait City, perhaps with the express intention of buying time for their retreating comrades.
Liberation of the city followed a large-scale tank battle at the international airport. During the fighting the Iraqi 3rd Armoured Division (a veteran not only of the Iran–Iraq War but also the 1973 Arab–Israeli Yom Kippur War) lost over a hundred tanks. The US 1st Marine Division destroyed 310 Iraqi tanks in total across Kuwait. Iraqi defences had now all but collapsed, as it became every man for himself. The coalition victory was soon tainted by allegations that the fleeing Iraqis were needlessly massacred. Despite the media’s lurid claims of a ‘turkey shoot’, most of the vehicles on Highway 80 – the ‘highway of death’ – were abandoned. Brigadier Patrick Cordingley recalled, ‘There were not thousands of bodies, as the media claimed, but certainly hundreds; it was a reminder to all of us of the horror of war.’
Photographs of Highway 80 and the Muttla Pass showed that the bulk of the vehicles caught on the road were in fact stolen civilian cars, minibuses, pick-up trucks and tanker lorries; there was even a fire engine. The few military vehicles on the highway included several Brazilian Engesa EE-9 Cascavel armoured cars (Iraq had obtained 250 Cascavels during the 1980s, but it is not known how many were committed to the fighting in 1990–91), some army lorries and fuel trucks, and a tank transporter carrying an unidentified armoured vehicle. The most vivid and publicly damaging image was Kenneth Jarecke’s photo of the completely charred head and shoulders of an Iraqi soldier leaning through the windscreen of his burnt-out vehicle. In the public’s mind it had been a shameful massacre, rather than a defeated army receiving its just desserts.
Although the media had a field day with the horrific images from Highway 80, very few photos emerged of knocked-out Iraqi armour, and most of those examples that were depicted were old Iraqi T-55s. For example, at the end of February 1991 a T-55 was found on fire after being hit by a US 82nd Airborne Division anti-tank missile. Likewise, in early March an entrenched T-55 was shown burning behind its sand berm as a coalition lorry sped past.
British Centurion AVREs (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers) of the 1st Armoured Division were sent to help clear the charred debris from the Kuwait–Basra road, and two were photographed brushing aside a lorry and a car. About two dozen of these fifty-year-old veterans were used to deal with Saddam’s anti-tank berms as Britain had nothing newer. Two were destroyed in a fire and one has since found its way into the safekeeping of the UK’s Cobbaton Combat Collection (coincidentally the collection also has a GS 1 tonne 4×4 Rover, which is believed to have seen service with an artillery unit during Desert Storm, and a Ferret Mk2/3 4×4 scout car in Gulf War markings).
In truth, there was no ‘Mother of Battles’, as Saddam had threatened. Coalition forces only fought about 35 per cent of those Iraqi troops assessed to be in-theatre. The front echelon conscripts of Saddam’s army were evidently expendable, whilst his loyal Republican Guard units largely managed to slink away with their bruised tails between their legs, to wreak more havoc in the months following the cease-fire.
What happened to Iraq’s half a million troops in the KTO? Having spent six weeks pinned down by Desert Storm’s relentless air attacks, Iraqi morale was at rock bottom and desertion rife. The western media played its part. Images of the ‘Basra Pocket’, Highway 80 and the Muttla Pass were seared into the western psyche, giving the impression that the battle for Kuwait City had all but crushed the Iraqi Army, making an honourable cease-fire an imperative. But were Saddam’s regular army and Republican Guard really as soundly defeated as the West believed, or had the Coalition been chasing shell-shocked stragglers whilst the bulk of the Iraqi forces fled north in terror?
Rather than the 540,000 men initially assessed to be in the KTO, it is now believed they actually numbered about 250,000 (about 150,000 of them inside Kuwait). It has been estimated that there were probably only 100,000–200,000 men in theatre when the ground war started. These discrepancies in the figures were due to Saddam deploying a large number of under-strength divisions to give the impression that his forces were stronger than they really were. Washington claimed there were forty-three Iraqi divisions in the KTO, though western media sources only ever identified thirty-five.
Casualties for the Coalition were remarkably light. For example, America lost 148 killed in action and some 340 wounded; in addition, there were also almost 100 non-combat fatalities. The British lost thirty-six dead (seventeen of them in combat), and forty-three wounded. Friendly fire was a major contributor to the combat losses, with as many as thirty-five US personnel killed and seventy-two wounded by their own side. Likewise, nine British personnel were killed and thirteen wounded in unfortunate friendly fire incidents.
The Basra Pocket
While the Coalition fought to free Kuwait City, up to 800 American tanks from the US VII Corps’ 1st and 3rd Armored Divisions and the 2nd Armoured Cavalry Regiment launched attacks on a Republican Guard division inside Iraq, which lost 200 tanks. They then moved forwards and engaged a second division. American Apache attack helicopters and A-10 Thunderbolt tank-busters also played a significant role. One Apache alone destroyed eight T-72s, and on 25 February two USAF A-10s destroyed twenty-three Iraqi tanks, including some T-72s, in three close air support missions.
In the envelopment the US M1A1 tanks easily outgunned the Iraqi T-72s, and in a night engagement on 25/26 February the Guards’ Tawakalna Armoured Division was largely destroyed without the loss of a single US tank. The Republican Guard, unable to stem the American armoured tide, tried to retreat, and the next morning a brigade of the Medina Division, supported by a battalion from the 14th Mechanized Division, attempted to protect the withdrawal. The Medina troops found themselves under attack from the US 1st and 3rd Armored Divisions, while the remnants of the Tawakalna were finished off by air attacks.
Caught as they were being loaded onto their tank transporters, the Medina Division’s armoured vehicles were bombed by USAF A-10s and F-16 fighters. Apache attack helicopters caught another eighty T-72 tanks still on their transporters along Route 8. Although not all the roads out of Basra were closed, the Coalition was determined that Iraqi tanks and artillery should not escape. The US VII Corps’ armour also fought the Hammurabi Republican Guard Division 80km to the west of Basra.
The US 24th Mechanized Division, having made a dramatic 150-mile drive northwards to join the US 101st Airborne Division on the Euphrates, now swung to the right to block the Iraqi escape route. The six remaining Republican Guard divisions had been trapped overnight in a swiftly diminishing area of northern Kuwait and southern Iraq, with their northward line of escape largely severed.
On 27 February the US 24th Mechanized Division attacked the Guard’s Hammurabi Armoured Division, the al-Faw and Adnan Infantry Divisions and the remnants of the Nebuchadnezzar Infantry Division. They fled, with the Nebuchadnezzar Division possibly escaping over the Hawr al-Hammar Lake causeway. The 24th Mechanized Division also captured fifty Republican Guard T-72 tanks as they were fleeing north along a main road near the Euphrates. It was all but over for the Guards.
Six disparate brigades with fewer than 30,000 troops and a few tanks were now struggling back to Basra. The Iraqis agreed to a cease-fire the following day, whilst the British 7th Armoured Brigade moved to cut the road to Basra just north of Kuwait City. However, some troops continued to escape across the Hawr al-Hammar and north from Basra along the Shatt al-Arab Waterway. Brigadier Cordingley, Commander of the 7th Armoured Brigade, noted, ‘By 28 February it was clear that General Schwarzkopf’s plan to annihilate the Republican Guard with a left hook through Iraq had failed … The majority of the Iraqi soldiers were already on their way back to Baghdad.’
Firmly in control of Iraq’s state media, Saddam had no need to acknowledge this terrible defeat, and instead victory was given as the reason for abiding by the ceasefire. Baghdad Radio announced, ‘The Mother of battles was a clear victory for Iraq … We are happy with the cessation of combat operations as this would preserve our sons’ blood and people’s safety after God made them triumphant with faith against their evil enemies.’
Only a residual Iraqi threat remained by 30 February. Two Iraqi tank brigades were south-west of Basra, another brigade with forty armoured vehicles was to the south and an infantry brigade was on either side of the Hawr al-Hammar Lake. In total, about eight armoured battalions, the remnants of those Iraqi forces deployed in and around Kuwait, were now trapped in the ‘Basra Pocket’. Basra itself lay in ruins, and marshes and wetlands to the west and east made passage impossible.
Despite the cease-fire, the US 24th Division fought elements of the Hammurabi Division again on 2 March after reports that a battalion of T-72 tanks was moving northwards towards it in an effort to escape. The Iraqi armoured column foolishly opened fire and suffered the consequences. The Americans retaliated with Apache attack helicopters and two task forces, destroying 187 armoured vehicles, 34 artillery pieces and 400 trucks. The survivors were forced back into the ‘Basra Pocket’. By this stage Iraq only had about 700 of its 4,500 tanks and 1,000 of its 2,800 APCs left in the KTO and, with organized resistance over, the Iraqis signed the cease-fire on 3 March 1991.
In the wake of Desert Sabre, only the Iraqi Army Air Corps and the Republican Guard Corps secured favour with Saddam Hussein, by swiftly crushing the revolt in the south against his regime and containing the resurgent Kurds in the north. In contrast the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Air Force had fled Desert Storm and remained under a cloud. Subsequently the IrAF found itself grounded by the Coalition’s ceasefire terms, while the army was left face to face with the barrels of the Republican Guard Corps’ remaining tanks. After a brief stand-off, the Iraqi Army opted for the status quo, but its loyalty and competence remained tarnished by its collapse and by the actions of thousands of deserters.
In 1991 the Coalition accounted for just six Iraqi helicopters (one Mi-8, one BO-105 and four unidentified) in the air and another five on the ground. General Schwarzkopf had cause to regret that they did not destroy more. During the ceasefire talks on 3 March 1991 the Iraqis requested that, in light of the damage done to their infrastructure, they be allowed to move government officials around by helicopter. Without fully realizing the consequences, Schwarzkopf agreed not to shoot down ‘any’ helicopters flying over Iraqi territory. Thus, by using his helicopter gunships Saddam was able to crush the rebellion in Iraq’s cities and the southern marshes and Kurdish advances in the north with impunity, despite his defeat in Kuwait.
In hindsight, Schwarzkopf felt that grounding Iraqi helicopters would have made little difference. In his view the Iraqi armour and artillery of the twenty-four remaining divisions, which had never entered the war zone, had a far more devastating impact on the rebels. This was a little disingenuous, for while tanks and artillery were instrumental in crushing the revolts in the predominantly Shia cities of Basra, Karbala and Najaf (the scene of Shi’ite unrest in 1977, resulting in 2,000 Shia arrests and another 200,000 being expelled to Iran), in the southern marshes the Republican Guard’s T-72 tanks could not operate off the causeways and artillery was only effective against pre-spotted targets. In fact the Iraqi Army Air Corps played a pivotal role over Iraq’s rebellious cities, the southern marches and the Kurdish mountains.
Over the cities helicopter gunships were used indiscriminately to machine gun and rocket the civilian population in order to break their morale. Although there was no evidence of the use of chemical weapons (Saddam did not want to provoke further coalition intervention so stayed his hand), on at least one occasion residential areas were reportedly sprayed with sulphuric acid. This was corroborated by French military units still in southern Iraq, who treated Iraqi refugees with severe acid burns.
Although the rebellion was mainly a spontaneous outburst by defeated and disaffected troops returning home, its religious Shia basis meant that it was ultimately doomed. America stood by, as a Shia victory would only serve radical Shia Iran, and as a result the rebels did not even receive airdrops of manportable anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles with which to fend off Saddam’s helicopters and tanks. The Iraqi military, dominated by the Sunni minority, went about their business unhindered.
After authority had been brutally reasserted in the cities, thousands fled into Iraq’s southern marshes seeking sanctuary. Here the IAAC was even more instrumental in the destruction of those forlorn forces that the West had vaguely hoped would unseat Saddam. IAAC pilots knew what lay in store for them if they failed, as General Ali Hassan al-Majid, who was commanding the operation, warned at least pilot not to return unless he had wiped out some insurgents obstructing a bridge.
The whole operation in the marshes was largely a repeat of March 1984, when Iraqi helicopter gunships mercilessly hunted Iranian troops round the two important Majnoon Island oil facilities. This time they refrained from using mustard gas or any other chemical agents, but once again the unburied dead were left to become carrion for the jackals, and those foolish enough to surrender were shot at point-blank range. The IAAC contributed to the deaths of an estimated 30,000 rebels. Additionally 3,000 Shia clerics were driven from Najaf and fled to the Iranian town of Qom.
In the north the fear of another Halabja was sufficient to scatter the Kurdish population at the first sight of an aircraft. The IrAF and IAAC once more refrained from deploying chemical weapons, but callously contented themselves with dropping flour on the refugees, who instantly panicked. Once more the Iraqi military made use of their helicopters and artillery to eject the lightly armed Kurdish guerrillas from their recent conquests.
Whilst the IAAC had continued to fly after 1991, in defiance of the cease-fire terms the IrAF resumed operational and training flights with its fixed-wing aircraft in April 1992. The IrAF claimed it was responding to the provocation of an Iranian Air Force attack on an Iranian opposition force’s base east of Baghdad. In response to these violations, and the repressive military operations, the UN imposed two separate no-fly zones in the north and south of the country.
Due to UN sanctions and financial restrictions, the Iraqi Air Force could only manage about a hundred sorties per day, down from 800 in the heyday of the Iran–Iraq War. Residual IrAF capabilities remained in the Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk areas, protecting Saddam from dissidents and the Kurds. Throughout most of the 1990s the IrAF spent much of its time dodging the northern and southern no-fly zones, though at least two fighters (a MiG-23 and a MiG-25) were lost for violating these zones.