The Highway of Death refers to a six-lane highway between Kuwait and Iraq, officially known as Highway 80. It runs from Kuwait City to the border towns of Abdali and Safwan and then on to Basra.

During the United Nations coalition offensive in the Persian Gulf War, retreating Iraqi military personnel were attacked on Highway 80 by American aircraft and ground forces on the night of February 26–27, 1991, resulting in the destruction of hundreds of vehicles and many of their occupants. The scenes of devastation on the road are some of the most recognisable images of the war, and was publicly cited as a factor in President George H. W. Bush's decision to declare a cessation of hostilities on the next day. Many Iraqi forces however succeeded in escaping 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 may have fled into the city of Basra.

The road was repaired during the late 1990s, and was used in the initial stages of the 2003 invasion of Iraq by U.S. and British forces. Previously it had been also used during the 1990 Invasion of Kuwait by the Iraqi armored divisions.

Highway of Death

U.S. attacks against the Iraqi columns were actually conducted on two different roads: about 1,400-2,000 vehicles were hit or abandoned on the main Highway 80 north of Al Jahra (the "actual" Highway of Death) and another 400-700 on the much-less known road to Basra, the major military stronghold in southern Iraq.

Highway 80

On Highway 80, the U.S. Marine aircraft blocked the road 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 and leaving sitting targets for many further airstrikes. Over the next 10 hours, scores of Marine, Navy and Air Force pilots (many from USS Ranger (CV/CVA-61) aircraft carrier) attacked the convoy using a variety of ordnance. Some survivors of the air attacks were later engaged by arriving coalition ground units, while the vehicles that managed to evade the traffic jam and continued to drive on the road north were often targeted individually. One portion of the road at the bottle-neck near the Mutla Ridge police station has been reduced to a long uninterrupted line of more than 300 stuck and abandoned vehicles; this point is sometimes called the Mile of Death. The wreckage found on the highway consisted of a relatively few military vehicles (including at least 28 tanks and other armored vehicles) and many more commandeered civilian vehicles such as cars and buses; many of these vehicles were filled with stolen Kuwaiti property.

The death toll from the attack is unknown and still remains a controversial issue. Some independent estimates go as high as 10,000 or even "tens of thousands" of casualties, but this is highly unlikely. According to a 2003 study by the Project on Defense Alternatives Research, there were probably about 7,500-10,000 people who rode in the cut-off main caravan to begin with, but once the bombing started, most of them are believed to have simply left their vehicles in panic and escaped through the desert or into the nearby swamps (where 450-500 of them were taken prisoner). The often repeated low estimate of the numbers killed in the attack is 200-300 (as reported by Michael Kelly among others), but the actual figure was probably higher, and a minimum toll of at least 500-600 dead seems to be more plausible.

Highway 8

On and near Highway 8 to the east, Iraqi forces trying to either redeploy to stand and fight or simply escape, many of them belonging to the elite Iraqi Republican Guard's 1st Armored Division "Hammurabi", have been engaged over a much larger area in smaller groups by the 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 Iraqi vehicles, predominantly military in type, were then systematically destroyed in smaller clusters of 10-15 spread along a 50-mile stretch of the highway and at scattered points across the desert.

This engagement, which wasn't even known to media and the public at all until almost two weeks later, still remains relatively obscure even as most of the graphic images of scorched corpses, commonly attributed to the Highway of Death attacks and often considered among the iconic images of the war, were actually taken on Highway 8 and not on Highway 80. The Project on Defense Alternatives Research estimated the number of these killed there to be in range of 300-400 or more, bringing the likely total number of fatalities in both incidents to at least 800-1,000. A large column of remnants of the Hammurabi Division attempting to withdraw to safety in Baghdad were also engaged and obliterated few days later (March 2) deep inside the Iraqi territory by Gen. McCaffrey's forces in a controversial post-war "turkey shoot"-style incident known as Battle of Rumaila.

Highway of Death Video Footage