At a recent dinner party in a Baghdad home, five tribal leaders from the central Iraqi city of Ramadi complained about their city "being held hostage" by Iraqi insurgents.
"They spoke of a life of no law but that of the extremists - no police, no government presence, and kidnappings and killings of people accused of spying for the government," their Baghdad dinner host recalls. "But what they wanted to know is how long the [Iraqi] government and the Americans are going to leave Ramadi and other towns like it as places apart."
It's a frequently asked question among Iraqis as the US military says the "anti-Iraq forces" are more sophisticated and control more territory than a year ago. But no major move is expected before November, say US and Iraqi officials - in part because Iraqi forces aren't ready. Iraqi officials say American presidential politics are also preventing a major offensive now.
Iraqi forces and the American military are increasing their surgical, often retaliatory, strikes into towns like Ramadi, Fallujah, and Samarra, where forces of Islamic extremists and of the former regime hold varying degrees of power and sway. Some have become "no-go" zones.
Iraq's interim government announced Saturday night that its forces had begun "military operations against terrorists" in the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Fallujah and in Tal Afar in the north. Sunday, Brig. Gen. Carter Ham told the Washington Post that about 200 fighters remained in Tal Afar, and the general expected the insurgents would be driven out in "a week."
State Minister Kasim Daoud said the operations were being carried out in conjunction with American and other multi- national forces.
But with Iraq's security forces still in the building stage, the task of purging Iraq's trouble spots at this stage would largely fall to the Americans. So far they show no signs of undertaking the full military offensives that many here say will be necessary.
US and Iraqi officials offer differing perspectives on why the extremist bases are being tolerated. Last week Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld placed any decision to terminate the insurgents' presence by force squarely on Iraqi shoulders, saying it was a decision for interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
On Friday, Mr. Rumsfeld said in Washington that the extremist enclaves would "eventually" be brought under Iraqi authority. "We know what will take place in Fallujah, and that is that it will be restored as something under the control of the Iraqi government eventually. What we don't know," he added, "is whether it will be done peacefully or by force."
If force is necessary, US officials say they want properly trained and equipped Iraqi forces to lead the charge and hold the cities afterwards. But they add that sufficient forces aren't yet ready.
Yet while Iraqi officials agree that their forces are not yet up to the task, they also say the Americans are reluctant to undertake any offensive before the Nov. 2 presidential election - and especially any offensive that would almost certainly entail heavy civilian and US military losses.
"We do have the problem of the American election, it complicates even more a very complex period over the next few months," says Sabah Kadhim, Interior Ministry spokesman. "I would prefer they deal with Fallujah first, but if it doesn't work or the consequences are high, it's a big political problem."
Some critics of any go-slow policy towards the insurgents say it would be wrong for the Bush administration to take that stance as part of a political calculation - especially with the extremists growing in power, and given that rooting out the terrorist threat is one of the administration's chief justifications for the war.
But US officials here say the counterinsurgency strategy has always been to win back the trouble spots as much as possible through nonmilitary means - by putting an emphasis on political and economic efforts, and winning local populations over to the Iraqi government.
"The goal is to help the Iraqi interim government gain control of those cities as soon as possible" while at the same time "we make every effort to avoid major military confrontations," says Brig. Gen. Erwin Lessel, deputy director for operations of the multinational forces in Iraq. "The more reconstruction and economic progress you have, the population migrates towards the government and away from supporting the anti-Iraq forces."
Sounding a similar note, Minister Daoud says counter-insurgency efforts are "working on two parallel lines - political and military."
The plan is to bring as many problem areas as possible under Iraqi government authority by December - just before the big January test of national elections. By that time Iraq is expected to have recruited, trained, and deployed many more security forces.
Right now Iraq has six operational army battalions, for example, but by the end of December that is to jump to 27, US officials say. That should leave the Iraqi military in a much stronger position to confront accelerated efforts to destabilize the country as it moves towards planned elections.
"By December, as many more Iraqi security forces become available, the government will be in a much better position to conduct police and military operations," says General Lessel. "As capacity continues to increase in terms of number and quality, the Iraqi government and security forces stand a much improved chance of enabling the election process to go forward."
Some counterinsurgent military actions are under way. Iraqi forces have recently carried out missions in several small towns south of Baghdad that have been the site of high-profile kidnappings. And last week US forces returned to the insurgent bastion of Samarra for the first time in five months, working a deal with new local leaders to resume patrols and reconstruction projects.
Both initiatives are significant - the operations in Mahmudiya and Latifiyah south of Baghdad because they were spearheaded by Iraqi forces, and the Samarra mission because it aims to "bring back" a town that had fallen under extremist forces.
Mr. Kadhim of the Interior Ministry says the Mahmudiya operation is a "prototype" that will be used elsewhere against other trouble spots in coming weeks.
But they don't yet offset the insurgents' ability to slip from one stronghold to another. "Right now you hit them in one place and they pop up somewhere else," says Lessel. "You want to take away the safe havens so eventually they don't have any place to go to."
Military officials here hold up as another model last month's agreement in Najaf - where fighters loyal to anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr agreed after three weeks of fighting to leave the city. That has allowed nearly $6 million in reconstruction projects to resume. The US plans to infuse the city with at least $37 million more.
Lessel says the US and the Iraqis have a four-pronged strategy to defeat the insurgency, including political efforts, economic activity, informing the public, and military action.
That scenario fits with history's lessons, according to counterinsurgency experts, who say insurgencies cannot be defeated by repression alone.
But a growing number of Iraqis - including the Baghdadi who hosted the five Ramadi tribal leaders at dinner - say they fear the consequences of only defensive or retaliatory strikes on the extremists. "We have a saying in Iraq - If you want to hit, hit hard," says the host, who asked to remain anonymous for his own safety. "Anything less only encourages and strengthens them."
At the same time, critics say the Najaf agreement merely dispersed Mr. Sadr's Mahdi Army to be confronted in other locations. Indeed, skirmishes between US and Mahdi forces continued in Baghdad's Sadr City slum over the weekend.
And critics also point to the US military's decision in April to pull back from a full-scale assault on Fallujah. The ramifications, they say, include the advances that extremist Islamic forces are making today.
Fallujah is the center of operations and support for radical Islamist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian considered to be Al Qaeda's chief representative and commander in Iraq.
As part of the April pullout the Marines created what was called the Fallujah Brigade of mostly Saddam military loyalists who were supposed to keep the Islamists in check. Instead, even military officials now agree that simply left a "vacuum" of authority that allowed the extremist influence to spread to places like Samarra.
Having been equipped and remunerated by the US, the Fallujah Brigade ended up largely working with the town's insurgents. The Brigade was finally disbanded last week - at about the same time the US was negotiating the return of government authorities and a US presence to Samarra, where the banners of Mr. Zarqawi's allies now wave.
Perhaps the biggest doubt hanging over a strategy of holding off on action against the extremist strongholds until Iraqi forces are ready is the impact this might have on plans for elections. Any postponement might run afoul of leaders of Iraq's majority Shiite population who strong-armed the Americans to agree to elections no later than January.
Now some officials are holding out the possibility of proceeding to elections everywhere but in a few worst trouble spots - even if that risks raising questions about their legitimacy or "national" nature. "We will be very disappointed if that happens," says Interior's Kadhim, "but if we can have elections in all but one or two isolated areas that have to simmer down a little, I don't think that will be too damaging."