The Iraqi command in Kuwait City fled ahead of allied forces and could escape prosecution for atrocities against the Kuwaiti people, a senior U.S. military officer said Friday.
"I would say it's entirely possible," said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity."The unfortunate side of this thing is that the Iraqi security forces saw the handwriting on the wall early and they got out . . . before the Marines were even within striking distance of getting in there," he said.
The Iraqi commander in Kuwait, Ali Hassan al-Majid, is Saddam Hussein's cousin. Al-Majid led Iraq's repression of its Kurdish minority and supervised the chemical gas attack on Kurds in the city of Halabja two years ago.
The U.S. officer said he did not know whether al-Majid was in Kuwait when the ground war started Sunday.
Allied forces destroyed or crippled all 42 Iraqi divisions deployed by Saddam in the Kuwaiti theater in a four-day lightning campaign that ended Thursday morning when both sides agreed to a cease-fire.
Allied troops now occupy Kuwait, and U.S. forces control part of Iraq south of the Euphrates River.
On Thursday night, there were some minor exchanges of fire between Iraqi and allied forces but no U.S. casualties, the U.S. officer said. "They were once again in our judgment the result of soldiers who didn't understand that things had ended," he said.
The officer painted a picture of the remnants of the Iraqi army in small disorganized units, retreating north across a broad front toward the Euphrates. Though bridges across it have been wrecked, the river is shallow enough to cross in spots.
There is "such chaos in the command structure" that most Iraqi troops are operating on their own, the officer said.
"South of Basra, in an area where coalition forces stopped before going into the cease-fire, we now estimate there are elements of five mechanized battalions and three infantry battalions," he said. That would be about 4,800 soldiers.
Some Iraqi troops were moving north toward Baghdad all night long but "not in large numbers," the official said.
He said he believes the allied destruction of Iraq's communications infrastructure was a key to the swift allied victory: The military command couldn't get word to the battlefield to respond to movements by allied forces.
On the second day of the ground war, he said, the 2nd Marine Division had its left flank exposed west of Kuwait City, but the Iraqis did nothing. "That was the time when we realized they couldn't counterattack," he said.
The allies have set up checkpoints to screen retreating soldiers "to ensure that the people we're letting out are not folks we'd like to keep around to visit a judge some day," the officer said.
He said the allies have names of Iraqi individuals and units wanted for questioning in connection with possible war crimes.
The lists have been compiled by Kuwaiti resistance leaders, who have been in close contact with allied forces since Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2.
The officer praised the resistance for bravery and said allied forces relied heavily on it for intelligence about possible bombing targets.
U.S. Special Forces were operating clandestinely deep inside Iraq even before the war began.
"On the day the war began, there were a lot out there," the official said. "Two weeks after the war began, it was turning into a Special Operations theme park out there."
He refused to discuss any of their missions, but U.S. commandos are reported to have played a key role in locating Scud missile launchers and training laser beams on them for the benefit of allied warplanes.