On Febuary 26, 1991, Iraqi troops followed orders issued from Baghdad
to withdraw from Kuwait City
, which they had just spent considerable time looting, raping and pillaging
. American forces would enter the city a day later, and it is about this point which much of the controversy of the incident lies. But more on that after a description of the incident.
The Iraqi troops used two main highways for their withdrawal. Within several hours of them starting the march back home, planes of the United States Air Force (USAF) began to pound down on the vehicles and troops with anything they could lay their hands on in their aircraft carriers. It was a flurry of opportunistic turkey shooting - cluster bombs, five-hundred pound bombs and it is suggested even napalm were loaded onto the planes as fast as could be managed and unleashed on the defenceless Iraqis. The majority of the troops were low-level conscripts, and they didn't have the equipment to counter the air assault. Many fled their vehicles and roads to surrender, but many more were massacred.
Now for the controversy. If the troops were retreating as Iraq claims, and they had no intent of regrouping and reattacking, the U.S. actions are illegal under the Geneva Convention, which states that it is illegal to kill soldiers who are out of combat. The U.S. maintains that Iraq was merely preparing a counter-attack, and that its troops were driven from Kuwait City by the approaching Allied forces. This is still a viable argument despite the fact they left 36 hours before the Allied forces arrived (they could have been withdrawing in anticipation of the arrival), but it is also one that can be opposed for this same fact.
One of the facts of the matter is that Saddam Hussein had proved himself repeatedly to be a man who could not be trusted and to be as calculating as he was ruthless in his actions. It is highly probably that the United States wanted to inflict as much damage as possible on his nation before it could turn round and stab the West in the back once again. The Generals were said to favour a risky ground campaign over a Soviet-brokered peace deal which the rest of the world would see as "acceptable", but would counter United States interests.
Over 2,000 destroyed vehicles and an indeterminable number of corpses littered the Highway of Death after the airstrikes.