AMARA, Iraq — It wasn't yet dawn, and the Iraqi army unit was already behind schedule. It was about to launch a major operation against another cluster of towns overrun by Shiite Muslim militiamen, and this time American forces would remain at the rear of the convoy, behind their Iraqi counterparts.
The troops mustered in darkness, relying for light on the headlamps of Iraqi Humvees, refurbished U.S. vehicles now crudely painted over with the red, white and black Iraqi flag. Some Iraqi soldiers weren't wearing armor. Fewer were wearing helmets. The brigade commander was riding in an unarmored pickup. His handgun was in its holster; his walking cane by his seat.
The 40-vehicle convoy was about to leave the base when the commander, Brig. Gen. Nabil Yassin Azadi, ordered everyone to stop. "Where is the map? How could you forget the map?" he screamed at his subordinates.
By the time they arrived at their destination, the city of Majir al Kabir, the sun led them in, and the militiamen whom they'd hoped to surprise had left, disappeared into the nearby marshes or perhaps across the border into Iran.
Flush with confidence after a string of victories against the Mahdi Army militia of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, the Iraqi army is in control of Basra, Iraq's second largest city, and Amara province, a one-time Sadrist stronghold. Its forces also are in Sadr City, the massive Shiite slum in Baghdad that's home to as many people as Chicago. Troops are headed now to restive Diyala province.
Although the U.S. military played a big role in some of the battles, the Iraqi army is unabashedly cocky.
"The power nowadays is with the security forces," said Azadi, the commander of the 38th Brigade, 10th Iraqi Army Division. "As long as we are here, they will not come back."
Yet a McClatchy reporter embedded with this Iraqi unit for four days as it searched for weapons throughout the province — one of the first Americans ever allowed to embed on a post-Basra Iraqi operation — had a glimpse of another reality. Iraqi troops are confident as never before. But just below the surface, they question whether their victories of the last few months are real or the result of a Mahdi Army decision to walk away to fight another day. Publicly, they're boastful; privately they wonder whether they're really in charge.
As they dashed about the province over those four days, Azadi's troops fired no shots and uncovered few weapons, despite digging up patios with picks and shovels in vain response to a tip. They even used a bulldozer to move mounds of earth that a tipster swore were hiding weapons.
The troops said they kept going because they thought that the militias wouldn't return as long as they were conducting raids. And if they did their jobs well, the American forces eventually would leave, too.
Amara province is lined with closed government-run sugar factories and brickworks, memorials to the businesses that once sustained this area, like a dried-up American industrial town. Men joined the militia, and then the security forces, out of a desperate need for income.
Col. Mohammed Hassan, 39, is the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 38th Brigade, a mobile unit that travels to hot spots. He's a Shiite and a 20-year veteran of Saddam Hussein's army, a rarity. With each tip, he burst into action, hoping to turn up something big.
But he and his men never did. The five-minute searches were usually perfunctory. Even the raid on the supposed big fish — a local policeman and alleged Mahdi Army militiaman on the side thought to have returned from Iran — turned up nothing.
Many throughout Iraq viewed these operations mainly as political posturing by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki in the run-up to this fall's scheduled provincial elections. Amara is dominated by Sadrists, the followers of Maliki's main rival. Even the governor is a Sadrist; he's been under virtual house arrest since the army arrived last month.
Azadi declared himself and Maj. Gen. Habib Talib Abbas, the commander of the 10th Iraqi Division, the de facto leaders of the province until new elections, making them effectively local warlords.
"The governor has no authority," he said, neglecting to mention that the governor was elected.
Azadi's strategy has been to continue launching offensives in the province to keep the roughly 3,000 militiamen from controlling it again. Many of them fled or hid after Sadr ordered his forces not to confront the Iraqi army.
After they cleared every neighborhood, Azadi said, his troops would move into outposts, just as the Americans did after their forces cleared Baghdad's neighborhoods.
So the raids continued.
At a secret location, a sedan pulled up and Hassan met his tipster, who's always been reliable. The big fish — the policeman — was back, he assured him.
About a dozen officers stormed the house, and an older woman started yelling repeatedly: "Look at us. We have nothing. You see our house; we have nothing. I swear to God we have nothing."
She said the man they were searching for was working at the police station. But Hassan said that he hadn't been showing up to work.
"Maybe he fled at dawn. Maybe somebody told him the Iraqi troops are coming," he told McClatchy, adding: "If you had been here three days ago, you would have seen more. We found a huge weapons cache."
The soldiers dug in the yard, looking for weapons. They searched the freshly moved dirt first and then other spots, but found nothing.
A U.S. Army battalion moved here at the start of the operation to monitor the Iraqi soldiers — to remind them that they must be honest and professional — usually from the perimeter. The Americans also provide air support. Throughout the operation, U.S. soldiers took the names of those arrested, tracked the weapons confiscated and reported their observations to their commanders.
"I am sure they are monitoring everything I do. If they see me working hard, it means that I am loyal," Hassan said.
Not much more was found on Day Two. Hassan was searching for the home of a Mahdi Army suspect named Mohanned Jassim, but neither local police nor young boys hanging out nearby would tell him which house to raid.
"You see, they won't help us. They are all Mahdi Army," Hassan said, exasperated.
His soldiers suddenly sprinted to the house of Jassim's brother and grabbed him by the neck, their professionalism fading fast.
"Where is your brother?"
The younger Jassim didn't respond. As soon as he put on his pants, they arrested him. Hassan's soldiers started digging for weapons in the family's yard. They retrieved a few magazines and a poster of Sadr. It was the best find of the day.
Hassan didn't know it when the convoy headed out, but Day Three was the final one of the operation. He traveled to Adil, one of the most desolate communities in the struggling province. The men in the small town next to the marshes work as farmers. The houses are barren and made of mud, cattle and chickens wander just outside front doors and the smell of manure permeates the sweltering streets.
The soldiers were too embarrassed to scrutinize the residents' meager belongings, and they spent only a couple of minutes at each house raid. No one was arrested.
Afterward, Lt. Gen. Ali Ghaidan, the Iraqi army's ground forces commander, summoned Hassan and Azadi. Maliki had called to complain that all these searches weren't producing results.
"I never want to get a call like that again," the general told them. "This town is full of Mahdi Army and weapons, and you are telling me you found no weapons or targets? . . . I don't believe it."
Azadi, the unofficial warlord, said that two women suspected of stashing Mahdi Army victims in their homes had turned themselves in but couldn't be arrested under the amnesty program.
"Arrest them!" Ghaidan demanded.
Hassan and Azadi left sheepishly and arrested the women.
As the mother and daughter sat in a sedan, their uncle pleaded with the troops, saying that the women's enemies were accusing them falsely. An Iraqi captain summoned McClatchy reporters and told them not to photograph the women because, he said, "I believe they are innocent."
Hassan insisted that the women "are responsible for a lot of deaths."
Then another call came in.
The commanders ordered the women released. A controversial arrest could make the Sadrists political martyrs.
Azadi's bravado all but disappeared, replaced with resignation. One leader, who asked not to be identified, fearing retribution for speaking about politics, simply said: "It's useless. This is a political game. What did we get? Raids and searches. They are not here."
By nightfall, Azadi called off the operation. The next day, Hassan slept in until sunrise, got a haircut and took his first day off in a month. He headed home to the holy Shiite city of Karbala to see his wife, two sons and daughter. He'd return three days later to take part in the next operation.
(McClatchy special correspondent Hussein Kadhim contributed to this article.)