In the fertile "bread basket" of central Iraq's Diyala valley, roadside-bomb attacks have nearly stopped.
This ethnically complex patchwork of towns, villages, fields, and orchards, which US commanders call a "little Iraq," has seen its share of insurgent activity since 2003. But nowadays, the local Sunni Arabs appear inclined to climb aboard the US-backed political process, rather than trying to derail it through violence.
The relative peace in the breadbasket is the result of a carefully managed transition from US to Iraqi security responsibility, US and Iraqi commanders say.
While roadside-bomb attacks in July were down more than 30 percent compared to the same month last year, the drop has been especially drastic in August. The local Iraqi Army unit, the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Brigade, officially took the lead in a roughly 1,158 square-mile battle space, containing nearly 300,000 residents, on July 31.
"We're responsible for actual security, and it is going well," says the unit's commander, Col. Theya Ismail al-Tamimi, a former intelligence officer under Saddam Hussein who has gained the Americans' respect by keeping constant pressure on the insurgents. "Attacks are a fraction of what they were," says Colonel Theya, as he is known to both his own troops and the Americans.
US troops recently closed down one of their forward operating bases near here, "since the area was so calm," Lt. Col. Roger Cloutier, a US battalion commander, says.
The breadbasket borders the notorious "Sunni triangle," the mainly Sunni Arab swath of north-central Iraq where the insurgency started in 2003, and where it has proven most enduring ever since.
Yet Diyala province could be among the first areas handed over to full Iraqi security control. Planned reductions of US-led coalition forces, which numbered 161,500 in July, might begin as early as next year - depending on political conditions, as well as the readiness of Iraqi military units, US commanders say.
About 79,900 Iraqi Army soldiers and national guardsmen have been counted as being "operational" in August, according to the Brookings Institution's Iraq Index. The stated US goal is to train another 18,639 troops.
"In the Sunni triangle, Diyala is well ahead of the others," according to Col. Steven Salazar, US brigade commander for northeastern Iraq.
Iraqi troops still rely heavily on US support, from planning raids, to stand-by air support in case things turn bad, to detainee processing. But the Iraqi 2/2 Battalion is ready for its training wheels to come off, most US liaison officers say.
Theya agrees: "Right now we have the ability to do this on our own."
The 2/2 is hardly like an American battalion. Its troops conduct patrols in unarmored pickup trucks, and the chain of command is still too top-heavy, in the American view.
However, an Iraqi formation can fight the insurgents in an efficient manner, Theya says. "We have a dialogue with people. If I find an explosive device, we'll close the road, and also close all the shops along it," he says. "So if people work with us, they help themselves."
Similar tactics by US troops tend to feed local hostility. Iraqi soldiers are inherently less provocative, Theya says, citing cultural affinities among all Arab Iraqis, whether Sunni or Shiite.
His US counterpart, Colonel Cloutier, also talks about the need to "put an Iraqi face" on operations, from patrolling roads to pamphleteering about the constitutional referendum. "When people here see the Iraqi Army, they see their countrymen, their brothers," Cloutier says. "When they see Bradleys and Humvees rolling through, they see Americans."
This is not to say the Iraqis don't want better equipment, too. Theya's battalion recently acquired four Soviet-made MTLB armored personnel carriers from the US. These rebuilt relics from the 1980s Iran-Iraq war carry great symbolic value for civilians, while also allowing the Iraqi Army greater reach on the roads between towns, Cloutier says.
Other tanks and personnel carriers are going into service with the new army's first mechanized brigade, which made its first public appearance during elections in January. The mechanized brigade will be far more visible at referendum polling stations in October, US officers say.
But Iraqi troops are also being given the technological edge over their opponents in smaller ways. Theya's troops are currently training with night-vision goggles - outdated early 1980s models being sufficient to outmatch insurgent gunmen. In recent months, the whole battalion has also received bulletproof helmets and body armor, although many soldiers still need to be persuaded to wear them.
Training and fighting capacity remain several steps behind the army's organizational charts, even if larger formations are gradually taking shape. "Before, we were training as platoons and squads," Theya says. "Now we're training at the company level. We use more machine guns, more firepower."
Six months ago, Theya dismissed the newly formed Fourth Division command as "only symbolic," whereas he now calls it a "necessary step in developing Iraq's military." The division, he suggests, is roughly where his own battalion was about a year ago.
Theya recently shuffled his company commanders and section heads, hoping to counter favoritism within the battalion's internal groupings. "He saw that some guys weren't pulling watch duty or manning checkpoints," a US officer said.
A major hurdle remains on the logistical side. Theya says his unit has not been directly touched by corruption in the Ministry of Defense, which has allegedly deprived the Iraqi Army of hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of weapons and equipment.
Yet the battalion depends on the Americans to provide it with sufficient ammunition and especially fuel, often on an ad hoc basis. According to US trainers, Iraqi officers are often reluctant to make requests, reflecting the old Iraqi army's traditional top-down mind-set.
The flow of materials is better than in the old army, Iraqi officers say. "Before, you would just listen to orders. You couldn't even get a notebook and pen, let alone ammunition," says Theya's brother, Capt. Saddam al-Tamimi, who also works at battalion headquarters. "Now, there's an obvious difference. Our soldiers' morale is better, because of the freedom to talk between officers and soldiers," he adds.
The 2/2 is recruited locally, and separate companies tend to reflect local tribal affiliations. Theya says this doesn't bode well for putting together a national army. The old army's recruitment system, based on mixing together soldiers from all over Iraq, was more effective as a way to downplay sectarian or ethnic tensions, he says.
Still, the 2/2 has started to look professional. The colonel, who used to meet visitors in a tracksuit and leather jacket, now wears pressed battle-dress uniforms. His troops conduct house-to-house movements with ease, even if the Americans still take a heavy hand in planning. "We have achieved irreversible momentum," Cloutier says. "This area will not go back to the way it was."
But Iraqi military progress is far from evident in other parts of the country. While the 2/2 evolved out of one of Iraq's earliest postinvasion army formations, its success can be replicated everywhere with time, the US commander says. "I can't speak outside my sandbox. But to different degrees, you have the same things happening all over Iraq."