KAN’AN, IRAQ — As many U.S. combat troops in Iraqi cities bide their time behind the walls of sprawling bases, their counterparts in rural areas are maintaining a visible presence, to the delight of local Iraqi military commanders and the chagrin of many residents.

In rural Diyala province, heavily armed, wide-bodied, eight-wheeled Strykers rumble down dirt roads through drought-stricken fields to link up with Iraqi police and soldiers. In Diyala and places like it, where remnants of the insurgency still conduct regular attacks, Americans walk the line of preserving tenuous security gains and mentoring their Iraqi counterparts while trying not to run afoul of a public deeply skeptical of the U.S. presence.

“We … want to partner with [Iraqi security forces] but are very aware of the message we send by sending large numbers of forces near their cities, villages and localities,” said U.S. Army Col. David Funk, who commands American forces in Diyala province.

Since June 30, when American combat troops withdrew from cities and towns under the U.S.-Iraqi security pact, the Iraqi government has virtually banned U.S. patrols in major cities. In largely agrarian areas, such as much of Diyala province, however, U.S. troops patrol daily.

Funk’s message of operating with a light touch has filtered down the ranks. During a briefing before a recent patrol in southern Diyala province, 1st Lt. Daniel Voorhies urged his soldiers to exercise restraint.

“We’ve basically won this war, so we don’t need to be pissing people off, stirring it up again,” he said.

Wary eyes followed U.S. soldiers as they patrolled with Iraqi police officers through the bustling market of Kan’an, a small town near Baqouba late last month. The hum of the market died down as the body armor-clad soldiers made their way through the narrow alleys of stands selling everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to shoes.

Muhammad Mahmoud, 21, owns a seed store in town and, like most residents interviewed, would like the soldiers to stay on their base.

“Some people are scared when the coalition forces come to the city,” he said. “Children and women are scared they will shoot them.”

Even the mayor of Kan’an, Mehdi Abdel Karim Nasser, who relies on the U.S. forces for civil projects and micro-grants that fund local businesses, said he fears the U.S. presence puts his town at greater risk of attack.

“We don’t want to see them more than two or three times per month,” he said.

That sentiment could be key if a public vote on the current U.S-Iraqi security agreement goes ahead in January. If voters reject any such agreement, as is widely expected, and Iraq’s parliament ratifies the vote, the U.S. would have to speed up its withdrawal by a year, severely curtailing their military mission.

But the Wall Street Journal reported Monday that the referendum is very much in doubt; key Iraqi lawmakers are less inclined to push for it than they were months ago, at least partly in recognition of the security vacuum it would create.

Iraqi security forces, which most Iraqis want to see act more independently, are deeply nervous about the U.S. drawdown.

As U.S. combat troops have withdrawn from cities, insurgents have focused their attacks on Iraqi security forces, which lack the armored vehicles and firepower of the Americans.

Iraqi army Col. Abdul Razak said he still needs U.S. forces for advice and support, especially the air power the Iraqis are sorely lacking.

“The soldiers are ready for the responsibility [of maintaining security] but we are missing some military equipment and capabilities,” he said. “If we don’t get these things we will not be able to take over these responsibilities.”

Such feelings echo from generals to the lowest ranks of the security forces. Nada Jasim is a member of the Kan’an “Daughters of Iraq,” a group of women hired to search other women at checkpoints to ferret out suicide bombers. She said she feels much safer with U.S. forces around.

“If they pull back I know sectarian violence will happen again,” she said.

U.S. soldiers, many of whom have done multiple tours in Iraq, are palpably nervous about the prospect of losing the fragile stability that has taken hold in Iraq. They see these tours in the latter part of the war as the last chance to ensure that the sacrifice of friends who were killed or injured is not wasted.

“We’re all working to do whatever it takes to get them ready,” said Sgt. Kyle Lund, while on foot patrol with Iraqi soldiers in Diyala. “We don’t want to see something we poured years of our lives into washed to nothing.”

There is heavy skepticism, however, about how much more the U.S. can do to stand up the Iraqi army. As Lund negotiates the nettles and cracked furrows of a farm field in the searing heat, his frustration boils over when his Iraqi counterparts huddle in the shade for their second break of the patrol and he mutters an epithet.

Said Lund: “It definitely makes you want to sit and scratch your head.”

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