TIKRIT, Iraq—It's midnight and Col. James Hickey, commander of the 4th Armored Division's 1st Brigade, is riding through Saddam Hussein's dangerous hometown in a door-less Humvee.
Hickey is making his rounds in Operation Ivy Cyclone II, one of two major offensives intended to blunt hit-and-run guerrilla attacks vexing the U.S.-led occupation.
On a computer screen, blue dots representing tanks, helicopters and self-propelled artillery move around a map of Tikrit in real time, their progress logged by satellites. The colonel points out fields, vacant lots and buildings used as mortar launch sites, meeting places and cover for ambushes—the targets for the evening.
The blue dots converge. The shooting starts. It's a spectacular show of firepower, but it's not clear what the missions accomplish, either in Baghdad or the Sunni triangle north and west of the capital, where another guerrilla-suppression drive is underway.
"We're going to complicate their battlefield," said Hickey. "We want the enemy to know they have no sanctuary."
In seven days of Ivy Cyclone and 13 days of Iron Hammer, a second, Baghdad-centered operation conducted by the 1st Armored Division, the military has launched hundreds of raids, swept through thousands of buildings, destroyed dozens of them, detained more than 200 people and seized truckloads of arms.
The purpose is "to deny the enemy the opportunity to stage weapons against us," said Brig. Gen. Mark Dempsey, commander of the Baghdad operation. "We want to communicate to the enemy that the cost of actions against us is high."
But critics of this new get-tough policy say it may backfire.
"The increasing American violence may lead to the killing or arrest of some resistance fighters," said Dr. Wamid Nadmi, a professor of political science at Baghdad University. "But the other side is this will increase the people's rage against the Americans, especially those people whose homes are being destroyed or family members are being killed."
Mostly what's attacked are empty buildings and vacant lots. Shooting them up "will make the enemy think twice" about whether they're safe, Dempsey said. He noted that civilians near the sites are evacuated before attacks begin.
But in at least three instances in Tikrit and one in Baghdad, families of suspected guerillas were hauled out of their homes moments before tanks and helicopters reduced them to rubble. Amnesty International on Thursday condemned the Israeli-style tactic.
"The U.S. government should clarify whether it has officially permitted house demolitions as a form of collective punishment or deterrence," said the group in a letter to the U.S. government. If so, "it would constitute a clear violation of international humanitarian law."
U.S. commanders insist the tactics are within the rules of war. They said insurgents used the homes for planning and refuge.
"In every one of the structures we attacked, we had strong intelligence it was used to harbor terrorists," said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmett, the military's chief spokesman in Baghdad.
The intelligence, often a product of earlier raids, isn't always solid, however.
The operations run in cycles: U.S. units conduct raids, take prisoners and interrogate them. Based on information from the questioning, they identify new targets, destroy them, conduct raids and take more prisoners. The cycle repeats itself.
"It's a work in progress," Dempsey said.
Dempsey said the raids in Baghdad have identified several cells of resistance—leaders, deputies, planners, suppliers and operatives. Soldiers have arrested some members of the cell responsible for the rocketing of the Al Rashid Hotel that killed one soldier, he said.
Often, the fight against guerrillas is deeply mystifying: an "asymmetrical" fight, the military calls it, without battle lines, in which U.S. soldiers with night vision, satellites and lasers grapple with insurgents who launch rockets from donkey carts.
"The enemy is weak," said Hickey. "But he's resourceful."
On Saturday terrorists set off two suicide bombs at Iraqi police stations northeast of Baghdad in the villages of Baqouba and Khan Bani Saad, killing at least 12. A private cargo plane also landed at Baghdad International Airport with a wing on fire, reportedly hit by a shoulder-fired missile. The incident further unnerves contractors, aide workers and journalists who must choose between Baghdad flights and 12-hour trips to Jordan over bandit-infested roads.
U.S. commanders have been responding to attacks with heavy force: C-130 gunships, Apache helicopters, Abrams tanks, Paladin howitzers, F-16s and satellite-guided missiles.
Consequently, generals endure endless questions from the world press about the need to use expensive, high-powered weapons to destroy derelict buildings.
"This is not a show of force," Dempsey said. "If you (a resistance fighter) are out there shooting rockets, it's going to give you pause."
On Thursday, he said rocket attacks in Baghdad had dropped by about 70 percent since Iron Hammer began. The next day, however, rockets fired from donkey carts struck two downtown hotels and the Oil Ministry. Only one person was seriously injured.
The military said the attacks had no tactical value, were intended to attract headlines. The "attack of the donkeys," as some military personnel referred to the strikes, illustrates the need to continue offensive operations and root out resistance cells, military officials said.
In one 24-hour period around Tikrit on Tuesday and Wednesday the 4th Infantry Division launched 42 attacks, destroyed 26 buildings, took out four suspected guerilla training camps and fired on 16 mortar-launching sites and four ambush sites.
In seven days, the division killed three guerilla fighters, wounded five and took 100 prisoners. Soldiers searched more than 3,000 buildings, seizing nearly 400 mortar and tanks rounds, 145 AK-47s and other assorted arms
In one raid in Baghdad on Nov. 16, 1st Armored Division soldiers arrested 28 suspects in the sweeps including a man they identified as a former general of the Republican Guard. Inside the general's house, they said, soldiers discovered a mural depicting a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. They also found 37 AK-47s, seven 60mm mortar rounds, 10 pistols, two shotguns, four hand grenades and the rocket propelled grenade launchers.
The sweeps have a side effect, however: They generate fear and anger among Iraqi civilians.
At about 2 a.m. Friday, for example, soldiers forced their way into the apartment of Knight-Ridder translator Omar al Dulame, his wife and their four month old baby, Sarah.
They were looking for someone named Abu Sarah, meaning father of Sarah. There are thousands of fathers called that.
Thinking the men were looters, Dulame tried to keep the men out.
"I'm glad I didn't get my gun; I thought they were thieves," he said. "I would have been killed."
Dulame was able to convince the soldiers of his identity—"Thank God I speak English"—and was later released with an apology.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.