The bodies were found lying in trenches, buried in collapsed bunkers, incinerated in tanks and armored cars.
In Kuwait and southern Iraq, tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers--elite Republican Guards, as well as ordinary conscripts sent to the front to slow the allied march--were left where they were killed during six weeks of war.
Even now, some victims of the relentless allied aerial bombardment and the massive ground invasion that followed it are being interred in trenches where they fell, marked by temporary signs in case Iraq wants to claim the bodies later.
Pentagon officials said they are still sifting through very sketchy data in an effort to draw up accurate estimates of the number of Iraqi soldiers who died during Operation Desert Storm, which began on Jan. 17 and was halted, at least temporarily, at midnight Wednesday.
“This thing moved so fast. They went around those people, and no one had any time to stop and count,” one Bush Administration official said.
Although the allies report that 138 allied soldiers and fliers--including 79 Americans--were killed in the six-week war, at least 100,000 Iraqi soldiers may have been killed or wounded throughout the war theater, according to a source close to the Saudi government. U.S. officials have said that rudimentary medical care and inadequate battlefield evacuations apparently produced a greater ratio of dead to wounded than in previous conflicts.
As one indication of how high the toll might rise, a senior U.S. military official in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, cited this week’s allied attack on the veteran Tawakalna division of the Republican Guard. He said the division--probably 10,000 men--was “destroyed.” No prisoners were known to have been taken, he said, and no soldiers were seen fleeing the battlefield.
In mid-January, when the air war began, military officers planning Operation Desert Storm estimated that over the course of a six-week bombing campaign, 100,000 to 120,000 Iraqi troops would perish in the trenches.
That prediction assumed, a knowledgeable military source said, that the troops “stayed there and died like cattle,” with no desertions. Estimates of actual desertions before the ground combat began Sunday morning were 2,000 to 4,000.
Day after day, allied bombers pounded front-line Iraqi troops--housed in rudimentary bunkers that provided protection from little more than the occasional desert rain--and Republican Guard units dug in around southern Iraq. Wave upon wave of B-52s dropped anti-personnel cluster bombs and fuel-air explosives, which blasted the battlefield with flaming gases.
Then, as the allied forces pushed across the Iraqi border, the tanks and artillery went after what was left.
Along the border, where 200,000 Iraqi troops had been deployed, about 50,000 were taken prisoner.
What happened to the rest?
“There’s a very large number of dead in these units. A very, very large number of dead. We even found them when we went into the units ourselves and found them in the trench lines,” said Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the Desert Storm commander. He noted that desertion rates of more than 30% along the front also figured into the disintegration of the Iraqi force.
Throughout the conflict, allied military commanders have been extremely tight-lipped about Iraqi casualties. Some acknowledged frankly that they did not want to dredge up reminders of the Vietnam War, when daily “body counts” were widely seen as exaggerated and contributed to lack of credibility among U.S. military officials.
The head of the British forces, Lt. Gen. Peter de la Billiere, said on Thursday in Riyadh that it will be some time before an accurate death count can be determined. “We’ve got a lot of tidying up to do on the battlefield,” he told reporters. “It’ll be many days, weeks” before the toll is known.
His aide, British Army Col. Barry Stevens, said earlier this week that military burial groups were working in the battlefield. But when asked whether mass graves were being dug or if bodies were being counted as they were buried, he grew testy.
“I am not here to discuss the pornography of war,” he said.
A senior White House official said the Administration has asked Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about Iraqi casualties. The official said neither the general nor the U.S. Central Command in Saudi Arabia had heard what they would consider a reliable estimate.
The allies, he said, “are right now . . . doing what is appropriate in terms of burying the Iraqi dead. They are taking pains to mark the sites. They are going to provide the information to the Iraqis in whatever level of detail they can so that if they chose to come back and recover the bodies,” they will be able to do so, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“But just from the health point of view--the proper handling of people who have died--they’re doing everything that they would do for our folks. . . , " he said.
In the view of the Bush Administration, Iraq has little to gain for the moment in providing an accurate estimate of its military deaths, if such a figure is possible to determine.
“They’re claiming the Republican Guard was victorious,” one Administration official said. “Any effort to use casualties to draw sympathy would indicate the victory claims are incorrect.”
Besides, he said, given the warnings of battlefield devastation delivered by the allies, disclosing massive numbers of deaths “would portray (Iraqi President) Saddam (Hussein) as a man willing to sacrifice his own people because he left them out there, open to bombardment.”
Times staff writers Tracy Wilkinson in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and David Lauter and Melissa Healy in Washington contributed to this report, which was compiled in part from pool reports reviewed by military censors.