MUTLAA, KUWAIT -- The U.S. Navy's Silverfox bombing squadron swooped beneath low clouds north of Kuwait City in the early hours of Feb. 26 and suddenly found itself overlooking an attack pilot's dreamscape -- more than 1,500 Iraqi tanks, armored vehicles, jeeps, water and fuel tankers, ambulances, tractor-trailers and passenger cars clogged in a traffic jam on a six-lane highway headed north.

Fire and shrapnel exploded on the highway as bombs fell from the Silverfox squadron's A-6E and other attack planes. Navy, Air Force and Marine pilots trapped the long convoy by disabling vehicles at its front and rear, then pummelled the traffic jam for hours. Scores of Iraqis were blown apart or incinerated in their vehicles. The victims were "basically just sitting ducks," said Cmdr. Frank Sweigart, the squadron leader, when interviewed later that day by reporters.

The highway north of Kuwait City became the most vivid scene of destruction in the six-week Persian Gulf War, its images of wreckage and death contrasting sharply with emotionally remote "smart bomb" videotapes and television pool reports filmed from the rear of the desert battlefield.

Yet the way the highway bombing unfolded -- its ferocity, timing and public presentation by senior U.S. military officers -- also constitutes one of the war's most complex and ambiguous episodes.

The bombing demonstrated one grim irony of the brief ground phase of the conflict: that a war undertaken to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait ended with some Iraqi troops desperately trying to leave the emirate while U.S. forces held them in place and destroyed them.

U.S. military officers said their main purpose in pounding fleeing Iraqi troops was to protect allied forces elsewhere on the battlefield by cutting off potential reinforcements for Iraqi Republican Guard divisions north and west of Kuwait. In retrospect, some officers say, the doomed Iraqis crowded on the highway -- many of whom had loaded their vehicles with loot stolen from Kuwait -- probably wanted to go home to Baghdad, not reinforce the Republican Guard. But there was no way to know this in the heat of battle, they added.

While the bombing was an act of war ordered by allied field commanders seeking to protect their troops on a dangerous battlefield, it also was the focus of a public relations campaign managed by the U.S. Central Command in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia -- a campaign designed to shape perceptions of the war's last and most violent phase, which culminated in the near-total destruction of Iraq's army in Kuwait and southern Iraq.

To the northeast of here, more than 400 charred vehicles and dozens of bodies mark the 50-mile stretch where another fleeing Iraqi convoy was destroyed along a second road that connects the Kuwaiti town of Jahra to Iraq.

But the "highway of death," as the road near Mutlaa has come to be known, may be something of a misnomer. It is now apparent that more Iraqis fled their vehicles and were taken prisoner than were killed by U.S. bombing of the highway. There still are no reliable figures on precisely how many people were killed in the convoy, but reporters who visited the scene as bodies were being collected say the most they saw at any one place was 40, and they estimated that a total of 200 to 300 Iraqis may have died at the scene.

The following reconstruction is drawn from interviews with Kuwaiti witnesses, U.S. field commanders and soldiers in Kuwait, officers with the U.S. Central Command in Saudi Arabia and pool reports of interviews with U.S. pilots conducted at the time of the bombing. Feverish, Fatal Flight

Huddled in their homes beside the highway leading from Kuwait City to Iraq, Kuwaitis who had suffered through more than six months of brutal occupation listened with amazement to the chaotic sounds of a panicked Iraqi army on the move. In the black of night, tanks and armored vehicles rumbled, car and truck horns blew, voices cursed in Arabic, and every so often there was the crunch of a traffic collision, then more curses and blowing horns.

It was Monday night, Feb. 25, less than 48 hours into a ground offensive the Kuwaitis hoped would liberate their beseiged country. Ever since the ground war began, there had been signs that Iraqi troops were preparing to leave Kuwait. Sunday, for example, they had been seen loading television sets and other booty into stolen cars and trucks. Now the flight was feverish, "as if they were racing to get to Iraq," recalled Manawar Said, a Kuwaiti Education Ministry employee who lived by the highway.

Near midnight came the first thunder of bombs. Iraqis on the highway redoubled their panicked flight, only to exacerbate the traffic jam. Vehicles poured into the southbound lanes to head north and collided with one another. Hundreds of Iraqis jumped from their cars and trucks and ran off into the night, desperate for a place to hide. Some crouched in a nearby cemetery. Many sought refuge in empty houses.

By morning, the highway was a mangled scene of destruction and death. Planes from the aircraft carrier USS Ranger buzzed the convoy again and again, dropping cluster bombs and whatever other munitions they could hurriedly load onto their attack planes. Marine F/A-18 jets unleashed 500-pound bombs on the stranded vehicles. Air Force F-16A fighter-bombers raced north from bases in Saudi Arabia. There were so many planes striking the convoy, pilots said, that the "killing box" had to be divided in half by air traffic controllers to avoid mid-air collisions.

U.S. pilots, and Kuwaiti civilians who witnessed the attack, were struck by the scale of its destruction. A few felt pity for the Iraqi victims or expressed mixed feelings about the one-sidedness of the bombing. But most said they thought the Iraqis were getting only what they deserved.

"I think we're past the point of just letting him get in his tanks and drive them back into Iraq and say, 'I'm sorry,' " U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. George Patrick told a media pool reporter that Tuesday as he rested between missions against the convoy. "I feel fairly punitive about it."

Navy pilot Sweigart, speaking to a reporter on the Ranger as he reloaded between attacks on the highway, said, "One side of me says, 'That's right, it's like shooting ducks in a pond.' Does that make me uncomfortable? Not necessarily. Except there is a side of me that says, 'What are they dying for? For a madman's cause? And is that fair?' Well, we're at war; it's the tragedy of war, but we do our jobs."

Kuwaiti civilians living near the highway where Sweigart's bombs exploded felt none of the pilot's ambivalence. "These people who left Kuwait at the last moment were the security forces of Iraq, the people who really controlled the city," said Kamel Awadi, a Kuwaiti marketing executive who listened to the bombing from a two-story house near the tail end of the trapped convoy. "They were the most brutal, most vicious people in Kuwait. . . . We have no pity on them, because they had no pity on anybody." Shaping World Perceptions

That Tuesday morning, while bombs exploded on the highway, senior U.S. military officers stationed far away at command headquarters in Riyadh wrestled with an unexpected problem: how to counter Iraq's surprise claim that the troops attempting to flee north from Kuwait were part of an orderly withdrawal from the emirate designed to comply with United Nations resolutions.

As the Iraqi vehicles rumbled and collided in the darkness that Monday night and early Tuesday morning, Baghdad radio announced that Iraq's government had ordered all of its troops to withdraw from Kuwait, ending months of defiant occupation.

Baghdad's pullout order posed several problems for the U.S.-led military coalition. Continued allied attacks raised the specter of a one-sided slaughter of retreating Iraqi troops, possibly complicating U.S. political problems in the Arab world. Perhaps more importantly, a successful Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait would deprive the allies of the chance to humiliate Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, destroy the remnants of his army and prevent him from posing a continued military threat in the region.

By Tuesday morning, with allied ground forces rolling into Kuwait and across southern Iraq, the total defeat of Iraq's military had become a clear but generally unstated U.S. war aim. The aim was politically sensitive because the United Nations' resolutions under which the war was organized did not go beyond the liberation of Kuwait.

As the bombing proceeded Tuesday, the U.S. responded to the Baghdad radio announcement by playing down evidence that Iraqi troops were actually leaving Kuwait, emphasizing that Iraqi forces had to abandon their weapons and armor to avoid allied firepower, and later arguing that Iraqi troop movements out of Kuwait were not a voluntary pullout but a retreat under fire.

At the same time, U.S. forces rapidly pressed a planned flanking maneuver into southern Iraq and northern Kuwait to block enemy troop movements to the north and west. The bombing of the highway was seen by commanders in the field as a part of this tactical maneuver. "We moved on them so fast they didn't have time to reinforce over there {to the north and west} or exercise their own counterattack," said Col. Bill Steed, chief of operations for the Marine Corps in Saudi Arabia, in an interview last week.

While Steed and other field commanders were calling in massive air strikes on Iraqi convoys moving out of Kuwait City on Tuesday morning, U.S. military briefers in Riyadh offered a carefully drawn, and in some respects inaccurate, picture of the fast-changing battlefield.

At 7 a.m. Tuesday, five hours after Baghdad's withdrawal announcement, a U.S. military officer emerged from the war room of U.S. Central Command headquarters to brief dozens of reporters on overnight developments. The officer, who cannot be identified under Pentagon rules, was peppered with questions about whether Iraqi troops were leaving Kuwait.

The officer said the U.S. command did not "have any real evidence of any withdrawal at this time. There are vehicles on the road, just as we've implied throughout the campaign. . . . There are still not any indications of a significant amount of movement in any direction, north or south."

Asked about reports that U.S. pilots were hammering retreating troops near Kuwait City, the officer acknowledged that the air campaign was being pressed with full force, but he repeated, "There's no significant Iraqi movements to the north."

In fact, most Iraqi troops in and around Kuwait City began to flee toward the Euphrates River on Monday night, according to Kuwaiti witnesses. U.S. military sources in Riyadh said the officer who gave the briefing believed his characterization was accurate because it was not clear as he spoke whether the Iraqis being bombed on the highway were going home to the north or heading west to reinforce the Republican Guard.

By noon Tuesday, interviews with U.S. attack pilots conducted by media pool reporters that morning and circulated on news wire services had undermined the briefer's portrait of Iraqi movements. Pilots flying bombing missions over the highway indicated that a large-scale Iraqi retreat from Kuwait was underway, and one pilot told a pool reporter that bombing the retreating Iraqis was like "shooting fish in a barrel."

As the day wore on, senior officers with the U.S. Central Command in Riyadh became worried about what they saw as a growing public perception that Iraq's forces were leaving Kuwait voluntarily and that U.S. pilots were bombing them mercilessly, according to U.S. military sources. Relaying these worries to the Pentagon as they prepared for Tuesday's scheduled televised news briefing, senior officers agreed that U.S. spokesmen needed to use forceful language to portray Iraq's claimed "withdrawal" as a fighting retreat made necessary by heavy allied military pressure.

That strategy became evident in Saudia Arabia at 4:45 p.m. Tuesday (8:45 a.m. in Washington) when President Bush stepped into the White House Rose Garden to make a brief and hastily arranged televised statement saying the war would continue despite Baghdad's withdrawal announcement, that Iraq could not be trusted, that Iraqi troops were retreating under pressure, not voluntarily withdrawing, and that Saddam Hussein was attempting to achieve a political victory from a military rout. Bush vowed that the Iraqi president would not be permitted such a propaganda victory.

The president's statement was followed quickly by a televised military briefing from Saudi Arabia, which had been postponed earlier, apparently to accomodate the White House announcement. At the Saudi briefing, Brig. Gen. Richard Neal emphasized that Iraqi forces were not withdrawing, but were being pushed from the battlefield.

"Saddam Hussein has described what is occurring as a withdrawal," Neal said. "By definition, a withdrawal is when you pull your forces back, not under pressure by the attacking forces. Retreat is when you're required to pull your forces back as required by the action of the attacking forces. The Iraqi army is in full retreat."

In fact, however, tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers in and around Kuwait City had begun to pull away more than 36 hours before allied forces reached the capital.

While the Iraqi troops may have pulled out because they were battered by allied bombing and fearful of a ground attack, they did not move out under any immediate pressure from allied tanks and infantry, which still were miles from Kuwait City.

The U.S. Army's Tiger Brigade did attack the paralyzed Iraqi convoy on the road from Kuwait City on Tuesday afternoon, but only after hours of relentless air strikes had pinned down the fleeing Iraqi vehicles. Units of the 2nd Marine Division also reached the road from Kuwait on Tuesday and began striking it with artillery and tanks. Capturing the highway intersection controlling entrance to Kuwait City was a primary objective "from day one," said Lt. Gen. Walter Boomer, the Marine commander in Operation Desert Storm. Souvenirs of Destruction

These days, the "highway of death" is Kuwait's main tourist attraction. Kuwaitis in traditional robes and headdresses tote video cameras up and down the highway to record the devastation. U.S., British and Arab coalition soldiers tour the mayhem and take snapshots of each other alongside junked tanks, armored personnel carriers and other vehicles.

Hand grenades still in plastic wrappers lie strewn on the ground alongside a school bus packed with ammunition boxes and pencils and other school supplies. Other loot included children's story books, bags of flour and rice, suitcases stuffed with clothes, new athletic shoes, women's high heels and a dirty white wedding dress that someone had tied to the doors of a military ambulance.

Several groups of U.S. and British soldiers on a recent day were trying to remove Iraqi tanks and armored personnel carriers for their units' museums, and some Kuwaitis were trying to recover civilian cars and vans that they claimed had been stolen from them by the Iraqis.

U.S. soldiers cleaning up the damage said they were satisfied justice had been done on the highway. "It was like a robbery," said Staff Sgt. Casey Carson of the Tiger Brigade. "It was like we were the police force, and these guys got caught trying to burglarize a house."

Asked what he thought about the destruction all about him, Marine Lt. Roy Blizzard replied: "The thing that really bothered me was that in every track, you could see a bag of loot. . . . They made us come here and do it. They should have listened to the president and left."

Coll reported from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Branigin from Kuwait. Staff writer Molly Moore with U.S. Marines contributed to this report.