It wasn't yet dawn, and the Iraqi army unit was already behind schedule.
It was about to launch a major operation against a cluster of towns overrun by Shiite Muslim militiamen, and this time U.S. 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. Some Iraqi soldiers weren't wearing armor. Fewer were wearing helmets.
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.
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 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 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 below the surface, they question whether their victories of the past 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 U.S. forces eventually would leave, too.
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 al-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.
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.