February 27, 1991 – This day during the Gulf War – The Highway of Death

February 27, 1991 – The Highway of Death refers to a six-lane highway between Kuwait and Iraq, officially known as Highway 80. It runs from Kuwait City, Kuwait to the border town of Safwan, Iraq and then on to Basra, Iraq. The road had been used by Iraqi armed divisions for the 1990 Invasion of Kuwait. The road was repaired after the 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 Gulf War, American (and Canadian) aircraft and ground forces attacked retreating Iraqi military personnel and others escaping 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 the city of Basra. The U.S. Marines blocked Highway 80 with anti-tank mines, and then bombed the rear of a massive vehicle column of mostly Iraqi Regular Army forces, effectively boxing in the Iraqi forces in an enormous traffic jam of sitting targets for subsequent airstrikes. Over the next 10 hours, scores of Marine and Air Force pilots and 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. Some independent estimates go as high as 10,000 or more casualties, 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 most simply left their vehicles when the bombing started to escape through the desert or into the nearby swamps where nearly 500 were taken prisoner. The often repeated low estimate of the numbers killed in the attack is two- or three-hundred reported by Michael Kelly, but a minimum toll of at least five- or six-hundred dead 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. ground forces consisting of nine artillery battalions 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 wasn’t 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 three- or four-hundred 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.

Aerial view of a destroyed Iraqi column consisting of a T-72 tank, several BMP-1 and Type 63 armored vehicles, and trucks on Highway 8

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