The company commanders had their maps, their orders and their rules of engagement.

"As for the timeline, I'm going to ask you to remain flexible," said Army Maj. Doug Ollivant, who was running the pre-battle briefing one day this month. "You've just entered the world of political war, and it's not a guy wearing a uniform who is going to be making the final decision on where and when this happens."

Ollivant was, in fact, flexible when the order to scrub the mission reached his armored Humvee that night, on the way out of the main gate of the principal U.S. base in Najaf with a column of Abrams tanks raring to go behind him. But three nights later, when his radio crackled with the same message -- no go -- passed down from the same guy not wearing a uniform, the 1st Cavalry Division officer slapped the dashboard and cursed.

"Welcome to my world," he ruefully told a Special Operations officer who also had been whipsawed for two weeks by the shifting political calculations dictating how U.S. forces go about defeating a Shiite Muslim militia fighting from inside the holiest shrine in Shiite Islam.

"We're in the same world," the officer said with a smile. "Especially down here."

If there is any doubt that the new Iraqi government is calling the shots in this country, the supporting evidence is mounting daily in Najaf.

Here, on the order of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, night raids bolt forward or are halted, bombs fall from the sky or remain snuggled beneath the wings of F-15s, howitzers roar or are silenced, and ambitious combined arms operations are meticulously planned and then shelved, only to be revived a day later when a shift in the political winds has been detected.

"This mission is like Normandy, only instead of the weather, we're waiting on the politics," said Capt. Brian Ennesser, intelligence officer for the 1st Cavalry's 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment.

Though sometimes trying, even to commanders trained to be elastic, the situation is broadly welcomed by the U.S. military.

The Najaf battlefield revolves around the shrine of Imam Ali, now one of the most sensitive religious sites in the Muslim world. Since the invasion of Iraq 17 months ago, U.S. commanders have known to avoid the gold-domed site and leave its security largely to the Iraqi police.

But now that a Shiite militia known as the Mahdi Army has made the splendid shrine complex both hideout and firebase, U.S. officers say they welcome advice on how aggressively they can pursue a confrontation without enraging Muslims the world over.

"The only way people will accept this is if it is to be the desire of Iraqi leaders, not just the U.S. military," said an American official in Iraq who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In addition, U.S. officials and commanders say they are eager to see the Iraqi government step up and assume real authority.

"That's what we want: We want them to take charge so we can get the heck out of here," said Col. Dewitt Mayfield, senior planner for U.S. forces in Iraq. "It's their country, a sovereign government. Not very good, maybe, but sovereign."

Since the U.S.-led occupation authority transferred power to the Iraqis on June 28, the chain of command has kept its structure but changed personnel.

"It's civilian control of the military," said Maj. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who commands the 1st Cavalry. "That's what our system's all about."

Except now the civilians are not Americans.

At the austere desert headquarters of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit outside Najaf, war plans were being made last week in marathon meetings kicked off by Iraq's defense minister, Hazim Shalan.

"He sets the tone," an officer who was present said.

Shalan was one of three senior Iraqi cabinet members on the base, shuttling from Baghdad to give first-hand counsel to the generals, who understand that he speaks for Allawi. The prime minister, they say, also relies on Interior Minister Falah Naqib when making major decisions regarding the shrine, a cardboard model of which dominates the planning room.

"We're following strict guidance from the prime minister," said Capt. Carrie C. Batson, spokeswoman for the Marine command in Najaf. "We're talking to them probably five or six times a day. We're in constant contact with them."

It's a dramatic change from before June 28, when the Americans could do as they pleased.

"I used to have lunch with these guys," said one U.S. commander in Najaf. "We never talked about tactics a year ago. They only wanted to talk about politics. Now we're asking them what our options are, and what they aren't. Everything we're going to do is based on what the Iraqi government says."

Officers said the ban placed on U.S. troops firing toward the gold dome of the shrine was worked out with the Iraqis, who understood the propaganda catastrophe that could result from damage to the site.

On Friday, at the request of Iraqi officials, artillery units stopped firing 155mm rounds several hours before the Interior Ministry erroneously reported that the Mahdi Army was about to hand over the shrine to Iraqi police.

The Iraqi government also requests occasional pauses in U.S. offensive operations, as well as the lifting of such pauses for raids that perhaps remind Moqtada Sadr, the Shiite cleric who leads the Mahdi Army, just how big a hammer lay at hand.

So it was that on Saturday night, Ollivant was finally leading a column of tanks out of the main gate of Forward Operating Base Hotel toward a midnight rendezvous in the vast cemetery north of the shrine.

"We have to meet Bushmaster at the body washer's," the driver, Spec. Adam Dye of Chattanooga, Tenn. said. He was referring by radio code to the armored column that would be waiting at the mortuary where bodies are washed and wrapped before burial, in accordance with Muslim practice.

Ollivant, who has a doctorate in political science from Indiana University and taught political theory at West Point, was philosophical about the last scrubbed mission, which was yanked back by Allawi's announcement that Iraqi forces would lead the way in Najaf.

"Actually, in the long term, putting on my theory cap, it's a good sign," he said. "You've got a prime minister now who's actually countering Sadr's call."

But now, the theory cap was off and night-vision goggles were on for a mission that, for the first time, brought U.S. armor to the militia's backdoor, punching holes in a section of a parking garage not 400 yards behind the shrine. By 1 a.m., Ollivant and his battalion commander were looking down on the assault from the eerie beauty of tombs silhouetted by the colored lights draping the shrine's minarets.

Then a red line arced across the starry sky -- tracer fire from a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, answering a machine gun deep in the warren of mausoleums. A series of mortar explosions quickly followed as the militia homed in on the Bradley.

So it went for more than an hour, fire to the left, fire to the right, and from down the hill a rainbow of stuttering light -- now red, now yellow, now white white white -- as the Cavalry's armor detonated a string of roadside booby traps and lurched toward the target.

Edging closer to the action, the five command Humvees crawled through a narrow cemetery road when the machine gun opened up again. "Back up!" Ollivant shouted, as a rocket-propelled grenade detonated nearby and the Humvee's gunner ducked down from his turret. "Now!"

But the entire column had to back up in unison at an excruciating crawl, flanked by rows of tombs with their doors standing open. "You know what that was, Brian?" the major asked his intelligence officer back at the base, with the Cavalry armor headed home from a mission accomplished with no casualties. "That was a good old-fashioned cowboy raid!"

And that, apparently, is what Iraq's prime minister wanted. As the weeks have passed in Najaf and more ambitious military plans have been detailed, rehearsed and, in every case, set aside, Allawi has made his wishes clear. Accordingly, U.S. forces have calibrated an extremely slow but steady tightening of the armored noose around the shrine and Sadr's militia, while the government continually insists "a few hours" remain for Sadr to agree to a negotiated peace.

"This is classic, what Karl von Clausewitz said about war being politics advanced by other means," Ollivant said the morning after, referring to the Prussian military theorist. "And if I was to hazard a guess, I'd say that's what I was doing last night -- using violence to make a political point.

"And in the end, that's what we do. Whether patrolling or occupying or overthrowing governments, we advance politics."

Textbook stuff?

"It's partly what I was teaching," Ollivant said. "More what I've picked up in the last couple years."

Correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran in Baghdad contributed to this report.

In Najaf, U.S. Army soldiers are reflected in a mirror while aiming from a hotel in a battle with insurgents. U.S. troops have been in a stop-and-go battle with the Mahdi Army militia as the Iraqi government tries to negotiate a truce.