Highway of Death, a tragic memory of the Gulf War

Highway of Death
Highway of Death

The Highway of Death is a term describing the road linking Kuwait and Basra, Iraq. During the 1991 Gulf War, Coalition forces launched attacks on retreating Iraqi army units and numerous civilian vehicles along this road, resulting in their destruction.

The Highway of Death serves as a reminder of the devastating consequences of war.

Where is this road located?

The Highway of Death, officially known as Highway 80, and runs from Kuwait City to the border, to the border towns of Abdali and Safwan, and then to Basra in Iraq.

You can locate the road on the map below:

Enlarge the map

Facts about the highway of Death

The Highway of Death is the name given by Western journalists to one of the last episodes of the Persian Gulf War. On the night of 26-27 February 1991, the US Air Force and its allies conducted massive air raids on two roads between Kuwait and the Iraqi border. As a result, thousands of vehicles including cars and armored vehicles were destroyed as the Iraqi army and civilians fled from Kuwait. Some 1,400 vehicles and other equipment were burned by airstrikes or abandoned by drivers on Route 80 near al-Jahrah. Photographs and television footage of the “Highway of Death” became prominent media images of Operation Desert Storm.

These two “death highways” run through Kuwaiti and Iraqi territory. The six-lane Highway 80 connected al-Jahra, the Iraqi border town of Safwan, and Basra. Another road led from al-Jahra to Umm Qasr along the sea. During the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Iraq used the highway to move troops quickly into the emirate.

A ground offensive by multinational coalition forces to liberate Kuwait began on February 24, 1991. By this time, Iraqi troops on the front lines were virtually cut off from logistics by coalition air operations and demoralized. Some units attempted to resist, but many chose to surrender or retreat.

The situation for Iraqi forces in Kuwait deteriorated by the hour. On January 26, President Saddam Hussein announced the withdrawal of all Iraqi forces from the country. White House Secretary Marlin Fitzwater promised that the U.S. and its allies would not attack the Iraqi army in the withdrawal from Kuwait. On the same day, Arab troops supported by U.S. Marines were in al-Kuwait. In the Iraqi desert west of Kuwait, the U.S. 7th Corps advanced rapidly, then turned east and began to advance toward Basra, threatening all Iraqi forces in Kuwait with complete encirclement.

Implications :

Iraqi defenses had collapsed, and many soldiers had seized every available vehicle and attempted to leave Kuwait via Highway 80. In the process, there was widespread gridlock. The vehicles that ended up on the highway of death included armored vehicles and artillery and fire and police cars, vans, limousines, and private cars. A traffic jam of several kilometers formed on a stretch of Highway 80 beyond El Jahra, which became an easy target for air raids.

The number of casualties on the “highway of death” remains unclear. Photographer Peter Turnley, who arrived at the highway the morning after the cessation of hostilities at the “mile of death,” noted that he saw and photographed many bodies. Washington Post reporters who visited the main highway counted between 200 and 300 bodies.

How to get to this road?

Unless if you are a tourist of extreme, you won’t go to this road. But it’s located in the East of Iraq between Bassora and Koweit City.

You can visualize the road this map of the drive:

The road in popular culture:

  • In 1991, The Guardian asked the anti-war British poet Tony Harrison to commemorate the war. His poem “Cold Coming” begins with an ekphrastic representation of a photograph taken on Highway 80 by photojournalist Kenneth Jarek.
  • The “highway of death” scene featured in the film Marines.
  • The film Bravo Two Zero (also known as Desert Storm) contains several seconds of documentary footage showing equipment breaking down on the Highway of Death.
  • Splinter Cell: Conviction has a mission on Death Road
  • In Battlefield 3, the Death Road can be seen in Thunder Run.
  • In the game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019), the action of one of the missions takes place on the “death highway”. It resembles its real prototype, but placed in the fictional country of Urzykstan.

A preview of this road:

Here is a video about this road on YouTube :

After the war, the Highway of Death (Highway 80) was repaired in the late 1990s. In 2003 it was used by U.S. and British troops during the invasion of Iraq. Today some pieces of equipment, destroyed in 1991, can still be found along the highway.

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