BAGHDAD — In the midnight darkness, U.S. soldiers show up unannounced at a house in the south of the capital to ask about some graffiti on a wall across the street praising Jaish al-Mahdi, a Shiite insurgent group.

As the soldiers checked the home, the elderly patriarch of the family living there says he knows nothing about the graffiti and that the family has no weapons. Two AK-47s, a stockpile of suspected explosive materials and a can of spray paint later, Sgt. John Hardin calls the Iraqi National Police to turn over three young men in the house as suspected insurgents.

The incident this week was a satisfying outcome for the soldiers. Like troops around the country, Hardin and his men are still working to ferret out insurgents while honing the skills of Iraqi security forces to do the same.

Will the Iraqis be able to carry out the same actions? Will they summon Americans for help?

Those questions are gaining urgency as Iraqi lawmakers debate the Status of Forces Agreement between the two countries. On Sunday, the Cabinet adopted the so-called security pact, which now awaits parliament’s approval.

The pact calls for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities and towns — effectively confining them to bases — by June 30 and from the entire country by Dec. 31, 2011. Experts say there is leeway for the Iraqis to ask troops to stay longer.

U.S. soldiers interviewed this week in Baghdad expressed various feelings about the withdrawal dates, including cautious optimism, skepticism the Iraqis are ready, wistfulness and a touch of fatalism. Iraqis seemed divided.

"I think it’s a sign of progress, it’s good," Hardin, of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, said of the new agreement. "I don’t know if [Iraqis] will be [ready] or not, but I don’t think it will change anything if we stay."

Capt. Garrett Cathcart, who is working with Iraqi National Police in Baghdad, has served two tours in Iraq and had friends killed in the war. There’s still work to do, but it’s time to start handing the country back to Iraqis, he said.

"At some point you’ve got to stand back and give it away, which is hard for us," he said. "We’ve given so much blood and effort and time."

Giving control back to the Iraqis is the right thing to do but the agreement should have more flexibility built in, said Capt. Nick Baranello, who is also serving in Baghdad.

"They should have dates, but they shouldn’t be set in stone," he said.

Soldiers with the 4th Infantry Division’s 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment are conducting house-to-house searches in southeast Baghdad. They are divided on how well the Iraqis are doing.

"I think initially, it won’t be chaos, it’ll be smooth, but it’ll be a big change," said 2nd Lt. Chris Denning, 24, of Lawrenceburg, Ind. "From working with the National Police, [I think] they have a long way to go before they can take over an area."

Spc. Stephen Fischer, 35, of Oklahoma City, said he thought the transition would go well.

Now on his third tour, he sees the Iraqi army and police taking more pride in their jobs. "They’re getting a lot better at it; they’re getting more training," he said.

"They should be able to take over. They’ll still have problems and issues, but nothing like they had."

Sgt. Leonard Avalos, 23, of San Diego, said the Iraqi security forces are ready.

As for the "Sons of Iraq," the armed civilian group praised for helping to calm down the country’s violence, "the leadership is there" but the lower-level leaders and entry-level members need some improvement, he said.

In Grafenwöhr, Germany, Spc. Michael Salinas, 23, of El Paso, Texas, who serves with the Iraq-bound 172nd Infantry Brigade, said he hadn’t heard about the plan for U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraqi cities.

He was unsure whether Iraqi forces were ready to take control of the cities. "We’ll have to see how it is when I get there," said Salinas, who deployed to Iraq from 2005 to 2006. "If it is a lot more calm than last time, perhaps."

Another 172nd soldier getting ready to go downrange, Sgt. Dana Springer, 43, of Malden, Mass., said the Iraqis need to be self-sufficient so Americans can take care of things in their own country.

"For us not to be taking the lead, that’s a big improvement," he said.

Iraqis who were interviewed in Baghdad were fuzzy on the details of the agreement, but generally supportive of increasing Iraq’s sovereignty.

"It’s no problem if [U.S. forces] leave because the Iraqi army does a good job," said Nasrat Sahan, a Shiite who fled with his family from his home in Baghdad’s Dora neighborhood during heavy sectarian fighting in 2006. Despite his confidence in Iraqi security forces, he said he is still scared to return to his old neighborhood.

Shaka Kiasm Muhammed, a retired engineer, said he’s glad to see the Iraqi government gaining increasing responsibility but hopes U.S. troops stay long enough to fend off nefarious influence from neighbors like Iran and Syria.

"If the Americans left (too early), my country would be destroyed," he said, talking in the living room of his spacious south Baghdad home.

Stripes reporters Patrick Dickson and Seth Robson contributed to this report.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now