The most powerful man in Adhamiyah suddenly appeared out of the darkness, sweeping into the alley behind a wall of bodyguards.
"The sheik," the American soldiers called out.
Sheik Amir al-Azawi had arrived to weigh in on a dispute that had ensnared an American military patrol, Iraqi soldiers, the sheik's son and members of the U.S.-backed Sunni security force known as the Awakening. The sheik's son was demanding that the Americans arrest two Iraqis detained on suspicion of planting a roadside bomb.
The U.S. troops had screened the men's hands for bombmaking residue, but found only dust. The soldiers said there would be no arrests without evidence.
Azawi moved to the huddle to listen and interject, and then over to the two detained Iraqis. Lifting his cane not far from their faces, he issued a warning: "If there is a second attack, I will come and hunt you."
For the American soldiers patrolling this Sunni enclave in northern Baghdad, it was another instance of working through rumors, hearsay and finger-pointing demands to arrest people. "We go through this every night," said 1st Sgt. Craig Patterson of the Army's 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment. "If these guys would have touched bombs, it would come up on the X-ray."
A year ago, Adhamiyah was one of the bloodiest districts in Baghdad. In the past few months, scores of shops have reopened in corners where soldiers remember the stench of rotting corpses. Men crowd outside cafes on streets once prowled by young thugs riding motorbikes and wielding assault rifles.
In the center of Adhamiyah, the Abu Hanifa mosque, one of the most prominent Sunni shrines in Baghdad, glowed under exterior lights. A year ago, soldiers said, gunmen opened fire on U.S. Humvees nearly every time they passed it.
Now, the challenge confronting the Americans is how to cement a peace that will not unravel after they leave.
Friction and frustration
The Awakening fighters are growing increasingly frustrated that Iraq's Shiite-led central government has been slow to integrate them into the Iraqi police and military services. U.S. officers say the fighters appear to be breaking into factions.
Roadside bombs have suddenly become more prevalent in Adhamiyah. The U.S. military said 21 bombs were found in the area in the last 25 days of April, compared with three or four in all of March. Platoon leaders on patrol at Awakening checkpoints at the end of April sought information about the origins of fresh graffiti in support of the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.
"It's escalating," said a checkpoint leader who gave his name as Abu Ahmad. "Some of the Awakening are chanting for al-Qaeda and using slogans for al-Qaeda. I think the district will pay the price because of these problems."
Leaders from the Awakening are blaming U.S. troops for not ridding the force of those who previously ruled the district. "The problem is with the Americans," Abu Ahmad said. "They know who the guys are who previously worked with al-Qaeda, but they are not doing anything about it. When we catch someone, we know they are killers and thugs, yet they release them."
The U.S. military acknowledges that many Awakening fighters were once members of al-Qaeda in Iraq. "Naturally there is some distrust and disbelief among these members," said Maj. Michael S. Humphreys, a spokesman for the Army. "But with time and continued cooperation and teamwork they will quickly learn to trust each other as brothers, as many of them already have."
U.S. military officers in Adhamiyah said they were not sure who was responsible for the growing number of roadside bombs -- extremists sneaking back into the neighborhood or factional leaders jockeying for power. The U.S. military has more than 2,200 Awakening fighters in Adhamiyah and nearby neighborhoods.
Military officers said they have tried numerous avenues to get Awakening fighters hired into the Iraqi security forces, but they say they have no evidence that the vast majority of applications have been acted upon.
"Everyone in our chain of command acknowledges that the government of Iraq would be wise if they were to acknowledge the Sunnis," said Maj. Ike Sallee, operations officer for the 3rd Squadron. "Just give these guys a paycheck, a weapon and ID cards. Just acknowledge them and get them into shape. Hold them accountable."
One Army civil affairs officer in Adhamiyah said applications had been returned because they were submitted in the wrong color of ink. The Americans say they are not sure if it's just bureaucratic fumbling or if the applications are being blocked as sectarian payback.
Many of the people who live in Adhamiyah were affiliated with Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. The last images of Hussein in public, a day before the American military captured Baghdad, show him amid throngs of cheering supporters in front of the Abu Hanifa mosque. Since then, power has shifted to political parties representing the country's Shiite majority.
Even as the security environment in the district improves, Sallee said problems require constant attention. U.S. officers in Adhamiyah said that they expect the military to continue to pay the $300 monthly salaries of the Awakening fighters, and that it's in the military's interest to keep paying.
"All of Iraq is like embers," Sallee said. "Some places just flare up, so you constantly have to keep tending the embers. That's the best we can do, is get them to embers. But Americans can't extinguish the embers."
Reaching a turning point
With the Iraqi government sitting on the sidelines, the U.S. Army pays for most reconstruction work in Adhamiyah -- cleaning up sewage, helping to oversee the upkeep of schools and reopening battle-scarred markets. American commanders are hopeful that they have reached a turning point in the district.
Army spokesmen declined to provide details of past casualties in Adhamiyah. The Army Times reported in 2007 that the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, which was posted in the neighborhood before the 3rd Squadron, suffered 31 dead and 122 wounded over a 15-month period, making it the hardest-hit battalion since the Vietnam War.
"The success that we have here was paid for with that unit's blood," said Capt. Ian Claxton, who commands the squadron's Crazyhorse Troop, the cavalry's term for company.
As part of the "surge" of additional U.S. troops in Iraq, the American fighting force in the area doubled. American commanders switched tactics, pushing soldiers off bases and out of Humvees to walk the streets. Still, they say the Awakening gets a large measure of the credit for the security improvements. In Adhamiyah, the fighters appeared to outnumber police officers and Iraqi army soldiers.
"They are allies," said Capt. Erik Kjonnerod, who commands the squadron's Apache Troop. "They listen to us. They do what we tell them."
On a patrol last month, Kjonnerod stopped into an Awakening office on Kem Street, which had been one of the deadliest areas in Adhamiyah.
With soldiers guarding the door alongside Awakening men, he and 1st Lt. Matt Jensen propped M-16 rifles against side tables, took out notebooks and pens and shared sweet bread and tea with the Iraqis. Outside, an Iraqi man tussled at the door in an attempt to get into the office. Once inside, he requested the help of U.S. troops in winning the freedom of his younger brother's wife, who he said was taken by his in-laws.
"What does the man want from us exactly," Jensen asked the interpreter.
He wants you to support him, like he supports you, the interpreter responded.
"I'd rather deal with this than raging gun battles every day," Jensen said.
"Rather than bombs in the street," Kjonnerod said.
"They need to deal with it in the family," Kjonnerod added. "If they need a mediator, I got the perfect person. The sheik. Let the sheik do it."
Special correspondents Zaid Sabah, K.I. Ibrahim and Saad al-Izzi contributed to this report.