Ances Najim hovered anxiously as Iraqi soldiers peered into the trunk of his car and clambered up a wall to see what was stashed in a neighbor's courtyard.
When an officer informed him the search was done, the lawyer broke into a wide grin and readily signed a form confirming that nothing was taken from his home.
"It's the first time that the Iraqi army has come in here, and nobody hit me, nobody broke anything," Najim, a Sunni Arab, said incredulously. "This will make the area more secure, and the terrorists will be finished."
The Shiite Muslim-led soldiers and policemen waging a massive crackdown in troubled Diyala province are not the ramshackle, sectarian-driven forces of two years ago. The troops are more disciplined, their operations more carefully planned, and they rattle off the current counterinsurgency doctrine with an ease that would impress its author, U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus.
But these are some of the elite units of the Iraqi security forces, and the ongoing crackdown has so far posed few major challenges. When bombs explode and mortar rounds rain down, the Iraqis turn to U.S.-led forces for help. "We can do small operations without the Americans," said an Iraqi sergeant named Ali who is with the brigade that searched Najim's house. "But . . . should they leave the country? No."
How long American troops should remain in Iraq has become a central issue in the U.S. presidential campaign and has dominated discussions on future relations between the countries.
Buoyed by recent military successes, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has demanded a withdrawal timetable. Provided security continues to improve, U.S. negotiators are willing to pull combat troops out of Iraqi cities by June and the rest of the country by 2011. But commanders warn that Iraqi troops will continue to need U.S. intelligence, air support, firepower and other backup.
"Our assistance may change in organization and size over the coming months or years, but some form of partnership and assistance consistent with strategic objectives is still necessary," Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik, former head of the U.S. training effort in Iraq, told the House Armed Services Committee in July.
Despite having directed major campaigns such as the one in Diyala, the Iraqi military faces leadership shortcomings. Soldiers say that fresh thinking and efficiency are discouraged in a system where advancement depends as much on money and connections as on ability.
Iraqi officers complain to their U.S. advisors that they must pay up to $5,000 in bribes to Iraqi defense officials to secure a spot at the officer training academy and up to $30,000 to be named a general. Many raise cash by siphoning funds that should be spent on food, fuel and other supplies.
The army's deficiencies were brought into sharp relief when Maliki launched the first of a string of crackdowns in the spring, provoking a fierce backlash from militiamen loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr in the southern oil hub of Basra and parts of Baghdad.
About 3,000 members of locally recruited army and police units in Basra dropped their weapons, shed their uniforms and fled, U.S. officers said. The militia uprising was curbed only with the help of U.S.-led firepower and Iraqi units sent from outside the province.
Maliki's subsequent operations have appeared more carefully planned. His commanders say they are willing to take U.S. advice, but do not want Americans telling them what to do.
The Iraqi Ground Forces Command did not share details of its plans in Diyala until July 29, the day the command launched a province-wide operation.
At a meeting that afternoon, command chief Lt. Gen. Ali Gaidan Majid ran through his battle plan as an aide with a laser pointer identified troop positions on a giant, three-dimensional map built on the floor of a U.S. gymnasium. The Americans were impressed.
"The fact that the Iraqis briefed their plan right at the beginning and basically took charge of the meeting shows how far they have come," said Lt. Col. Douglas Sims of the U.S. Army's 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, which is also conducting operations in Diyala.
Leading the government charge in Diyala is the 1st Iraqi Army Division, the first division formed by U.S. forces after disbanding Saddam Hussein's army in 2003.
Its soldiers have fought in some of the toughest battles of the last five years in Fallouja, Ramadi and Mosul. And it has recruited members across the country, making the division one of the army's most ethnically and religiously diverse.
The division's American advisors say the Iraqis use their ties with local communities to gather intelligence. They plan and execute operations and can deploy at a moment's notice, with minimal U.S. support.
The main thing the Iraqis lack is air and artillery support. They haven't needed much of that in Diyala, but their experience in Basra showed how critical it can be.
When Maliki launched the surprise operation on March 25, Sadr's militiamen pounded government forces with bomb blasts and rocket, mortar and sniper fire. A battalion from the 1st Division's 1st Brigade was the only army unit left standing in the city with a contingent of national policemen and Iraqi special forces.
Pinned down at a police station, the 2nd Battalion was outmanned and outgunned but kept firing. Things got better when a team of Marine advisors arrived two days later and started calling in air and artillery strikes.
"I will be honest," said the battalion commander, a hulking colonel in a Marine flight suit and aviator glasses who asked to be identified as Imad. "Without the American support, we would not have accomplished the mission."
The brigade saw four soldiers killed and 47 wounded in Basra. But the toll would have been worse without U.S. medevac flights and treatment facilities. The local hospitals were controlled by Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.
Maliki avoided another major showdown by announcing subsequent operations in advance, giving insurgents time to lay down their weapons before sending in troops.
"It's kind of a media op, which is probably having the same effect with fewer casualties than if they turned up and just started clearing," said Marine Lt. Col. Chuck Western, chief advisor to the 1st Division's 1st Brigade.
However, the strategy also frustrates U.S. commanders, and some Iraqi ones, who prefer to maintain the element of surprise so they can capture or kill opponents. Many militant leaders have slipped away ahead of the offensives.
A string of recent car bombings and suicide attacks in Mosul, nearby Tall Afar and the Diyala provincial capital, Baqubah, could signal that some Sunni fighters are regrouping. The main challenge in Diyala has been the number of bombs hidden along roads and in abandoned homes. The Iraqi army does not have the armored route-clearance vehicles used by Americans; one officer disarmed dozens of them with a pair of scissors.
Division commander Brig. Gen. Adel Abbas worries about what will happen in Diyala when his troops leave. If local forces "take a nap again," he said, "we will be wasting our time."