In the fluorescent glow of warehouse lights, Capt. Travis Van Hecke looked up into the face of a far larger man dressed in a gray caftan. A few others gathered around the pair, providing a running commentary of the encounter between the Army officer from Wisconsin and the shopkeeper from Howadir.
"So do you guys know that June 30 is the transfer of sovereignty?" Van Hecke asked the man, pausing to give his interpreter time to convey the question. "We'll still be here to support the Iraqi police, but the occupation ends. How do they feel about that?"
A crowd emerged from the closet-blackness enveloping the tiny town where Van Hecke had come Sunday evening on a visit in search of intelligence about the anti-American insurgency battering nearby Baqubah. Cigarettes glowed, and Van Hecke's soldiers stood ready against walls overhung by date palms.
"He says if you are still all over this town, day and night, then the problem will still be here," Van Hecke's interpreter said after much chatter from the crowd. "He says you can avoid giving the insurgents an excuse for their doings if you stay away."
The request, made only hours before Monday's surprise transfer of political power from the United States to the interim Iraqi government, underscored the challenges facing U.S. soldiers as they begin adapting to a new mission after months of serving as an occupying force. Over the course of a five-minute ceremony in Baghdad, the country changed governments. But the violence threatening the American project to bring a stable democracy to Iraq continued; while the ceremony was being held in the capital, a roadside bomb exploded near a military convoy in this city 35 miles to the northeast.
The adjustments contemplated by U.S. military commanders over the next six months, a potentially volatile period before Iraqis elect a government, involve changes in tone more than substance. Taken together, commanders say, the changes will turn the 138,000 U.S. troops, the chief guarantors of Iraq's security, into something resembling a police force called in to assist the fledgling Iraqi police and national guard.
But military commanders acknowledge those changes will be difficult to impose on troops fighting a skilled guerrilla insurgency. Nighttime patrols and intelligence gathering by Army units stationed around the country are vital to the counterinsurgency effort, commanders said.
Partnership and support
Local Iraqi officials have asked the U.S. troops to cease the provocative military patrols — known as "reconnaissance by fire" missions because they are intended to draw insurgent attacks — and remain on two bases outside the Baqubah unless needed. U.S. commanders here understand that if they refuse, they could undermine the new government's independence in the eyes of the ordinary Iraqis.
"We firmly believe this is going from a role of partnership and occupation — but clearly occupation — to one of partnership and support," said Col. Dana Pittard, commander of the 1st Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade . "To do a major operation, we will have to consult the civic authority. We could still make the kind of errors that push people toward the insurgency."
In Baqubah, an agricultural center battered by insurgents over the past week, Pittard and his officers have been working with local officials on that new relationship, but the meetings with local councils have been shaped by the continuing violence.
Last week, coordinated insurgent attacks on this city and five others in northern and central Iraq killed 100 Iraqis and three U.S. soldiers, two of them here. As the fighting swept through downtown early Thursday, insurgents took up positions in buildings near a decrepit soccer stadium.
Pittard, believing the insurgents had prepared the buildings for a long fight, decided to eliminate them. Before ordering airstrikes, he called a meeting with Abdullah Jabouri, the provincial governor, and asked permission to proceed. Pittard said Jabouri told him that if he could strike the insurgents, he shouldn't worry about damaging the buildings. Within an hour, three 500-pound bombs came down.
Pittard called the collaboration a "model" for the U.S. military's relationship with the local government in the months ahead and said "conflict management" would be one of his chief concerns after the transfer of political power.
But the demise of the occupation authority has also brought financial concerns to commanders, who will be taking on civic responsibilities that were once the authority's purview. The Coalition Provisional Authority's staff members in Baqubah left on Friday, never to return.
'Funds are drying up'
Before the transfer, Pittard had $24 million of reconstruction money to spend on water, electricity and employment projects. On Monday, the money — as well as hundreds of millions of dollars across the country — went over to an Iraqi central government whose ministries are barely functioning.
Pittard said "the funds are drying up at the wrong time" and will severely delay promised projects. Like many military commanders, Pittard said he believed public works programs were the most effective way to fight the insurgency.
Pittard also took charge of unfinished CPA programs on women's issues, education and local elections, which he hopes to have arranged by this fall to give the local government more legitimacy. Four State Department employees will be assigned to his brigade to help work on the elections, to be held next year. But he said he believed the U.S. civilian authority, in one form or another, disappeared too early.
"The elections are the most critical issue we face, so they are committing resources you wouldn't normally see," said Edward Messmer, who departed last week as the CPA coordinator for Diyala province, of which Baqubah is the capital. "This is a sovereign nation, so we had to dismantle the CPA. We needed to take these steps. But there is a six-month period here that will be very challenging."
From the soldiers' perspective, the changes that began Monday culminated weeks of preparation.
Lt. Richard Szczurowski, 23, a platoon leader from Philadelphia, said he had been attending meetings with mayors and town council members, many of whom are under threat of death.
"I don't think it will change too much," he said of his role after the handover. "Maybe we'll cut back on patrols a little bit."
But he said the soldiers, who will remain immune from Iraqi prosecution for crimes they may commit in the country, have been told they "no longer own the road." They have been ordered to begin following local traffic laws, long ignored by the convoys that rumble through town.
In addition, "hard knock" home raids, in which soldiers kick down doors, will give way to more polite requests to enter.
"We've talked about this," said Szczurowski, whose platoon was hit last week in Howadir by a roadside bomb that wounded two soldiers, one of whom lost an eye. "We'll try to follow the traffic laws. But if obeying them means putting our lives in danger, we'll do what we have to do."
Van Hecke, commander of Bravo Battery, accompanied two of his platoons on a night mission Sunday "to see if there's any impending doom." The ride offered a view of how military practices, many of them designed to promote safety, can change overnight in the midst of combat.
A dozen Humvees rumbled through the hot, close night, heading north toward Howadir. Within minutes of leaving the post, the convoy jerked to a stop on a busy street. The radio crackled with a request to fire on a suspicious box on the side of the road. Van Hecke said yes, and three sharp cracks sounded.
The box did not explode. The Humvees hopped the median to avoid it, rode briefly into on-coming traffic and crossed back over and rumbled through a mostly empty downtown, lit by a few scattered shop lights and fires from restaurants roasting lamb on vertical spits.
Minutes later the Humvees plunged into a tunnel of date palms where, at a sharp bend, Lt. Paul Lashley's platoon set up a road block to stop all traffic for Howadir.
"Don't hesitate to search vehicles," Van Hecke told Lashley, a 25-year-old from Huntsville, Ala. "Especially ones with tinted windows or no license plates."
The patrol then buzzed down dark streets, under what's known as Boom-Boom Bridge, a narrow pedestrian crossing the insurgents use to drop explosives on passing convoys. Their headlights were off, and Van Hecke used night-vision goggles to guide his driver into Mufrek, a neighborhood where insurgents took the police station last week.
The idea was to draw fire, then return it in greater quantity. But flares began rising above the government complex a mile to the east, as insurgents signaled each other from distant street corners. Van Hecke moved there quickly, but his search for a fight ended unsuccessfully.
"This is a place that's hard for a city council to control," Van Hecke said. "It runs amok pretty quickly."