BAGHDAD -- Hamid Mohammed says he is certain of one thing: The Americans will never leave Iraq.
"They have come for their own interests. They will stay," said Mohammed, 36, an unemployed laborer who was passing time on a roadside, hoping someone would stop and offer him work for a day.
As he spoke, a U.S. military convoy of heavy brown Humvees rumbled past, heading toward a nearby base. Atop each vehicle, menacing in a helmet and dark visor, a gunner swept the surroundings with the barrel of a machine gun.
Almost two years after the Americans came here, many Iraqis say they see no sign that they're going to leave. Some shrug and say the U.S. presence is necessary to counter instability in Iraq. Others say that presence is causing the violence and the quickest way to end the insurgency is for the Americans to go home.
"They entered Germany and Japan in 1945, and they are still there," said Ahmad Kamal, 53, a disabled former soldier who runs a chicken grill. "Getting rid of Saddam Hussein was a great favor to the Iraqi people. But now they occupy our country."
Though the debate has been going on almost since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, it has taken on new urgency as a new Iraqi government begins to take shape in the capital. The leading political parties likely to form the government have so far agreed with the United States that it is unwise to set a timetable for a troop withdrawal. But others who will have a voice in the government are demanding deadlines, a call that strikes a strong nationalist chord among Iraqis who feel their own government ought to be in control.
"Their pretext for coming was the liberation of Iraq. But it's not liberation. It's occupation," Mohammed said. "Iraq should be for Iraqis."
As the United States refuses to set dates for even a phased withdrawal, some of its partners in the multinational force -- the Netherlands, Ukraine and Poland -- have been edging toward the door since the Jan. 30 elections.
"You don't want the enemy to say, 'We'll just wait them out,' " President Bush said two weeks ago. In his State of the Union address, he rejected what he called an "artificial timetable" and said forces would withdraw when Iraq becomes "a country that is democratic, representative of all its people, at peace with its neighbors and able to defend itself."
But Bush has also pledged that U.S. troops would leave if a legitimate Iraqi government asked them to. The election, in which 58 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, is producing a government that will likely be widely regarded as legitimate, but it will not quickly make that request, the leading contenders for top posts have indicated.
The largest bloc in the incoming National Assembly is a Shiite Muslim-led coalition guided by an edict from Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to be patient and cooperate with the U.S. forces. The slate's leading candidates for prime minister have reaffirmed that stance.
The second-largest vote total went to a coalition of ethnic Kurdish parties that depended on U.S. military protection in northern Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War and allied themselves closely with the United States during the war that toppled Hussein. The slate that came in third is headed by the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, whose exile group, the Iraqi National Accord, was backed by the CIA. Allawi is a strong supporter of the U.S. troop presence.
Many in Iraq's Sunni Arab minority -- which largely sat out the election because of a boycott and fear of insurgent attacks -- take a more strident view. The most influential Sunni group, the Association of Muslim Scholars, is adamant that the United States set a timetable for withdrawal of its troops.
Though the Sunnis' boycott has left them largely without elected representation in the new assembly, the leading parties have been unanimous in vowing to bring them into the government.