If the Sunni Muslim insurgents lurking west of Baghdad decide to rush the Iraqi capital, Ahmed Ali knows the quickest route runs past his fruit stand.
Peering at the highway over mounds of watermelon and bananas, Ali watches Iraqi army pickup trucks and personnel carriers race by — headed, he hopes, toward a battle somewhere.
"I feel relief when I see them," said Ali, a Shiite Muslim in his 50s who took refuge in Abu Ghraib this year after insurgents seized his village. "Somehow, I feel the security forces will protect me."
Facing a methodical onslaught by an Al Qaeda splinter group and antigovernment militants, soldiers, police and Shiite militias are digging in around Baghdad and at strategic points outside the capital in a desperate bid to prevent the pillars of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's Shiite-dominated government from falling to the insurgents.
With the deployment of security forces, bolstered by tens of thousands of volunteer fighters, Iraqi military officials say, Baghdad is not in immediate danger of a major attack. U.S. officials are less certain. Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said this week that as the insurgents "continue to press into central and southern Iraq … they are still a legitimate threat to Baghdad."
Iraqi forces have appeared to gain momentum in recent days and continued a fierce counterattack Friday in the predominantly Sunni Arab city of Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, which insurgents seized June 11.
On Thursday, army helicopters airlifted commandos into a Tikrit university in a daring operation that could signal an effort to retake the strategic city, which is between the contested oil refinery at Baiji and Samarra, home to one of Iraq's most revered Shiite shrines.
As government troops battled on multiple fronts, Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, demanded Friday that lawmakers agree on candidates for prime minister, president and parliament speaker before the legislative body meets next week. Sistani's remarks raised pressure on Maliki, who is fighting for a third term despite growing calls for him to step aside.
The scope of the militant threat to Baghdad is apparent in Abu Ghraib, a bustling town less than a half hour's drive from the capital and best known for the prison where U.S. soldiers a decade ago took photos of Iraqi detainees being humiliated.
A few minutes south sits Baghdad International Airport, one of the military's most important installations; 15 miles farther west is insurgent-held Fallouja and the vast expanse of Sunni-dominated Anbar province, much of which also has slipped from government control.
Since seizing Fallouja in January, the militants, led by the Al Qaeda offshoot known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, have crept closer to the center of Abu Ghraib, taking up positions in palm groves, planting roadside bombs and booby-trapping houses barely a mile from the army brigade headquarters.
"They have only one goal: to make Baghdad and Iraq collapse," said Brig. Gen. Ahmed Kadhim Hashim, deputy commander of the brigade in charge of Abu Ghraib.
Hashim's forces struck the insurgents several times this week with mortar shells and rockets after learning that they were attempting to move closer to the center of Abu Ghraib. On Thursday, the brigade conducted a major raid on the village of Sheik Abu Majid, four miles north, sending hundreds of infantry soldiers in armored vehicles into a six-hour battle that cleared the village of insurgents, Hashim said.
According to the military, no Iraqi soldiers were injured. Officials said they suspected they had killed many insurgents, but they didn't consider the village secure enough to venture into afterward to check. After being embarrassed in cities like Tikrit and Mosul — where two army divisions dropped their weapons and fled as the insurgents advanced — Hashim said Iraqi security forces were reconstituting themselves in key locations. But U.S. officials don't believe the army can immediately recapture large amounts of territory from the insurgents, mainly because of a near-total lack of air power.
The Pentagon said Friday that it would speed the delivery of 800 Hellfire missiles to Iraq, but a fleet of 36 F-16 fighter jets Iraq purchased from the United States won't arrive until at least September. Maliki has lashed out at the "long-winded" U.S. procurement process and announced he would buy secondhand jets from Russia and Belarus in the meantime.
In Hashim's office, an aide picked up a glossy Defense Ministry publication with an F-16 on the cover and smiled weakly.
"I thought we already had these," the aide said.
Iraqi forces still hope for U.S. airstrikes, a prospect President Obama has not ruled out, although officials say he is likely to wait until the 180 U.S. military advisors who deployed to Baghdad this week have had time to assess the insurgents before ordering any attack.
For now, despite years of U.S. training and a force strength of about 1 million, Iraqi soldiers and police are trying to defend their government with what one Western official dubbed a "bubble-gum-and-duct-tape" operation.
In Abu Ghraib, despite tracking the militants for several months, Hashim said his unit didn't have even a rough estimate of their numbers. The surveillance camera mounted in a balloon over his area of operations often gets disrupted by the weather. To date, he said, the best intelligence he's received about the makeup of the insurgent groups nearby came a few weeks ago, from an anonymous resident inside a militant-held village, who sent him an unsolicited Internet message.
The troops have many civilians on their side, including the volunteer fighters who heeded an order by Sistani to help government forces. More than 3,500 of them turned up to fight in Abu Ghraib alone, Hashim said. In the battle for Sheik Abu Majid, villagers including women and elderly men brought the soldiers food and water.
The troops also have support from Shiite militias loyal to Maliki, led by Asaib Ahl al Haq, or the League of Righteousness, whose fighters have been accused of kidnapping and killing Sunni civilians. They are a common sight in Abu Ghraib now — young men dressed in black T-shirts or unmarked camouflage, racing along the highway in mud-caked pickup trucks with machine guns mounted in the back.
The town was deeply scarred by Iraq's civil war and remains largely divided between Shiites, many of whom live in a central enclave ringed by concrete barriers, and Sunnis, living on the outskirts. At the entrances to the Shiite neighborhood, Asaib fighters usually man the checkpoints.
Not everyone is thrilled about their presence. At the mayor's office, a bearded young policeman pulled a Times journalist aside and asked for information about Asaib. His name was Omar, he explained — often identified as Sunni. "If they see my name, they'll get me," he said.
A 35-year-old Sunni laborer who asked to be identified only by his nickname, Abu Luay, said he also had grown worried about the proliferation of Shiite militiamen, including fighters he judged to be part of the officially disbanded militia of the firebrand anti-American cleric, Muqtada Sadr.
"They are wearing civilian clothes, driving pickups and Toyotas, and yet they are doing what the army is supposed to do," he said. "It doesn't seem normal."
From his home, near the road leading to the army brigade headquarters, Abu Luay often sees the soldiers and said he has come to respect them. Yet when he watches Sunni television channels, ISIS and its allies are described as rebels fighting for their rights against a Shiite-led government — a cause he sympathizes with.
"I believe the brigade is good and will keep the rebels from going deep into Abu Ghraib," he said. "But in my heart, I swear, I don't know whether to stand with the army or the insurgents."