The US is actively transferring ownership of Iraq's troubled Diyala Province, using a tough-love approach to force Iraq to take on greater control ahead of any deal that would put limits on the American military next year.
From handing over irrigation projects to cutting funding in favor of a more cumbersome Iraqi payment system, the strategy amounts to the de facto first steps of withdrawal.
"Our big thing is getting Americans to stop doing things and get the Iraqi government to do them," says US Army Staff Sgt. Dave Schlicher, a civil affairs team leader who has worked in the towns along the Iran border for months.
"So eventually, when the government says: 'OK, you Americans are not leaving your [bases] anymore,' they have something," he says. "We're trying to work ourselves out of a job."
Iraqi officials said over the weekend that they expect a US response in the coming days to ongoing negotiations over a new security pact. American and Iraqi officials have been working on a deal that calls for a US pullback to bases by June 2009 and a withdrawal in 2011, but that arrangement faces growing opposition among lawmakers in Baghdad.
But even without a signed pact, US forces are increasingly enabling their counterparts – both in Iraq's military and local government – in anticipation of a dramatically reduced role.
What that means in Diyala is less war-fighting and more nation-building in an area that has seen some of the most brutal battles against Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
"The training wheels are off," says Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, the US Army commander for northern Iraq. For many months, he has restricted quick-fix discretionary spending by commanders in favor of Iraqi projects often channeled by the Americans, but put together and funded by Iraqis.
"They can't keep relying on the coalition forces to prop them up," says General Hertling. "We've got to see the strength and the weaknesses of the government come to the forefront."
Those are evident in the dusty agricultural town of Balad Ruz, where the main road separates two sectarian regions: to the north, a predominantly Shiite area; to the south, a once-mixed area where the majority Sunnis forced out all Shiites.
Attacks are still common. Iraqi forces announced Oct. 19 that in Balad Ruz they had shot dead a Saudi Arabian leader of AQI, who was wearing an explosive vest.
But Balad Ruz is also a frequent stop for Schlicher and his civil affairs team. During a recent visit, he was impressed to find Mayor Mohammed Marouf al-Hussein meeting with local irrigation officials about a project to cope with years of drought. Days before, they went with Iraqi police to inspect pipes.
"This is good news," says Schlicher, as he steps into the meeting in the mayor's office. "It's Iraqis finding solutions to Iraqi problems. Six months ago, it would not be happening."
Discussion ensues about the irrigation options, the cost of a project with advanced American-made equipment, and the price paid by farmers for such help during the Saddam Hussein-era.
"We've got to stop thinking of next week, but the next year or two, because every project the [US-led] coalition has started, the government has taken over," says Schlicher.
But the provincial government has problems, and insecurity has prevented Diyala Province from spending all its $140 million budget for three years in a row.
"The things that are announced are one thing, and what happens is something else," says Mayor Hussein.
"It is amazing," agrees Schlicher, "how reality gets changed in that 1-1/2 hours it takes to drive to Baquba [the provincial capital]."
But the new reality is an effort to shift both US and Iraqi money through the Iraqi government.
Capt. Jonathan Norquist has a sheaf of project folders, the result of a lengthy process of vetting open bids for work.
"Getting this approval process without corruption is much more difficult" than using exclusively US funds as in the past, says Captain Norquist, a civil-military operations officer who has worked electrical and all local services here for a year.
"The way to make the government effective is forcing their systems to work," he says. "Throwing money around is not the right way – but to make them stand up."
The fact that Norquist is nation-building and not war-fighting would have been unthinkable even last year, when the company he was last with was "rendered combat ineffective" because of the number of casualties they sustained.
A US military report says that Balad Ruz is part of the "most neglected area" in the province. A 2008 plan to dig 184 new wells in the province, for example, did not include any in this area.
It notes the need to ensure locals do "not see the insurgency as a viable means to ensuring their future prosperity." The key for US officers is to "bridge communication gaps" between levels of local government to make it "self-sustaining."
And there is another reason to get this largely agricultural area working again.
"If they are farming, they are not out with Al Qaeda in Iraq or smuggling from Iran, so it's a security issue," says Schlicher. "Slowly, this area will make the turn and decide they want to live."