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Documentary : After the Joy: Terror, Loss Haunt Gulf : In Kuwait and Iraq, the war was more than military briefings. It was death and destruction, and those grim images remain.

April 09, 1991|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KUWAIT CITY — The old man had gone quite mad.

Iraqi secret police had tortured his son, a Kuwaiti resistance fighter, gouging out his eyes and piercing his arms and legs with an electric drill. They finally shot him before his horrified family, and barred the kin from moving the corpse for three days.

"So after liberation, when we captured this Iraqi, we took him to the father," recalled Monsour Ali, 23, a former resistance fighter. "And we gave him a gun. He shot the Iraqi in the head and the heart. Then he cried and cried and tried to shoot himself."

Ali paused, suddenly concerned about the awful tale he told. "Should you report that?" he asked. "Maybe this gives a bad image of Kuwait."

Six weeks after Kuwait's liberation from Iraq's brutal occupation, it is only one of countless agonizing images of human suffering and mass destruction that accompanied this best and worst of all possible wars.

Long after the last American soldier returns home to a well-deserved hero's welcome, the grim images will haunt this ravaged land: of the horrors of the Iraqi occupation and the apocalyptic hell of hundreds of blazing oil wells they left behind, of Palestinians killed and tortured in an orgy of Kuwaiti reprisals, of sad streams of Iraqi refugees fleeing Saddam Hussein's murderous rampage against his own people.

This was not the distant, clinical war it often appeared from sanitized Pentagon videos of smart bombs hitting concrete buildings, and allied spokesmen primly announcing "another healthy day of bombing." There is nothing sanitized or healthy about war.

Even the allied ground troops, the brave men and women who raced into Kuwait and Iraq in giant tanks named Thrill Killer and Captain America, rarely seemed to acknowledge the death and damage that they inflicted from above and afar.

A 31-year-old West Point graduate and commander of a tank company, for example, proudly described "carrying out the mission," as the afternoon wind carried the foul stench of fresh mass graves nearby.

"We put air assets in front of us," he said calmly. "They scouted the enemy, reported and handed off. Then the ground troops engaged contact. After that, we were basically in a pursuit mode. . . ."

The battle he described began with the bombing of two large convoys of fleeing Iraqi troops. On one road, the enduring image was of nine young Iraqi soldiers, incinerated on a truck and clutching one another in their final agony.

If the unfortunate image of Vietnam was the American officer who said it was necessary "to destroy the village in order to save it," here a U.S. Army colonel told me he couldn't help Iraqi children begging for food nearby because, "We're not in the business of mass humanitarian assistance."

He was the rarity, though, and was later overruled. Most American soldiers were filled with compassion, happy to hand out food and water to thousands of refugees but tormented by the misery they saw each day in southern Iraq.

"Seeing all these people really tears your heart out," said Sgt. Kendall Sorensen, 41, as barefoot, bedraggled refugees streamed by. "This is the part I didn't want to see."

And 200 miles inside Iraq, in an oil refinery turned to rubble by B-52s, Lt. Tom Isom, 26, said he and his men were ready to march to Baghdad after seeing an 18-month-old shot at such close range that the powder burns marked her chest.

"We can't comprehend how soldiers can behave like that," he said angrily. "It's almost like genocide."

The liberation of Kuwait sparked remarkable scenes of jubilation. Women garbed from head to toe in black robes--BMOs or "black moving objects" to bemused U.S. troops--stood ululating, while young men waved U.S. flags atop abandoned Iraqi tanks and fired AK-47s in the air.

The joy was soon followed by terror. Thousands of Palestinians were summarily arrested at checkpoints and on the streets. Hundreds were beaten, and dozens killed for alleged collaboration with the Iraqis.

I can't forget the Palestinian I found under a highway bridge. He had been beaten, bound and gagged, then shot three times and left sitting up against the blue wall for traffic to see.

A Kuwaiti resistance member later explained that he had another, less visible way of exacting revenge. He attached a soda straw to a medical syringe, and then blew air into the veins of his prisoners. "It causes hemorrhaging, embolism in the brain, you name it," he explained. "Just the threat makes people start talking."

Hardest to forget are the refugees. There was the pregnant woman who disappeared alone into a foul-smelling, darkened desert bunker in view of U.S. troops. She emerged an hour later carrying her newborn infant in her ragged robes and trudged off down the dusty road again.

There was the Iraqi man who leaned into my car and told how his wife and three children had been killed by Iraqi troops. "I found my son, Raad, 3 years old, without a head," he said, as tears streamed down his face.

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