TIKRIT, Iraq—In a tactic reminiscent of Israeli crackdowns in the West Bank and Gaza, the U.S. military has begun destroying the homes of suspected guerrilla fighters in Iraq's Sunni Triangle, evacuating women and children, then leveling their houses with heavy weaponry.
At least 15 homes have been destroyed in Tikrit as part of what has been dubbed Operation Ivy Cyclone II, including four leveled on Sunday by tanks and Apache helicopters that allegedly belonged to suspects in the Nov. 7 downing of a Black Hawk helicopter that killed six Americans.
Family members at one of the houses, in the village of al Haweda, said they were given five minutes to evacuate before soldiers opened fire.
The destruction of the homes is part of a sharp crackdown on insurgents in the so-called Sunni Triangle where guerrillas have downed at least two U.S. helicopters, one a Chinook in Fallujah on Nov. 2, killing 16 U.S. soldiers, and the other the Nov. 7 downing of the Black Hawk. On Saturday, two more helicopters crashed, after one of them may have been fired upon, killing 17.
U.S. forces struck dozens of targets on Monday, killing six guerrillas and arresting 21 others, the military said. The operation is expected to continue through Wednesday, said Col. James Hickey, commander of the 1st Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division.
Hickey said the four homes were destroyed on Sunday because enemy fighters lived and met there. Leveling the homes will force the fighters to find other meeting places, he said.
"Those four people used those houses as sanctuary, and we're not allowing them to have sanctuary," Hickey said.
"We're going to turn the heat up and complicate their battlefield," driving them into the desert, he said. "There they will be exposed and we will have them."
It was unclear whether the decision to destroy the houses was part of an overall strategy approved in Washington. White House spokesman Scott McClellan declined to comment specifically, referring questions about the razings to the Defense Department, but he praised the military's efforts to get tough with Iraqi insurgents.
``There are terrorists who are seeking to spread fear and chaos in Iraq, and we are on the offensive and taking the fight to the enemy,'' McClellan said. ``Our coalition forces are doing an outstanding job working with Iraqis to bring these terrorists to justice.''
Officials at the Department of Defense referred questions to Central Command in Tampa, which oversees all military operations in Iraq. Spokesmen there declined to comment.
On Monday, angry residents of al Haweda, where three of the destroyed homes were, said the tactic will spawn more guerrilla fighters and perhaps spark an Iraqi uprising similar to the Palestinian intifada in the West Bank and Gaza.
"This is something Sharon would do," said 41-year-old farmer Jamel Shahab, referring to the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon. "What's happening in Iraq is just like Palestine."
Shahab stood amidst the rubble of the former home of 55-year-old farmer Omar Khalil, who was arrested shortly before the home was destroyed. The military said Khalil's son, who escaped, is one of the suspects in the downing of the Black Hawk.
Khalil's wife, Kafey, sat wailing near her wrecked house. "I have no son. I have no husband. I have no home. I will be a beggar."
Kafey Khalil said military officials first visited the house two days ago, demanding that her husband turn in her son. He refused.
Then at about 10 p.m. Sunday, the military returned, she said.
"They started shouting at us, `Get up! Get out!''' she said. "They brought a big truck for us. It was so cold we felt like we were dying. After five minutes they started shooting. We didn't have time to get anything but blankets. They brought in the tanks and the helicopters and started bombing."
After the shooting stopped, the women and children were released and were left at the scene, they said. They were sifting through the wreckage on Monday, attempting to salvage what few items remained.
Two other homes nearby were also in shambles. What walls remained were pierced by tank rounds. A small boy held up what was left of the family's TV set.
In the backyard of one home, a cow lay dead, its stomach split open by a large caliber round, its unborn calf half-exposed. A dog limped nearby, a piece of shrapnel protruding from its body.
Tank tracks had churned up the sandy earth. Spent 5-inch-long shell casings littered the ground. Boys collected them and displayed handfuls to journalists.
The Israeli military's practice of demolishing the homes of families of convicted or suspected terrorists has brought widespread condemnation from human rights and other governments—including the United States.
The State Department's 2002 human rights report, released in March, said such policies "left hundreds of Palestinians not involved in terror attacks homeless." In September, department spokesman Richard Boucher criticized Israel for destroying a seven-story apartment building in Gaza during a raid on a suspected Hamas militant.
There was no official reaction in Washington.
A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, suggested Monday that the tactic was not sanctioned in Washington. "I can't wait to see al-Jazeera's presentation of it," the official said, referring to a satellite TV network viewed widely throughout the Middle East.
The military had promised a tough crackdown in response to the recent surge in American military deaths and has launched two operations, Operation Iron Hammer around Baghdad and Ivy Cyclone in the heart of the Sunni Triangle.
Hickey said counterstrikes against fighters around Tikrit have been continuous, but that Ivy Cyclone Two represents a higher level of coordination using more advanced weapons.
For example, Sunday night's action included the launching of a missile from Baghdad, 55 miles away, at the abandoned home of former Saddam henchman Izzat Ibrahim al Duri, who is No. 6 on the coalition's most-wanted list. A reporter and photographer from Knight Ridder were allowed to witness the destruction, which was completed by laser-guided artillery fire.
Hickey said al Duri's house was destroyed to deny guerrillas a meeting place, though it was unclear that such high-tech weaponry was needed to destroy the structure, which appeared completely looted.
Hickey said soldiers had been instructed to make sure to evacuate innocent civilians nearby. Near al Duri's house, two men, four children and two babies were shivering in near-freezing temperatures in the back of a truck, given just a few minutes to flee their neighboring farm.
"We know exactly what we're shooting at and why we're shooting it," Hickey said. "Collateral damage won't be a problem."
Military officials said the targets around Tikrit and Kirkuk also have included enemy mortar sites and a suspected insurgent training camp. The camp, on an island in the Little Zab River west of Kirkuk, was hit Sunday morning by a satellite-guided missile with a 500-pound warhead fired 130 miles from a Baghdad launch site.
Hickey promised no letup in the campaign. He also promised to deal harshly with weapons violations. "If we see someone with a weapon," he said, "he becomes a ballistics test," meaning the man is shot.
"You won't see guns in Tikrit," he said.
(Warren Strobel in Washington contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ