The end of the US surge is in sight here. In two key central Iraqi provinces, American units will soon reduce their forces and modify their role in a region that is a microcosm of the fractured nation. There are Sunnis and Shiites in this Baathist heartland. Al Qaeda fighters have fled here from Anbar Province. This region is home to one of Iraq's three major oil refineries.
It's a risky move, both US and Iraqi officials say, but a necessary test of the strength and ability of Iraqi security forces.
The US is pulling out one of its brigades (about 3,500 soldiers) in December without replacing it. As the Americans leave, the US plans to give Iraqis more responsibility, an overall strategy the US will employ as it pulls out five brigades – the bulk of the surge forces – by next summer.
"Are they ready to go it alone? No. We understand that," says one senior US Defense official. "But if you keep them in spring practice, they will never gain confidence."
The region includes Diyala and Salahaddin provinces, which have large Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish populations. Salahaddin's capital, Tikrit, is Saddam Hussein's hometown, and residual support for the deceased dictator can be seen spray painted on walls throughout the city ("Long live the hero Saddam").
US plans for the area remain intentionally murky, and commanders say they may send another US unit to the area if they need to as they redraw the boundary lines that define areas of responsibility for their units there.
In the meantime, the Iraqis will still have the help of an American unit on standby. As the 3rd
Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Cavalry Division, deployed to Diyala Province, returns home, the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the 2nd Division, a "surge" unit already deployed nearby, will assume a greater swath of territory for now.
Such transfer of responsibility is already playing out in places like Anbar Province, where Marines are turning over areas to the Iraqis but maintain the ability to assist them on operations if necessary. But the relative homogeneity of Anbar, a former hotbed of the Sunni insurgency, helped efforts there to improve security. Diyala, by contrast, hosts both Sunni extremists and Shiite militias, while in Salahaddin, which is 90 percent Sunni Arab, bitter tribal divisions, loyalties to Mr. Hussein, and deep mistrust of the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad complicates the picture.
Despite the challenges, Iraqi forces will have to rise to the challenge, says Anthony Cordesman, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.
"Forces are never ready," he says, adding that it will be tougher for Iraqi forces there since the region north of Baghdad does not offer the same simple security solutions as those found in Anbar. "You never become ready until the trade-off of responsibility."
US commanders north of Baghdad are wary about publicizing that there will be fewer forces in the region, even though, under Army Gen. David Petraeus's plan, announced earlier this year in Washington, the US will reduce surge forces by as many as 20,000 by summer.
The outgoing senior US commander there told reporters at the Pentagon last week that there would be a net loss of a brigade headquarters – equivalent to about three battalions.
"After it is all said and done, and the dust settles, I will have a little less force," says Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, commander of Multinational Division-North. General Mixon's 15-month tour just ended.
On Sunday, during a change-of-command ceremony to his successor, Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, Mixon told Iraqi military and provincial officials present in the audience that it was their turn.
"Lead the people of your province to put aside sectarian and tribal differences," Mixon said. "Ultimately, it's up to the Iraqi people to secure their freedom and prosperity."
The Iraqis seem ready, even if they are still shaky, as a recent operation illustrated. And militants have infiltrated both the Army and the police and continue to tip off insurgents to imminent operations, say US officers.
On Tuesday, for example, about 450 Iraqi soldiers and policemen and 60 US soldiers, backed by heavy US air support, made their way to villages in the remote northeastern corner of Salahaddin.
They carried a list of 12 militant-cell leaders they hoped to capture. But when they got there, all they found were women and children: no militants.
In one case, a woman was questioned about the whereabouts of her sons. She told an Iraqi police officer that they had gone fishing and would be back in two weeks. But after the Iraqi unit found two mortar launchers in her home, she admitted militants had just been in her village and that they executed 20 people and terrorized the village. She said that there was nothing she could do.
The Iraqi officer was not impressed. "Say hello to your sons and tell them sooner or later we will get them," he told her, adding, "Why do you have these weapons in your home?"
"To hunt policemen," quipped another officer standing nearby.
The woman told him not to say such things. "A person who has not done anything is not afraid," she said, standing outside her mud-brick hut as her two tearful daughters and wheelchair-bound son sat nearby.
The Iraqi police officers threatened to take away her handicapped son unless she confessed to the whereabouts of her other sons.
Ultimately, they left the one son alone but rounded up all the military-age men they could find in the village and nearby villages that had been on their target lists. They detained 39 men in total for questioning, but none of the ones on their list.
Army Lt. Col. David Hsu, who leads the US Army team advising the Iraqis and accompanied them that day, says it's very conceivable that the people on the wanted list were tipped off by Iraqi soldiers. "It's a huge concern," he says. "There are elements in Army, police, and [concerned local citizens] that work with insurgents."
"Concerned local citizens" is a catch-all phrase that US forces use to describe tribal leaders and civilians who may have previously sympathized with insurgents or collaborated with them but have now declared their support for US and Iraqi forces.
Yet, the commanders of many of these units know better, he says, and they will endure much from their men – but not that. "He will put up with lying, cheating, and stealing by his men," Colonel Hsu says, "as long as they are not aiding and abetting the insurgents."
Ultimately, the Iraqi forces are competent, Hsu says, even if their operational planning is limited. He says that the US must hand over more duties to Iraqis.
Although there are challenges now, he adds, it will pay off in the long run to give them more control.