RAMADI, Iraq - As Iraqi officials and the U.S. military haggle over when to let Anbar province take control of its own security, a row of broken-down Ford pickups in a Ramadi schoolyard offers a sobering picture of the readiness of the region's security forces.
The U.S. military gave the vehicles to the police stationed in a former school here, but the Iraqi government hasn't provided parts or a maintenance system to keep them running. The cops work on their own vehicles, picking parts from the junkers.
A shaky connection with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad is just one of the problems confronting American efforts to disengage from the predominantly Sunni Arab province more than a year after the U.S. military joined with local security forces, former insurgents and tribal warriors to take on al-Qaida in Iraq here.
A formal transfer from U.S. to Iraqi control over security in Anbar had been scheduled for early July, then put on indefinite hold after a suicide bomber targeted a town council meeting in the town of Karmah, killing three Marines and at least 22 Iraqis. The U.S. military initially blamed poor weather for the postponement, but several local leaders said the bombing showed that Iraqi security forces were still not prepared.
The hand-over will be a milestone in the war in Iraq, as a declaration of victory in the birthplace of the insurgency and a province that only two years ago was considered lost to al-Qaida in Iraq. The delay has put a damper on the hopes for a triumphant U.S. withdrawal soon.
Yet even as the ceremony hangs in limbo, Marines and Iraqi police in Ramadi are transferring the reins of security, little by little.
On a recent day, Capt. Jonathan Hamilton, commander of the weapons company of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, dropped by the Forsan station, with its impromptu salvage yard.
For more than a year since the Forsan police station was established as an outpost in the abandoned school, a detachment of Marines had lived and worked there alongside the Iraqi police.
Now, Hamilton said, it was time for the station to stand on its own. The police force had proved its ability to maintain the rule of law in this provincial capital of 400,000.
Gradually the Marines are trying to demilitarize the city, Hamilton said. They're pulling out units that billeted in 11 police stations, rolling up their razor wire and withdrawing to bases outside the city.
"We're not leaving, for sure," Hamilton said. "We're just reducing our footprint."
But during his visit to Forsan, the generator conked out. Hamilton held his meeting with Col. Hassan Nayif Abd, the south precinct commander, in the dark.
"Colonel Hassan," as the U.S. commanders call him, was comfortable with the Marine detachment leaving his station, but he certainly didn't want to go cold turkey. Could Hamilton send an engineer by to fix the generator?
Power failures are not the only challenges facing Ramadi's new police force as it lurches toward self-sufficiency. During four days spent with Hamilton's weapons company, the Los Angeles Times observed numerous issues with the management of police stations, including inefficient procurement and meddling by tribal sheiks.
Still, U.S. military and Iraqi police commanders are confident that the training and professionalism of the line policemen have progressed so far that there is no immediate concern over the resurgence of al-Qaida in Iraq.
"The security situation is good, and it is progressing every day," said Lt. Col. Dhahir Mahmoud Allawni, who runs the Warrar police station where insurgent suspects are detained. "The people will not accept that al-Qaida returns."
Almost unanimously, local Iraqi police commanders said they were ready to assume full responsibility but that it would be better to delay the hand-over until after provincial elections, which had been scheduled for October but are delayed indefinitely amid Iraqi political wrangling.
What concerns them is not al-Qaida in Iraq itself, they say, but the complex claims to power that have yet to be resolved after the expulsion of the extremists.
"We have some political conflict," Allawni said. "We have some greedy politicians. They put their self-interest in front of the people's interest. We have a big number of political parties delineated according to their tribes. The terrorists might exploit the conflicts."
Even as the official transfer of authority hangs in limbo, U.S. military and Iraqi police commanders continue taking concrete steps to transfer operational control.
Hamilton and other U.S. military advisers said the Iraqi recruits have progressed rapidly through the basics of police work, conducting checkpoints, searching people, handling detainees and field communications.
They aren't nearly as advanced in essential systems such as procurement, accounting, maintenance and weapons management, which require well-defined procedures and efficient relations with the Interior Ministry in Baghdad, both prone to breakdowns.
An incident a few weeks ago, in which a police officer killed a civilian at a checkpoint, illustrated the potential for discipline to unravel.
Finding the shooting unjustified, Forsan station commander Col. Mohammed Ali Abdnadi did what he was supposed to do, Hamilton said. He arrested the officer and began an investigation. But members of the victim's tribe, the Alwani, tried to impose a tribal solution. A gang of Alwani police from the north precinct stormed the south precinct headquarters, weapons blazing, to try to snatch the man.
Shooting continued until the Marines got involved, Hamilton said.
The Alwani sheiks then tried to pressure Abdnadi to turn the man over. The Marines intervened. "We made a statement, 'No, this isn't going to happen,' " Hamilton said.
The episode blew over. But could it happen again now that the Marines are leaving Forsan?
Hamilton said he expects his units to be entirely out of the city by the end of his deployment in the fall. But he pointed out that they'll still be nearby in forts outside the city.
"If something happens," he said, "we're in a good position to react."
Doug Smith and Saif Rasheed write for the Los Angeles Times.