Sheikh al-Sabah
Sheikh al-Sabah; drawing by David Levine

Just beyond Jahra, a satellite town of the cheap, two-storied houses favored by Kuwait’s one-time army of Arab and Asian “guest workers,” the highway northward to Basra narrows from six lanes to four. A concrete divide separates incoming from departing traffic. During the night of February 25, when the Iraqis at last gave the order for their troops to leave Kuwait, the heavy concrete blocks dividing and narrowing the road funneled the escaping Iraqi army and Kuwaiti and Iraqi civilians accompanying it into a lethal killing zone.

How many died at the hands of the allies that awful, pitch-black night is impossible to say. Certainly thousands. More than two weeks later, British and American burial parties unceremoniously shoveled whatever human remains they could find into mass graves. There were few, if any, survivors. When I recently visited Kuwait on a mission for Human Rights Watch, no one I talked to doubted that Kuwaiti and Iraqi civilians were among those who died on the night of February 25. I was told by gravediggers in the allied forces that some of the corpses were dressed in civilian clothes. But without a final accounting of the 5,400 Kuwaitis said by the Kuwaiti government still to be missing, we will not be able to identify the civilians who were killed on the road.

I saw the first signs of the carnage on the Sixth Ringroad, the outermost layer of this city of circumambient layers. Iraqi T-54 and T-62 tanks stand silently by the roadside, gun barrels pointing impotently skyward; burntout trucks lie on their sides; abandoned cars litter the verges, some lie on their roofs. One consequence of the seven-month-long Iraqi occupation of Kuwait and its liberation is that much of Kuwait City has been turned into a scrap heap.

I had been told about the extensive damage visible on the road, but nothing prepared me for the utter devastation a few miles ahead, where the highway rises gently toward the Mitlaa customs post. To judge by the intact street lamps, as well as by the heatblasted wrecks piled crazily one on top of another, the US Navy fighters responsible for much of the slaughter must have used a combination of fuelair explosives and cluster bombs against the hopelessly snarled convoy of vehicles attempting to leave the city. In awesome testimony to the allies’ firepower, the trail of destruction stretches a full thirty miles along the road toward the border, and fans out into the desert as far as the eye can see. “It must have been the nearest thing to hell that can be imagined,” said Lt. Commander Gareth Derryck of the British Royal Navy, one of the first allied officers to arrive on the scene.

In the euphoria of victory, the fact that innocent civilians were killed on the night of February 25 has been passed over in silence by the Pentagon. Queasy about the implications, the Western press and television, too, have made little of it. To this day, however, Kuwaitis still cling to the hope that some of their missing relatives, who were seized as hostages by the retreating Iraqis, have survived; they talk of busloads of Kuwaiti prisoners who were in the final convoy as having been miraculously whisked away to safety by the Americans.

Many of the hostages taken out of Kuwait on February 21 and 22 did survive and have since returned to Kuwait, but hopes that entire busloads of the hostages still missing were spared by the allies seem illusory. Within a mile-long section of the destroyed convoy, I counted more than a dozen ambulances and other vehicles bearing Red Crescent signs. These are entitled to absolute protection from attack under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, not to mention the Pentagon’s own rules of engagement. Even if the retreating Iraqis were misusing medical vehicles, as is probable, the burden was nonetheless on the allies to distinguish between targets, and to choose their weapons accordingly. Several buses without civilian or military markings were also there, empty.

The allies cannot be blamed for the incompetence, or the cowardice, of the Iraqi commanders. According to the Bangladeshi staff at the International Hotel across the street from the US Embassy, many Iraqi generals packed their bags and left one full day before the pull-out order was given, leaving their troops to their fate. Nor, in the absence of a formal surrender declaration by the Iraqi forces in Kuwait, can the allies be condemned for firing on the retreating troops.

It was nine o’clock on the evening of February 25, a Monday, when the pullout order was finally given by the Iraqi military command. Since the Iraqi army’s communications systems had been destroyed by allied bombing, motorcycle messengers criss-crossed the darkened city, passing the word from Baghdad to outlying command posts. Did Saddam himself sign the order? The question is academic. For anyone in Kuwait with eyes to see, it had been abundantly clear for some time that Iraq was getting out of its “nineteenth province.” Most civilian administrators had left even before the air war began in mid-January, leaving the army to fight alone.


The previous week, dynamite that had been packed during the preceding months into hundreds of oil-well heads was detonated by teams of Iraqi army engineers, setting off huge fires that blocked the sun and cast a dark pall across the city. Some allied officers speculated that the wells were set on fire to impede the anticipated allied ground assault; but it was more likely an act of wanton arson on a scale comparable with Alexander the Great’s sacking of Persepolis.

No one in the International Red Cross, which has been doing an excellent job throughout the region, has so far pointed out that this colossal act of environmental despoliation is a perfect test case for Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions, Article 55 of which states categorically that “Attacks against the natural environment by way of reprisals are prohibited.” Certainly if the ICRC is preoccupied with the enormous task of saving lives, any party to the 1977 Protocols, Saudi Arabia for instance, ought to file suit against the Iraqi government on these grounds, both to uphold the law and to obtain damages to repair its own environment.

As they prepared to leave, Iraqis assigned to set fires next turned their attention to their own quarters; methodically, each of the major hotels which had housed the army general staff and the mukhabarat—the secret police force, estimated to number 20,000 in Kuwait—were doused with gasoline and set ablaze with rocket-propelled grenades. Some, such as the beachside SAS hotel and the Sheraton, were completely gutted, while others failed to catch fire. Interestingly, in view of the charges now circulating in Kuwait of Palestinian complicity in atrocities during the occupation, the staff of the PLO set fire to their own office in the smart residential district of Jabariya at midnight that Monday. They were observed doing so by their Kuwaiti neighbors, who told me they had become alarmed by the fire.

Fortunately for human rights investigators such as Middle East Watch who support the idea of holding war crimes trials, the Iraqis were far from thorough in their attempts to destroy evidence. A casual inspection of known detention centers and torture chambers turned up many names of Iraqis who could have had a hand in committing atrocities, although specific evidence of their participation in crimes is still lacking. Prince Mubarak al-Sabah’s wedding-cake palace in the city’s Yarmouk district was used primarily as a war situation room and billet for senior officers. But it was also a place where well-known Kuwaitis were brought to be questioned, tortured, and killed. The emir’s personal photographer, who was taken to the palace, said he survived only by paying a large bribe. Units of the so-called Execution Squad, distinguished by their red-and-white armbands, and licensed to shoot-to-kill on sight, were posted all around the cordoned-off block on which the palace stands.

Some of the palace’s occupants can be identified from the names scrawled on doors. Colonel Fuad Abdullah, for instance, had requisitioned the bedroom of one of Prince Mubarak’s daughters, leaving it in a filthy state. His name is clearly visible above a Pink Panther decal on the door. Upstairs, on the third floor, two senior mukhabarat officers, Major Abdul Rawda and Lt. Colonel Muhammed Aziz, also did not erase their names when they left. In the laundry room on the third floor victims were strapped to a metal frame and tortured with electric shocks, wood planes, wire wool, and a saw—its blade is still caked with dried blood—before being thrown into an industrial washing machine.

Hamid al-Hadi of the Special Forces (Quwat al-Khasra) left his name on the wall of the badly destroyed Engineering Faculty of Kuwait University. More serious than the pillage of the school is the convincing evidence that the triangular garden adjoining the faculty building was used as a makeshift graveyard. The once pretty gardens, together with a row of prefabricated offices and classrooms, are enclosed in barbed wire. Fourteen neatly dug graves are to be seen on the lawn, three of them refilled. Falah Abdul Hassan was one of the soldiers sleeping in the classrooms; he left his helmet behind in the pandemonium of the mass withdrawal on February 25. In his room and in another, amid the debris of army belts, shirts, and dirty bedding are articles of women’s clothing: a black velvet dress, a scarf, a barrette. Kuwaiti officials have charged that women who had been imprisoned and regularly raped during the occupation were killed just before the Iraqi withdrawal. The subject is a delicate one in a Muslim society and we have no credible eyewitness accounts of such killings. However, the many accounts of rape combined with the evidence we saw suggest that such killings could have taken place. They should be the subject of further investigation.


With the allies making spectacular advances in the early hours of the ground war and capturing huge numbers of Iraqi prisoners, a decision was apparently taken by the Iraqi high command in Kuwait to seize as many able-bodied men as could be readily transported back across the border. The numbers rounded up in those final days of the occupation were nowhere near the estimate of “up to 40,000” given by General Norman Schwarzkopf at his press conference on February 27. According to some of those seized, 1,500 to 2,000 is a more likely figure, but we are still far from having a precise estimate. But unlike earlier groups of Kuwaitis who were detained, these people were taken and held as hostages, bargaining chips in a poker game in which Saddam unexpectedly had to fold before he could make use of them.

Jassem, a building contractor, was one of those seized as he emerged from a Kuwait City mosque after the Friday prayers. He recalled later how he was held in a military barracks outside Basra. Altogether 270 people were somehow squeezed and shoved into a room measuring no more than thirty by thirty feet; they slept in shifts on the cold concrete floor. Rain water and a few scraps of rock-hard bread were all that kept them alive.

Walid, a police detective before the invasion, told us that he had joined a resistance group run by the Dashtis, a big Kuwaiti Shi’ite family, and that after being captured he had been held at the Abu Suker army camp, near Basra. Badly tortured during earlier interrogation by the mukhabarat, he came close to dying during the overnight journey in a prisoner convoy through the desert from Kuwait on February 21. At three in the morning, the convoy, escorted by armored vehicles, came under aerial attack. The prisoners and their guards fled for cover, and tried to hide from the rain of destruction coming from the sky. When it was all over, Walid was astonished to note that while 80 percent of the nearby tanks were burning, all the prisoners had emerged unhurt. “They were like magicians,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief at the allied pilots’ prowess. It is clear that when they wanted to pinpoint their targets the allies were capable of doing so—even at night.

Some who have criticized the Bush administration for the level of destructiveness during the fighting now complain that too much of the Iraqi army was left intact, and was therefore able to turn on the Kurds and the rebellious Shi’ites. Such critics cannot have it both ways. But on one ground—launching indiscriminate attacks likely to cause civilian deaths, by destroying identifiable vehicles carrying the sick and wounded—the allies could be charged with war crimes, at least for one terrible night’s work. The hundreds of civilian deaths on the night of February 13 at the Amariyya bomb shelter in Baghdad could also be cited in making such a case. One reason why President Bush’s wartime enthusiasm for seeing Saddam Hussein in the dock of an international tribunal has cooled so rapidly since the allied victory may be that the administration is aware that such charges could possibly be made.

Regrettably, the only “war crimes” trials that may actually take place—those promised by the vengeful Al Sabahs against some of the thousands of suspects rounded up indiscriminately since Kuwait’s liberation, and held under atrocious conditions—are likely to be a travesty. Suspected collaborators and others accused of crimes during the black days of the occupation will probably be charged largely on the basis of confessions extracted by torture; and the techniques of torture used by the Kuwaiti interrogators bear a striking, no doubt deliberate, similarity to those used by the Iraqi mukhabarat against Kuwaitis. Those trials, which will be held before mixed military-civilian courts with powers to order the death penalty, are expected to start any day now. The real culprits, however, are getting off scot-free.

May 2, 1991

This Issue

May 30, 1991