MOSUL, Iraq — Iraqi troops on patrol with U.S. forces had just captured and cuffed a sniper suspect in this northern city when a bomb hidden in a box of biscuits exploded under an Iraqi army pickup truck.
Screaming and shouting filled the air. Four soldiers were wounded. Then the insurgents opened fire.
Unable to escape the ambush, Iraqi troops began shooting wildly in all directions, including straight up. As the shooting continued, American soldiers and an Iraqi translator screamed at them to stop, but they ignored the calls. The barrels of the Iraqis' weapons glowed bright white with heat.
"I didn't think they had that much ammunition," a U.S. soldier said.
In the tense moments that followed, American troops shook their heads and rolled their eyes as they waited for the firing to end. "Wait until they stop shooting before we get out and pick up the wounded," a U.S. sergeant advised.
The U.S. military's hopes for saying farewell to Iraq are riding on home-grown troops who are so prone to firing in error or panic that they aren't allowed in American armored vehicles.
They remain woefully under-equipped and arrive at their combat missions in unshielded pickup trucks. Ethnic resentments divide the ranks of what should be cohesive units fused by comradeship and sacrifice.
Despite such shortcomings, U.S. soldiers say they are deeply impressed with the progress Iraqi troops have made. The U.S. credits Iraqi forces with helping to cut attacks by half since insurgents launched an offensive here in November as the U.S. confronted rebels to the south in Fallouja.
In a few months, U.S. commanders say, newly minted Iraqi army units, some of which include soldiers of former dictator Saddam Hussein's military, have come to excel at capturing insurgents. They are much more capable than U.S. forces at identifying guerrillas among the general population. They speak the language and are adept at securing residents' cooperation.
"They can do what we can't do as Americans," said Army Sgt. Domingo Ruiz, who often works alongside Iraqi special forces. "It's just like back home. I'm a Puerto Rican from New York. If some stranger came into my neighborhood and started asking for information, nobody would tell them anything."
Hoping to accelerate a process that will hasten their exit, U.S. forces have begun placing Iraqis in the forefront of anti- insurgency operations. In Mosul, the military is relying primarily on Kurdish soldiers from the north and Shiite Muslims from the south, groups that were violently suppressed by Hussein and empowered by the Jan. 30 election.
The goal, U.S. commanders say, is to eventually turn control of the city over to the Iraqi army. Already, units in Brig. Gen. Shakir's 6th Special Forces Brigade, 1st Division, have been given sway over a section of central Mosul that includes city hall and provincial offices. Shakir chose to withhold his first name to spare his family unnecessary risk. They have already been the targets of a drive-by shooter, he said, and have received threats by telephone.
But officers with the U.S. 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, Stryker combat team, the main coalition force in Mosul, say Iraqi soldiers are still in the "not-ready-for-prime-time phase." Iraqi commanders themselves complain that they lack adequate equipment and control over their troops.
Sniper rifles, rocket- propelled grenades, mortars and better machine guns are badly needed, they say. Also, Iraqi soldiers are frustrated by their reliance on unarmored vehicles. The army's primary combat transport is a two-wheel-drive Nissan pickup. "We need good vehicles, the same as the Humvees," Shakir said.
Yet the greater challenge is making soldiers out of the men who join the armed forces and building institutions to raise the level of discipline and leadership.
Lt. Col. Abbas, another Iraqi special forces commander, who also declined to give his first name, pointed out that the army lacked a military court system to define the limits of acceptable behavior.
"When a soldier raises his weapon to face one of his officers, there's no punishment," Abbas said. "All I can do is fire him or cut his pay. In this way, I'd have to fire half my battalion to keep control."
There are other hurdles observed by U.S. troops and advisors that Iraqi commanders are less willing to admit. They include ethnic divisions among troops and a dangerous lack of discipline in handling weapons.
In some cases, units made up of Kurdish soldiers have refused to take orders in any language other than their own, straining relations with Arabic-speaking troops. Also, U.S. soldiers say the new Iraqi units will sometimes shoot wildly in all directions -- even in densely populated areas -- when panicked. Iraqi soldiers are barred from riding in the U.S. brigade's armored vehicles due to accidental discharges that have injured and killed both U.S. and Iraqi soldiers.
"When they start shooting, you best get down," one American soldier remarked.