TIKRIT, Iraq—The decision to destroy at least a dozen homes belonging to family members of guerrilla suspects in and around Tikrit was "within the rules of war" and was approved by the commander of the 4th Infantry Division and probably by the overall commander for U.S. forces in Iraq, a spokesman for the division said Tuesday.
But some military officers acknowledged that the tactic had caused debate over whether it would inflame opposition rather than tamp it down. One officer referred to the demolitions as "unprecedented."
The destruction of the homes is a sensitive issue because the tactic resembles a controversial Israeli practice of destroying the houses of families of suicide bombers in the West Bank and Gaza. The U.S. State Department previously has denounced the Israeli actions.
U.S. forces destroyed the homes on Sunday and Monday, after evacuating women and children, as part of an aggressive crackdown on anti-U.S. guerrilla forces. Those forces have shot down at least two helicopters in recent weeks and planted scores, if not hundreds, of roadside bombs in the area known as the Sunni Triangle.
Military officials on Tuesday lowered the number of houses destroyed to 12 from 15. There was no information on whether more houses had been destroyed Tuesday as U.S. forces pressed their offensive.
Division spokesman Maj. Gordon Tate said Tuesday's operations included F-15 and F-16 jets dropping a dozen 500-pound bombs on targets around Baquba, northeast of Baghdad, in the heaviest bombardment in north-central Iraq since President Bush declared an end to major combat on May 1.
"There have been numerous raids, numerous strikes and several aerial attacks," Tate said.
U.S. soldiers attacked other targets with Apache helicopters, artillery, Paladin howitzers and mortars. It was the fiercest display of firepower in the three days of the crackdown so far.
"We don't just destroy their homes for no reason," Tate said. "I don't want to say they (military commanders) are cold-hearted. But if your house is used to make IEDs (homemade roadside bombs) or house Saddam loyalists, that's within the rules of warfare."
Tate described the destruction of the houses as a policy "shift" approved by division commander Gen. Raymond Odierno. Odierno was not available for comment. Tate said he assumed the overall commander in Iraq, Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, had approved the demolitions since a change in policy "would have to come from him."
Col. William Darley, a coalition spokesman in Iraq, said he didn't know if Sanchez had approved the demolitions. "We're trying to find out," he said. Sanchez wasn't available for comment.
Hamed Hmode, a member of the U.S.-appointed Tikrit governing council, on Tuesday condemned the demolitions and said the council is considering demonstrations against them.
"How can a great state like the United States be so shallow?" Hmode said. "We are wondering why they stooped to this level. It is winter, and they are putting innocent women and children in the street."
Hmode said the council was informed of the demolitions after the fact. "It was too late" to protest, Hmode said. "What could we do?"
Soldiers reduced the houses to rubble with large caliber rounds from Apache helicopters and tanks while families watched in near-freezing temperatures. In some cases, the residents, mostly women and children, were given five minutes to evacuate. The soldiers left the families to be cared for by neighbors and relatives.
It was unclear whether the policy shift affects areas outside the control of the 4th Infantry Division. The commander of the 82nd Airborne division, which controls much of the Sunni Triangle, including the flashpoint towns of Fallujah and Ramadi, said his forces have destroyed only one residence.
Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack said his soldiers destroyed the house because guerrilla fighters were building roadside bombs there. He didn't criticize the actions in Tikrit, noting that the new get-tough policy doesn't exclude any action that falls within the rules of war.
"There are no holds barred," he said.
But one coalition official said on condition of anonymity that razing the homes has caused concerns. "We have our reservations because it raises the issues of the Israeli situation," the official said.
The official said the action might be more understandable in Tikrit because it is Saddam Hussein's hometown and a number of pro-Saddam fighters, financiers and leaders would be concentrated there.
"It sounds like they were trying to send a message," the official said.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.