Iraqi army's escape route became a highway to death WAR IN THE GULF


AL MUTLA RIDGE, Kuwait -- A bitter wind whipped the silent graveyard of the Iraqi army that occupied Kuwait City. An occasional car door creaked, but all else was deathly still yesterday on the road to escape that became a highway to hell for the Iraqi soldiers who looted and sacked this tiny country's capital.

For almost two miles on the high way north to Iraq, and deep into the desert nearby, hundreds of tanks, armored vehicles, rocket launchers, artillery pieces and trucks were burned, bombed out or just abandoned by troops who fled before attacking U.S. jets Tuesday.

There were hundreds more stolen and hot-wired civilian vehicles, from a blue-and-white police car to a new Mercedes sedan with plastic on the seats. A red firetruck had collided with a dump truck. A white ambulance was stuffed with wooden crates of rocket grenades, still wrapped in packing paper.

One corpse leaned crazily out of a truck, fists clenched. Others rested in the cold sand.

From here, where a 10-foot tile portrait of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein gazed down from atop the highest land point in Kuwait, the scene stretched south to the dusty horizon, clogging both sides of the six-lane highway and far into the surrounding desert.

"What do I think?" reflected Col. Douglas Tystad, a U.S. Army tank commander whose 45 M-1A1 tanks helped cut off the Iraqi convoy. "How wasteful war is.

"The other thing I think is these guys were thugs. They had pillagedthe country."

Indeed, virtually every vehicle inspected was loaded with booty -- new televisions and videocassette recorders; shirts in plastic wrappers; unopened bottles of Chanel perfume; children's bikes and baby strollers.

Sacks of silk and lace tablecloths and a box of silver spoons spilled from a red pickup loaded with AK-47 rifles. A Nissan sedan trunk was crammed with car radios and VCRs. On the back seat were five grenade launchers, on the front a torn copy of the Koran. On the roof was a small machine gun, one of the only signs of defense during the attack.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Pvt. William O'Neill of the Queen's Own Highlanders, a Scottish infantry regiment. "And we never will again."

A handful of U.S. and British troops picked their way through the rubble yesterday, searching for survivors and souvenirs. One Iraqi was alive, his leg blown off. He was carried off on a stretcher.

Colonel Tystad said that six injured Iraqis had been found in the last two days, most of them missing arms and legs. One man, he said, spoke a little English.

"He said, 'Saddam is a donkey,' " Colonel Tystad recalled. He said about 165 bodies had been found.

About 450 Iraqis who had fled to a concrete police post on the ridge surrendered after the tank column arrived at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday and quickly blew up three Iraqi tanks.

"We were in all the dust and gloom," Colonel Tystad said. "And the wind was in their eyes. We could see them through thermal sights. And they couldn't see us."

One U.S. Army sergeant was killed and another American wounded by three snipers firing from a junkyard several hundred yards away. They were the only allied casualties in the grim highway battle.

"To tell the truth, I'm speechless that they didn't use any of the big weapons they had," said Lt. James Connelly, executive officer of an M-1A1 tank company. "Because they had them. But all we saw was small-arms fire."

The road to Basra was a key target for allied planners. It has intersections that connect most of Kuwait and was the main supply road for much of Iraq's occupation army. It was also their fastest way home.

Navy pilots from the USS Ranger spotted the Iraqi convoy heading north. A-6 Intruders dropped Rockeye cluster bombs, cratering the road and setting scores of vehicles afire.

Iraqi troops had set up a choke point at the ridge to cut off Kuwaiti traffic. But the checkpoint, lined with concertina wire, helped cut off the Iraqis instead when jets destroyed tanks at the front and back of the convoy, blocking the road.

Scores of vehicles collided in the panic.

There was little dignity amid the carnage yesterday. Several civilians looted the vehicles, stealing the stolen goods. One U.S. soldier jumped out of his Humvee to pick up a portable stereo.

Nor was there much dignity for the 40 dead soldiers back on the ridge. The cold wind whipped blankets from their corpses, lying in three rows under the noonday sun.

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