As Iraqi security services prepare to take back their towns from the Americans on Tuesday, the sharpest arrow in their quiver is an elite, American-trained force with a reputation that leads many Iraqis to call it "the dirty brigade."
Its real name is the Counter Terrorism Bureau, and its commander insists it's professional, nonsectarian and not dirty at all.
Violence is already rising and will likely continue after the handover as different factions test the government's ability to manage without American backup. But Kalib Shegati al-Kenani, the Iraqi Army general who heads the bureau, is confident his force can cope and that his country will not slide into renewed sectarian warfare.
The elite units, armed with high-tech U.S.-made equipment, often pair up with American special forces to go after Iraq's most wanted foes — both al-Qaida extremists and Shiite militants.
They are thought to have been the main force that assisted the Americans during an offensive in Baghdad's Sadr City quarter last year to rout Shiite militias, and on operations targeting Sunni insurgents.
Formed soon after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, the force became known as the "Dirty Brigade" because it was secretive and until recently operated outside the Iraqi chain of command, reporting directly to its U.S. handlers.
It was so little known that it even was rumored to be used against the Shiite-dominated government's opponents in the political mainstream — a charge denied by the Iraqis and the Americans.
Now reports to Al-Maliki
Originally numbering about 4,500 members, it is reported to have doubled in size and now reports directly to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
"We are professional and not sectarian forces, and we bring together people from all sections of the population. Each member of the bureau signs a document vowing not to speak about sectarianism, partisan affairs and nationalities. Their commitment is only to Iraq," al-Kenani told The Associated Press in an interview this week.
Al-Kenani, a 59-year-old veteran of the eight-year Iran-Iraq War and the first Gulf War, is a Shiite, his deputy is a Sunni and one of his top generals is a Kurd.
The force has sought to reinforce its nonpartisan makeup by refusing to accept recruits who previously served in sectarian militias.
Also, says Maj. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saedi, a senior commander, it "does not allow any minister or government official to enter its headquarters to prevent any interference in investigations and security operations."
Its ranks are made up of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, al-Saedi said, but it does not publish breakdowns.
A statement in Arabic posted on the U.S. military's Web site acknowledged the public's "misconceptions about this very viable and important unit."
It picks its targets on the basis of rigorous checks, the statement said. "In short," it added, "the CTB's mission is targeting terrorists, not the Iraqi public or political foes."
Al-Kenani said the bureau has a good intelligence-gathering machine and "cooperation with all ministries."
Nearly 655,000 Iraqi security forces
The Americans are already leaving the towns and cities, and once they are gone full responsibility will fall to the Iraqi police and military, which numbered 654,362 members at last count.
Although some troops will remain as trainers and advisers, the remaining 133,000 U.S. military personnel will be confined to base unless called in by the Iraqis. A full withdrawal is envisioned by the end of 2011.
The Iraqi government has declared Tuesday a public holiday.
"June 30 is considered an Iraqi victory day," al-Kenani said, "and we will all celebrate the withdrawal of American forces."
Explosions around the country have claimed more than 160 lives since June 20, when a truck bomb in the northern city of Kirkuk killed 82. A bombing in Baghdad's Shiite district of Sadr City killed at least 61 people on Wednesday.
But al-Kenani said the days of mass violence and near-civil war were over. "Whoever carries out explosions and security breaches after the withdrawal of forces will have no excuse," he said.
"They were repeatedly bragging about fighting the occupation; now the occupation is out."