The Iraqi soldiers had already searched the house, according to a sticker plastered across its front gate.
But when their commanding general and a U.S. colonel arrived one afternoon last week to praise their performance and observe them in action, the troops wanted to give a demonstration. With theatrical intensity, they charged the two-story structure on the nearly deserted block, rifles at the ready, while other soldiers and two reporters watched from the street.
A fiery explosion -- some soldiers said they saw a man throw a grenade, others said the door was rigged to blow -- erupted from inside, followed by bursts of gunfire. The shouting soldiers stumbled out through a cloud of smoke, covered in blood. The rest of the platoon, which had lost a lieutenant in a grenade attack the day before, appeared dejected, some huddling around the wounded, others sitting with their heads in their hands.
What happened next, commanders here said, suggested significant progress toward the goal of shifting security functions to Iraqi forces so that the United States can begin withdrawing troops from Iraq. When the clashes grew intense, the Iraqi soldiers did not shrink, American officers said.
"Okay, men, it's time to buck up and show our mettle," said a U.S. Special Forces soldier, acting as platoon commander, who allowed reporters to accompany the patrol on the condition that he not be named. "We can't let this stop us. We need payback!"
They went looking for revenge. When they were ambushed again, in a home one block away, they were ready. After a firefight, they came out smiling proudly, with several raising two fingers to indicate the number of insurgents killed.
"A couple of months ago, they might not have been able to pull it together after something like that," said Col. H.R. McMaster, commander of the U.S. Army's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, who witnessed the abortive raid and helped bandage an Iraqi soldier whose wounded hand was pouring blood onto the sidewalk. "They showed a lot of resolve. Eventually, they will be able to control this city."
The Tall Afar offensive, which began Sept. 2, is the largest urban military operation in Iraq since November's siege of Fallujah. Unlike many previous joint offensives, however, it is the Iraqi army that has the majority of the soldiers on the ground -- 5,000 of the roughly 8,500 troops involved -- that does the most intense fighting and that pays the heaviest price. At least nine Iraqi soldiers have been killed during the operation, compared with one American.
"We were not afraid. We are here to protect our country," said Pvt. Tarek Hazem, 28, of Baghdad, his hands and uniform still red with the blood of men he helped treat when the building exploded. "All we feel is motivated to kill terrorists."
Tall Afar's Sunni Muslim majority and its strategic location on a main insurgent smuggling route, 40 miles from Iraq's border with Syria, make the operation here an important test case for the transition of security duties to Iraqis, commanders said. "If we can get things under control and begin handing off responsibilities here, we can do it anywhere," McMaster said. "It won't happen overnight, but progress is being made."
But while it has provided evidence that the capabilities of Iraq's security forces are improving, the operation in Tall Afar has also laid bare the challenges they face as their role in fighting the insurgency expands.
Because the ranks of the Iraqi police force and army are filled mostly with Shiite Arabs and ethnic Kurds, they are perceived in many of the country's Sunni sections not as national forces but as factional hit squads bent on persecution. The ethnic tensions were evident in Tall Afar, a city of just over 200,000 predominated by Sunni Turkmens.
Most of the forces "are from the Badr Organization and the pesh merga," said Ibrahim Khalil, 20, one of about 4,000 Tall Afar residents, almost all of them Sunnis, living in a makeshift camp established by the Iraqi Red Crescent outside the city. He was referring to the country's predominant Shiite and Kurdish militias, respectfully.
"They wear the military uniform for disguise," he continued. "Their treatment is very bad. They were taking people to detention prisons just because they are Sunnis since the start of the military campaign."
The Iraqi soldiers from the pesh merga, which for many years was targeted by the Sunni-led army of Saddam Hussein and has long supported Kurdish forces fighting the Turkish government, spoke openly of their zeal to fight Tall Afar's Sunni Turkmen-led insurgency, according to U.S. soldiers who worked closely with them. Meanwhile, U.S. commanders grounded the mostly Shiite police commandos a few days into the operation, alleging overly aggressive tactics.
"The Iraqi army are the real terrorists. Even what they write on our walls is evidence, like 'Long live pesh merga' or 'Long live Badr,' " said Adnan Hussein, 39, who moved with his family to the camp for displaced residents. "They enter our houses and turn everything upside down. They scare our children."
Military commanders stressed that the Iraqi army's 3rd Division is a diverse force that represents all ethnic and sectarian groups, even though it is led by Maj. Gen. Khorsheed Salim, a former deputy commander of the pesh merga. American commanders said they worked hard to encourage more Sunnis to become police officers or soldiers but were thwarted by insurgents threatening to kill anyone who joined. Last month, local Sunni sheiks were asked to submit lists of people willing to join the police force. They provided only three names.
"What we're working toward is a national army, a national security force, not a Shiite or a Kurdish force, and anyone who thinks otherwise doesn't know the situation," said Maj. Chris Kennedy, the 3rd Armored Cavalry's executive officer. "We just had a recruiting drive for the army and got 400 recruits to sign up. Almost all of them are Sunnis. They will start basic training soon."
The assault on Tall Afar has also highlighted the fact that American forces still provide their Iraqi counterparts with significant logistical support as well as leadership in the form of advisers operating at the small-unit level.
U.S. vehicles escorted trucks providing food and water from Iraqi bases, and American airstrikes eliminated insurgent positions long before the Iraqi troops attacked. During the assault, each unit of 20 to 30 Iraqi soldiers has been led by U.S. Special Forces, and during the house-to-house raids in one neighborhood, only the Americans, working with interpreters, interviewed residents and used radios to coordinate with other units working close by.
"There is a definite lack of junior-level leadership among the Iraqi forces," said Lt. Col. Gregory Reilly, who commands the 3rd Armored Cavalry's 1st Squadron.
When the 3rd Armored Cavalry arrived in Tall Afar more than four months ago, the city was largely under the control of insurgents, and the Iraqi army's 3rd Division had retreated to a few large bases elsewhere in the region. But in preparation for this month's operation, U.S. and Iraqi commanders began reasserting their forces' presence in the city by stepping up combat patrols.
The units complemented each other, McMaster said. The Americans had a large contingent of armored vehicles and logistics capabilities, but lacked enough infantry to sweep all of Tall Afar's neighborhoods. The Iraqis lacked infrastructure and equipment, but they boasted thousands of men to deploy to the streets.
Still, some early joint missions went badly. In June, a platoon of Iraqis led by an American officer and platoon sergeant was ambushed in the Sarai neighborhood, then an insurgent stronghold. Many of the Iraqis fled, leaving the two Americans to fend off the advancing fighters. An American lieutenant colonel was killed in the engagement.
U.S. and Iraqi commanders acknowledge that it will be many months before the Iraqi units are able to function on their own, a belief echoed by dozens of Tall Afar residents interviewed during the operation. One year ago this month, U.S. and Iraqi forces swept through Tall Afar, but when the Americans largely withdrew from the region, the insurgency returned, stronger than ever.
"If the Americans leave, the chaos will come back. The bad people will come back again, just like before," said Abdullah Wahab Muhammed Younis, one of the city's most prominent Shiite sheiks, who said insurgents have killed 14 members of his family and wounded 33 in the past year.
"The Iraqi army is stronger than it was, but they are not ready. Not yet."