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The Road of Death Remembered: Fear of New US Assault Rekindles Iraqis' Gulf War Nightmares
Published on Wednesday, May 8, 2002 in the Guardian of London
The Road of Death Remembered
Fear of New US Assault Rekindles Iraqis' Gulf War Nightmares
by Ewen MacAskill in Baghdad

Abdul Maaunaim Abdul Wahab, a former Iraqi commando sergeant, still has nightmares about the Road of Death, the route from Kuwait to the Iraqi port of Basra along which Saddam Hussein's army retreated during the Gulf war 11 years ago, and the scene of its worst carnage

"We left at one, in the middle of the night," he said. "My division had 1,650 men. When we arrived in Basra at 10 in the morning, half the division had gone, killed. So many killed in such a small area, in such a short time."

As the people of Baghdad face up to the prospect of another war with the US, Iraqi veterans told the Guardian what it is like to be on the receiving end of allied firepower. They hope another generation of Iraqis does not suffer such a fate.

Sympathy for the Iraqi army is not easy to arouse. Its record under Saddam Hussein is horrific: chemical and gas attacks on Iraqi citizens, the brutal suppression of the Kurdish and Shi'ite Muslim minorities, the atrocities in Kuwait. But Iraqi soldiers have suffered, too, and sustained heavy casualties.

Mr Wahab, 56, hands over a photograph, the colors faded and distorted, of himself with six comrades, smiling as they eat their rations in the desert: three were killed in action. His brother Abdul Hafaz was killed by allied aircraft on the Road of Death. He was 37. On a wall is a framed photograph of Mr Wahab's eldest son, Mohammed, killed aged just 15 in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988.

Iraqi conscripts come mainly from the urban slums and the impoverished countryside. Mr Wahab lives in Aljumhriya, a central Baghdad slum between Rashid Street and the river Tigris: a confusion of alleys, lined with a mixture of crumbling Arabic houses and desperate hovels.

Like the rest of Iraq, he has lived with war for more than 20 years, from the mass slaughter of the Iran war to the Gulf war and the subsequent allied bombing raids. But it is January 17 1991, the day that Operation Desert Storm began, that Mr Wahab and other veterans recall.

"We were not prepared for an attack, because we were retreating. It was chaos."

The convoy was hit first by allied artillery, then by air raids, he said. "It seemed like a bomb was falling every eight seconds." Drawing his hand across his throat, he added: "The soldier closest to me had his head taken off in the first bombardment ... Another lost his leg."

Riad Mohamed Adal, 32, a welder, also living in Aljumhriya, was an infantry private, dug in at Hafar-al-Batten in Kuwait, near the Saudi border. "A US plane dropped papers saying, 'If you want to live, you must surrender.' The next day, when the sun came up, we saw US tanks close to my unit. We hid in foxholes and were bombed for three to four days.

"We could not fire back. If the Americans saw anyone opening fire, they would kill him, firing at him from the land or air within minutes. It was simple: open fire, you die.

"Our sergeant told us at night: 'I can't help you. You are free to do what you want. Save yourselves.' I headed off. I did not believe I would survive. I thought the Americans would get me or the wolves. There were bombs dropping all the time. Bodies everywhere. I did not count them."

It took him 12 hours to reach Basra, walking across the desert. He left the army three years later and now lives in Baghdad with his wife and young son. He is angry at the prospect of a US attack.

"It is unjust. There will be no good from this war."

There is a fierce sense of pride that Iraq has stood up to the US. The pride is genuine, and separate from whatever opinions they hold about Saddam Hussein.

It finds expression in another veteran, Ziad Makmuht Wahad, 37, owner of the Abu Hamed Cafe, on an Aljumhriya backstreet. He does not see the war as the west see it, a humiliation for Iraq. "There was no equality in the forces," he said. "It was Iraq against 31 countries. There was no balance in weaponry."

Mr Wahad was a sergeant, stationed at the Kuwaiti oil port of Ahmadi. "I saw some British troops in front of us and I began to fire at them," he said. The British returned the next day with tanks. "I knew my gun was no use. I surrendered." He was held prisoner for two months then sent back to Iraq.

Married with three daughters, he said life has been hard ever since. Already low standards of living have been pushed further down by 11 years of sanctions. While streets in wealthy Baghdad districts were full of smuggled luxury goods, districts such as Aljumhriya continued to suffer. Rationing remained in force.

He was worried about a further US attack. "Maybe they will attack Mosul or Basra. I have relatives there. Maybe Baghdad. I am not afraid," he said.

Near by, Gassan Abdul Hamid, 46, a market trader, is still waiting for news of his brother Hassam, a tank gunner who went missing in 1991, aged 24. "I hope he is still alive," he said. But Hassam is almost certainly one of the many unidentified bodies buried in the Kuwaiti sand.

There will be more sacrifices from the slums of Baghdad if the US invades to depose Saddam Hussein. They may feel such a sacrifice worthwhile if Saddam Hussein can be easily toppled. There might be less enthusiasm if the price was another Road of Death. Or even worse.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002


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