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Remembering the Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait and the Highway of Death

February 25, 2022 at 9:00 am

A memorial outside Al-Qurain Martyr’s Museum, home to a battle which lasted 10 hours between invading Iraqi troops and a group of Kuwaiti fighters during the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1990 [YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images]

What: The withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, resulting in Iraq’s acceptance of UN terms and resolutions following seven months of its occupation of its small Gulf neighbour. This led ultimately to the decline of Saddam Hussein’s power and set the stage for his fall and death over a decade later.

When: 25-28 February, 1991

Where: Iraq and Kuwait

On 28 February 1991, Iraq officially completed the messy withdrawal of its forces from neighbouring Kuwait by accepting the terms and resolutions set by the UN. It brought to an end the seven month occupation of the small Gulf nation after a coalition led by the US forced the Iraqi army out.

Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, as part of its expansionist aims under its then dictator Saddam Hussein. The goal was to make Kuwait the 19th province of Iraq; that was accomplished within two days of the invasion, which forced the Kuwaiti government and Al-Sabah royal family to flee into the desert of eastern Saudi Arabia.

READ: The invention of the ‘Middle East’

The international community expressed outrage at the forced annexation, with the exiled Kuwaiti government urging world powers to push Iraqi forces out and restore the oil-rich country’s sovereignty. As the occupation carried on into late November and Iraq continued to reject calls to withdraw, the UN Security Council authorised the use of “all necessary means” in order to force the Iraqi military out if it did not pull out of Kuwait by 15 January, 1991.

With Saddam Hussein refusing to heed that warning and ignoring the deadline, a military coalition of 35 nations led by the US launched Operation Desert Storm on 17 January 1991, bombing and targeting locations in both Iraq and Kuwait.

U.S. Marine Major Bull Gurfein (R) pulls down a poster of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein March 21, 2003 in Safwan, Iraq. [ Chris Hondros/Getty Images]

U.S. Marine Major Bull Gurfein (R) pulls down a poster of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein March 21, 2003 in Safwan, Iraq. [Chris Hondros/Getty Images]

The ensuing 43 days were bloody and horrific, especially for the Iraqi army, which suffered losses in the tens of thousands at least; more liberal post-war estimates put the number of Iraqis killed at 100,000. The conflict was stepped up on 24 February, when coalition troops stationed in neighbouring Saudi Arabia were finally deployed in Kuwait, which forced the Iraqi military to begin its retreat at last.

As their time in Kuwait was approaching its end, the Iraqi forces resorted to what resembled a scorched earth strategy, setting many of Kuwait’s oil wells on fire and allegedly destroying entire neighbourhoods. Reports also emerged of atrocities, such as the torture and execution of hundreds of Kuwaitis, particularly those involved with resistance groups.

What followed during the Iraqi retreat would haunt witnesses and television viewers alike. Coalition air strikes on the night of 26-27 February targeted Iraqi vehicles for ten hours as they left Kuwait along Highway 80. Hundreds of vehicles were destroyed and left burning on the road, creating a huge and deadly traffic jam.

As journalists, coalition military personnel and other witnesses came upon the scene the following morning, they found charred bodies of Iraqi soldiers who had been unable to escape from their vehicles. One chilling photograph, one of many that went unpublished by US media for months or years due to their horrific nature, showed a soldier killed in his truck, burnt down to the bone and staring at the camera.

The relentless bombing of the road attracted a lot of condemnation from around the world because it was so disproportionate. The road became known as the Highway of Death; anything from 200 to 1,000 Iraqi soldiers are believed to have been killed in the air strikes as they retreated from Kuwait.

What happened after?

Despite the fact that the US-led coalition could have continued into Iraq and goner straight to Baghdad to topple Saddam Hussein, as called for by some Americans and which many thought would happen, President George Bush Snr announced the end of the Gulf War and Operation Desert Storm.

Washington left Saddam in power, betraying the Kurds and Shia who had risen up in Iraq buoyed by US messages that it would back the Iraqi people once they “take matters into their own hands, to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.” It would be another 12 years before coalition forces returned during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, ironically using the same Highway 80 for the transportation of ground forces from Kuwait.

READ: Iraq pays final instalment of $52bn war reparations to Kuwait

Long before that, however, the US push to get the Iraqis out of Kuwait had largely depleted Iraq’s army to such an extent that it had still not recovered by 2003. It must also be remembered that not long before its invasion of Kuwait, Iraq had come out of its long war with Iran (1980-1988).

The events of 1990 and 1991 changed Iraq. It went from having the fourth largest army in the world to being a shadow of its former self. This formed the primary argument of many opponents of the US-led invasion in 2003, who insisted that Saddam Hussein and his armed forces no longer posed the threat in the region that they once did.

Following his overthrow, it was discovered that the dictator had resorted to a quieter life after the disaster of 1991, and was said to have no further grand ambitions for regional hegemony. In December 2002, shortly before he was ousted, Hussein also issued an apology to Kuwait for the invasion and occupation.

It was not only Iraq’s military and regional standing that changed after the Gulf War, but also the nation’s economy, which was left in tatters by international sanctions and isolation. A retired Iraqi general named Subhi Tawfiq was reported to have said: “The sanctions and isolation brought Iraq to its knees. After the war, my whole monthly salary – a substantial income at the time – could barely buy me a pack of cigarettes.”

Ultimately, the 1991 Gulf War set the stage for the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime and cemented US hegemony in the Middle East. While both Iraq and Kuwait were impacted heavily by the war, Tawfiq acknowledged that it was “definitely the beginning of the end for Iraq… Nothing has been the same again.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.