On Forgotten Kuwait Road, 60 Miles of Wounds of War

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ten days after an informal cease-fire, desert sands and wild dogs are taking care of the terrible wounds of war.

Here, on a forgotten road hit by anonymous allied air strikes, Iraqi military units sit in gruesome repose, scorched skeletons of vehicles and men alike, black and awful under the sun.

And here, far from the smart-bomb videos and "target rich environment" jargon, the grim reality of war is a horror to behold.

For 60 miles, hundreds of Iraqi tanks and armored cars, howitzers and antiaircraft guns, ammunition trucks and ambulances were strafed, smashed and burned beyond belief. Scores of soldiers lie in and around the vehicles, mangled and bloated in the drifting desert sands.

Most were retreating on this two-lane road before midnight on Feb. 25, one of two huge Iraqi caravans to flee ravaged Kuwait city as their army collapsed under the fast-approaching allied blitzkrieg.

Both convoys were caught by allied warplanes. The remains of the other convoy, which received widespread publicity last week, sits farther west, on the six-lane main highway north to Safwan, Iraq. Many of the vehicles there collided or were simply abandoned in panic, and the loot of Kuwait city was strewn throughout. At least 450 people survived to surrender.

Not here. Largely unnoticed by the media so far, the tableau stretches for miles. Every vehicle was strafed or bombed. Every windshield is shattered. Every tank is burned. Every truck is riddled with shrapnel. No looting by the dead soldiers was evident. No survivors are known or likely.

"Even in Vietnam, I didn't see anything like this. . . . It's pathetic," said Maj. Bob Nugent, an Army intelligence officer who searched the wreckage for Iraqi documents Saturday.

"It's sad," said Nugent, 43, of McGill Air Force Base, N.J. "You have mixed emotions looking at this. As a soldier, you feel sorry for these guys. But you have to remember, too, they did some terrible things."

At one spot, snarling wild dogs have reduced two corpses to bare ribs. Giant carrion birds claw and pick at another; only a boot-clad foot and eyeless skull are recognizable.

One flat-bed truck has nine bodies, frozen in a tableau of terror. Each man clutches the next. Their hair and clothes are burned off, skin incinerated by heat so intense it melted the windshield onto the dashboard.

Another body hangs from the driver's seat of a shrapnel-riddled front-end loader. Half a corpse sits in a truck with twisted metal for an engine. Blowing sand laps at other bodies on the roadside.

Nugent picked through a box of gray, unarmed anti-personnel mines. Nearby was an expended round for a tank blown into shards of steel by a direct hit. The round, labeled "Primer Percussion 155 MM How M1, M1A1, M45, M126, M126A1," was American made.

"I'm not a religious man," Nugent said. "I'm really not. But when I contemplate all this, all the casualties we inflicted and think of the size of the army we faced . . . and then look at our own casualties, practically nothing, it's hard not to feel there was some sort of divine intervention."

But he was clearly troubled by the one-sided carnage that characterized the war.

"Do you not inflict these casualties on an enemy in the hopes they won't fight?" he asked. "And then you turn out to be wrong and you put American lives at risk? You can't do that.

"I remember coming back from Vietnam when I was 20, feeling like I did something wrong," he added. "But seeing this victory, seeing Kuwaitis thanking us for what we did, did something for me. It made me feel I recaptured something for myself."

Nearby, his partner, Warrant Officer Jim Smith, 46, lifted his Instamatic to snap a photo of a cluster of blackened bodies. Then he let the camera drop.

"Oh, I'm not going to do this," he said, more to himself than to his companion. "I promised myself I wouldn't."

Smith hiked across 50 yards of desert, walking in a tire track to avoid the countless unexploded grenades, artillery shells and bomblets that littered the sands, to a smashed six-wheel Russian truck pulling a 155-millimeter artillery gun.

An incendiary grenade had been set off in the breech, spiking the huge barrel so it could not be used by the advancing allies. Smith nodded approvingly.

"Well, I'm proud of them (the Iraqi gunners)," he said. "At least they did one thing right. One last futile effort. . . . "

He pulled a thick pink notebook from the debris. Each page had a thumbnail-sized photo of an Iraqi soldier, and details in careful hand-written Arabic of the man's service record, promotions and demerits.

"They kept very detailed files," he explained. "We've found personnel files dating back to 1983."

Here was Ahmad Hassan's notes of a course at the Iraqi Military Academy, complete with diagrams of oil-filled berms and artillery deployment. There was a company roster, and a ration list of oranges, dates and potatoes. Smith picked up a dogtag.

"His name is Abas Mshal Dman," he said haltingly, struggling to read the Arabic. "He's O positive, and he's Muslim."

And half buried was a soldier's plastic-covered 1991 pocket diary, with a smiling photo of Saddam Hussein in the inside cover. The last date with writing was Feb. 25.

Smith shook his head again. "All for the madness of one man," he said.

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