Without Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait there would have been no 1991 Gulf War, though the mounting tensions in the region would still have made conflict likely at some time and in some circumstances. It is probable also that without US posturing and intransigence (and no doubt a hidden agenda set on war) — exemplified not least by the arbitrary setting of deadlines that reportedly distressed UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cueller — the war that began in January 1991 could have been avoided. When the war started, it was soon obvious that American missiles and American aircraft would be the principle agents of destruction. Between 16 January and 27 February some 88,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Iraq, an explosive tonnage judged equivalent to seven Hiroshima-size atomic bombs. Thus for the period of the war Iraq was subjected to the equivalent of one atomic bomb a week, a scale of destruction that has no parallels in the history of warfare. Moreover, whereas the horrendous destructive potential of an atomic bomb is focused on a single site the missiles and bombs ranged over the whole of Iraq.
The Coalition forces — principally the United States — used a wide variety of armaments in the Gulf War, some traditional (though improved) and some relatively untried. Extensive use was made of depleted uranium projectiles, used because of their capacity to destroy armour and other defences. One estimate suggests that American tanks fired between 5000 and 6000 depleted uranium projectiles, while tens of thousands of these weapons were fired by aircraft. Many Iraqi soldiers ‘were killed either directly by depleted uranium rounds or as a result of their exposure to them’; and it is suggested that these weapons caused the deaths of around 50,000 Iraqi children ‘during the first eight months of 1991 as a result of various diseases including cancer, kidney failure, and internal diseases not known before…(1)’ It is arguable that depleted uranium projectiles fall within the category of prohibited weapons of mass destruction according to UN General Assembly Resolution 33/84(b),passed on 13 December 1978.
Use was also made of napalm, in part to incinerate entrenched Iraqi soldiers (Washington Post, 23 February 1991). A patent for napalm — today a weapon that attracts particular odium — was applied for in the United States on 1 November 1943; thereafter napalm devises were used against the Germans and Japanese in the Second World War, and later against the Koreans and Vietnamese. The effects of napalm, today much ‘improved’, are well known. The substance is spread over wide areas in clumps of burning jelly at temperatures exceeding 800 degrees C, and in its ‘improved’ versions is almost impossible to extinguish and cannot be easily removed from human flesh. The well-documented results include deep burning, local thrombosis, necrosis, pulmonary damage, heatstroke, oxygen starvation, carbon monoxide poisoning and infection — with all manner of scarring and disability in survivors.
Many observers commented that the 1991 Gulf conflict was not a ‘war’ in the conventional sense: throughout its most decisive phase — from the beginning of the air strikes on 16 January to the onset of the Coalition ground offensive on 24 February — allied aircraft ranged over the whole of Iraq, bombing at will (by the end of February well over 100,000 air sorties had been flown). By contrast the Iraqi forces had little opportunity to strike counter-blows: the Scud attacks on Israel and Saudi Arabia produced relatively few casualties and relatively little damage. It is widely acknowledged that the Coalition bombing missions over Iraq were a ‘turkey shoot’…It’s almost like you flipped on the light in the kitchen at night and the cockroaches start scurrying, and were killing them’. (2) The Iraqi Red Crescent, quoted by former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, estimated before the end of the war that the bombing had caused between 6000 and 7000 civilian deaths. Clark himself described the state of Basra — extensively carpet-bombed by B52 deliveries — as “a human and civilian tragedy…staggering in its expanse.” Little attention has been given to the ‘carpets’ of total destruction laid out in village, town and desert; to the human impact of the Rockeye cluster bombs, each containing 247 ‘anti-personnel’ grenades that individually explode into 2000 high-velocity razor-sharp fragments that effectively ‘shred’ people and that are ill equipped to distinguish between soldier and civilian (the Iraqis claim that cluster bombs were used against ‘civil vehicles, taxis, coaches and lorry’s’); or to the massive fireballs over Iraqi positions ( causing, according to weaponry expert Michael Klare, “nuclear-like levels of destruction without arousing popular revulsion.” 3).
The American forces in the field rejoiced in the mounting evidence of their unprecedented capacity to destroy the enemy. Film was taken, most of it kept out of the public domain, to record the vast slaughter of human beings. Thus, one high-tech video, taken at night and used in a briefing by the US XVIII Airborne Corps, showed helpless Iraqi conscripts being shot to pieces in the dark, some blown apart by canon shells. The Iraqis, reported John Balzar of The Los Angeles Times, were “like ghostly sheep, flushed from a pen…bewildered and terrified, jarred from sleep and fleeing their bunkers under a hell storm of fire. One by one they were cut down by attackers they couldn’t see or understand. Some were literally blown to bits by bursts of 30mm exploding cannon. One man dropped, writhed on the ground and struggled to his feet. Another burst tore him apart.” Said Ron Balak one of the US pilots: “When I got back there I sat on the wing, and I was laughing…I was probably laughing at myself …sneaking up there and blowing this up and blowing that up. A guy came up to me and we were slapping each other on the back…and then he said .”By God, I thought we had shot into a dam farm. It looked somebody had opened the sheep pen.”
The comprehensive array of hi-tech armaments accomplished a massive slaughter of a largely helpless enemy, with much of the killing occurring after the time when constructive diplomacy would have brought an end to the conflict and a secure liberation of Kuwait. Use had been made of depleted uranium shells, napalm, cluster bombs, fuel-air (nuclear scale) explosives, and conventional free-fall bombs dropped in vast tonnage by B52′s. The US Navy alone dropped more than 4400 cluster bombs, with many thousands more delivered by the US Air Force. British Jaguar strike aircraft dropped thousands of BL755 cluster devices, designed to ‘mince’ human beings in the field. The US and British armies also used the MLRS tracked missile launcher, each releasing 8000 anti-personnel fragmentation grenades, spread out over a large area of 60 acres. During the final phases of the war the US Army launched 10,000 MLRS missiles, while the British forces launched a further 2,500. It is not hard to imagine the cumulative effect of these and other weapons on the hapless Iraqi conscripts trapped in the desert. Unofficial Saudi sources were suggesting at the end of the war that the Iraqi casualties numbered around 100,000, with a leaked report from the US Defense Intelligence Agency estimating around 400,000 Iraqi casualties. (3)
The US authorities took great care to disguise the scale of the slaughter. Film shot by the US Army was not made available to journalists or other independent observers; journalists and others were routinely excluded from most of the killing fields, even at the end of the hostilities when all the Coalition military objectives had been accomplished. Two massive Iraqi retreats from Kuwait, difficult to conceal because of their scale, received some attention in the Western media — but even here the scale of the slaughter was largely hidden from Western publics (vast columns of pulverised and incinerated vehicles were shown in television broadcasts but with the thousands of Iraqi corpses mysteriously absent).
This phase of the slaughter began when US aircraft spotted columns of desperate men, carrying loot from a ransacked Kuwait, in queues of military and civilian vehicles headed back home. Now the Iraqis were complying with UN demands that they leave Kuwait but this manifest withdrawal could not save them. With American aircraft queuing for the kill, carnage was total: the fleeing Iraqis and their Kuwaiti captives, were remorselessly attacked with ‘flesh-shredding’ cluster bombs, napalm and depleted uranium shells — a hellish slaughter protracted over hours. By the morning of 28 February a stretch of the Jahra-Basra road at Mitla Ridge ‘had turned into a giant scrap yard, with some 2000 military and civilian vehicles destroyed, some charred, some exploded, some reduced to heaps of tangled metal, with dead bodies and severed limbs scattered all over, some corpses petrifying in their vehicles, and others incinerated, with their faces reduced to grinning teeth. A Newsweek correspondent, a pool reporter attached to the 2nd US Armoured Division, described the ‘vast traffic jam of more than a mile of vehicles, perhaps 2000 or more…As we drove slowly through the wreckage, our armoured 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 trousers would be fifty yards from the top half of the body… (4) Other reporters noted that the carnage extended many more miles to the north. The journalist Greg LaMotte, having brought the first videotape from the site, commented that what had ensued — aerial strikes on a traffic jam – “was in essence what you can only describe as a massacre.” The tape, he warned, was “somewhat graphic…. the most horrible thing I have ever seen in my life: bodies everywhere, body parts everywhere.”
The Nitla carnage was not the only such event in the closing hours of the Gulf War. A similar merciless slaughter occurred on the Jahra-Umm Qasr highway, a coastal road running through the desert: here too a column of fleeing vehicles was spotted — and pulverised and incinerated into oblivion from the air. Witnesses noted the similar chaos of destroyed vehicles, scattered loot, and charred and bloated corpses. Dogs “snarled around the corpse of one soldier. They had eaten most of his flesh…the dogs had eaten the legs from the inside out, and epidermis lay in collapsed and hairy folds, like leg shaped blankets with feet attached…” (5) One man had tried to flee in a Kawasaki front end loader finished up with half his body hanging upside down, the ‘left side and bottom blown away to tatters, with the charred leg fully 15 feet away’; others were flash burned ‘skinny and black wrecks’, one with his exposed intestines and other organs ‘still coiled in their proper places, but cooked to ebony.”(6)
The American journalist Bob Dogrin wrote of ‘scores of soldiers’ lying ‘in and around the vehicles, mangled and bloated in the drifting desert sands’; and his companion Major Bob Nugent, an army intelligence officer, commenting that even in Vietnam ‘I didn’t see anything like this’, wondered whether the great number of Iraqi casualties with so few allied deaths meant that divine intervention had played a part…. Tony Clifton of Newsweek went up ‘to see what we’d done…. there were bodies all over the place… I was up to my ankles in blood…there were very white-faced men going round saying, “Jesus. Did we really do this?”
Even such testimony did little to expose the scale of the slaughter. Journalists and others had been barred from most of the desert killing fields — where, it is known; the US Army dug mass graves to accommodate the Iraqi dead. Pentagon officials were quoted as saying that ‘heaps of Iraqi corpses are being buried in mass graves across the desert’; (7) and there were reports that the allied forces were ‘using bulldozers to bury thousands of enemy dead in trenches as the allies advanced.’(8) But such scenes — which must have resembled the disposal of corpses in Nazi extermination camps — were never publicized. Reasons of taste, decency and ideology meant that the publics had to be permanently shielded from the horrors perpetrated by governments in their name.
Many Iraqi soldiers were killed by the simple expedient of burying them alive: in one report, American earthmovers and ploughs mounted on tanks were used to attack more than 70 miles of trenches. Colonel Anthony Moreno commented that for all he knew, ‘we could killed have thousands’. One US commander, Colonel Lon Maggart, estimated that his forces alone had buried about 650 Iraqi soldiers. What you saw was a bunch of buried trenches with peoples arms and things sticking out of them,’ observed Moreno. (9)
Such methods conspired with many other modes of killing to produce hundreds of thousands of Iraqi fatalities, most of them — at least in the early stages of the war — among demoralised conscripts drawn from the Kurdish and Shia groups traditionally persecuted by Saddam Hussein. Now there can be little doubt that civilians too were targeted. Basra in particular was carpet-bombed by B-52s — to the point that, according to Ramsey Clark, hospitals, nightclubs, coffee shops, clinics, law offices and whole residential areas were destroyed.
On 4 February 1991 — as a typical bombing strike in a civilian area — a bridge in Nasiriyeh was destroyed, killing 47 civilians and wounding more than a hundred; when the bridge exploded, many people were tossed into the Euphrates and carried downstream. And on 13 February, in a much-publicized atrocity of the war, more than four hundred civilians — men, women and children — were incinerated by the US bombing of the Amiriya shelter of Baghdad. At about 4.30 a.m. a Stealth bomber attacked the shelter with a laser guided missile, blasting a hole through the roof and ceiling, and exploding in the shelters hospital on a lower level.
A few minutes later, a second missile was delivered precisely through the hole made by the first. The explosion of the second missile blasted shut the 6-ton, half-metre-thick steel doors, and incinerated several hundred people on the upper level, many of whom actually evaporated in the few thousand degree heat generated by the explosion. Several hundred people on the lower level were boiled to death by the water from the vast boilers destroyed in the blast.
It is not known for certain how many civilians were killed that night in the Amiriaya shelter: the written record of the people who had sought refuge from the nightly bombing had itself been stored in the supposed safety of the building, and now was no more. What is known is that before 13 February 1500 people signed into the shelter every night. After the massacre, eleven injured people, thrown out of the shelter by the blast, were found; and over a deeply harrowing period of several hours the mutilated black remains of 403 people were retrieved from the building. Thus it was estimated that several hundred people were burnt and evaporated into nothingness, with no means of determining their identities or even their precise numbers. Later witnesses — including Tom Dalyell, a British Labour Member of Parliament — described the carbonated imprints of women and children on the walls of the shelter. The imprints of tiny feet and hands are charred into the walls and ceilings; and on the walls at the lower level the tidemark of the water from the burst tanks is marked by a 5-foot high scum of human flesh.
(1) U.S. and its allies, Crimes and Violations of Human Rights in Iraq. Prepared by a panel of international law experts — The International Symposium 1994.
(2) Colonel Richard White Quoted in the Independent.
(3) Paul Rodgers ‘Myth of a clean war buried in the sand.’ The Guardian, 19 Sept. 1991.
(4) Newsweek 11 March 1991.
(5) Michael Kelly ‘Carnage on a forgotten road,’ The Guardian, 11 April 1991
(7) The Washington Post. 28 February 1991.
(8) The Wall Street Journal. March 2 1991.
(9) Patrick Slogan, ‘Iraqi troops buried alive in sand say American officers’ — The Guardian 13 Sept 1991.
Extracted from The Scourging of Iraq by Geoff Simons, MacMillan, London.