The two sides squared off in a brightly patterned tent big enough to hold about 100 angry Sunni Muslim clan chiefs, the Shi'ite Muslim police chief, two Shi'ite government officials and -- overseeing all -- one frustrated senior U.S. Army officer.
In the Arab world, such tents are put up for weddings, wakes or tribal gatherings where the local sheik hears grievances. The "sheik" in this case is Lt. Col. Michael Getchell, and the tent is the new battleground for American troops given the job of nation-building, city by city, in an Iraq battered by five years of violence.
It's uncharted territory for U.S. commanders. Instead of going into battle, they are dishing out cash to businesses to generate jobs, listening to pleas to free relatives in American custody and trying to settle bitter rivalries between Shi'ites and Sunnis. The latter was what Col. Getchell was doing in that tent on the edge of Iskandariyah, a mixed-population city with a complex tribal structure.
"Four or five years ago, we did not know any of this," said Capt. Michael Penney, a soft-spoken Texan under Col. Getchell's command who is on his second tour in Iraq. "It's challenging to adjust. Last time I was here, it was strictly security, chasing the enemy; but the way things are now, I had to adjust or risk failure."
To see how the U.S. military is handling its new duties, the Associated Press embedded this reporter three times in recent months with a unit that shared a downtown post with Iraqi police in this city of 150,000 people along a busy highway 30 miles south of Baghdad.
Iskandariyah was once one of the country's bloodiest war fronts. But the violence began to wane in mid-2007 after the U.S. troop surge and the decision by some tribal leaders and insurgents to cooperate with the Americans. For the past year, Col. Getchell's troops from Fort Campbell, Ky., have struggled to hold the fragile peace together.
So far it's working, despite occasional flare-ups. But American involvement in almost every aspect of daily life has expanded the vacuum to be filled when U.S. forces leave.
Most of the American troops based here have moved to the edge of the city, and the last soldiers will leave Iskandariyah to head home next month. Some U.S. officers express confidence the calm will survive their departure, but the city's Sunni and Shi'ite sheiks are far more nervous.
The opposite views are no surprise. While the Iraqis and Americans speak of each other as friends -- and exchange hugs and kisses in Arab fashion, they often seem to be talking past each other. The U.S. officers are all about team spirit and getting down to business, while the Iraqis take tribal perspectives, tend to wander around the subject and can be loose with the truth to smear a rival or gain advantage for their clan.
The 120 men of Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 502nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division arrived in Iskandariyah last November. The city is a dusty place of tall date palms and long-slung buildings, home to a state-owned industrial complex that once had 36,000 workers making buses, trucks and agricultural machinery.
Nearly 70 percent of the population is Shi'ite, and the rest is Sunni. Part of Babil province, the city is the gateway to the Shi'ite heartland of southern Iraq and a main crossroad between Baghdad and the Shi'ite shrine city of Karbala, with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims passing through.
Barely a year ago, Iskandariyah was a stronghold of militants on both sides. Residents say sectarian violence was so ferocious that hardly anyone showed up for work at the factories, and streets emptied by early afternoon.
"My predecessor was killed on his way to work here, and he only lived one kilometer away," said Raad Bahloul Moussa, director of the city's truck factory. "I used to change cars every month, always buying a different color to escape detection. Now I drive to work in a car with the words 'Ministry of Industry' written on its side."
These days, shoppers throng outdoor food markets, stores remain open well after dark and children go to school regularly. Enrollment in the city's sole vocational school -- partly supported with U.S. funds -- swelled from 30 a year ago to 1,270 this past summer.
"We do not only offer training, but we also contribute to security because some of the students who enrolled here would have otherwise planted roadside bombs or joined militias," said the school's director, Naseer Abdul-Jabar.
In preparation for their departure, the American officers are trying to get people to take their problems to the municipal council and provincial government. And with less money for business grants and salaries for private security forces, they're urging the Iraqis to find other sources of cash.
"My goal is that there will be no more need for coalition forces here when I and my unit leave," Capt. Penney told community leaders in July.
Capt. Penney, a native of Jacksboro, Texas, met Sheik Zaher al-Shafaie soon after arriving in Iskandariyah. Sheik al-Shafaie has an English degree from Baghdad University and an extensive vocabulary of American profanities. The Shi'ite sheik's family sided with the Americans early in the war, inviting danger.
The two men act friendly, but their relationship seems based mostly on mutual need.
Capt. Penney sought Sheik al-Shafaie's help to secure Iskandariyah and help reconcile Shi'ite and Sunni clans. Sheik al-Shafaie wanted some reward to bolster his standing in his clan -- money for a showcase project or a bigger contract to supply the Americans with armed security men.
"We have been friends with the coalition forces from the very beginning, but we got nothing in return," Sheik al-Shafaie told Capt. Penney during one conversation in May.
"Al-Shafaie always wants to make you feel that you owe him," Capt. Penney said later.
Capt. Penney brought together Sheik al-Shafaie and Sunni sheiks with whom he has a long-running blood feud to explore whether they could jointly set up a farmers' cooperative.
"Sheik Zaher," Capt. Penney told the sheik during the May meeting, "you always give me so many suggestions. I want to make just one suggestion to you: Complete the reconciliation."
But Sheik al-Shafaie says he's survived two assassination attempts by Sunni militants and claims the rival sheiks facilitated the murder of two of his brothers and nine cousins. He demanded that the Sunni suspects be brought to justice. The Sunnis replied that they would try to find the suspects and hand them over to police if Sheik al-Shafaie could identify them.
Sheik al-Shafaie was not convinced. He sent a younger brother in his place to further meetings on the cooperative, which was finally set up in late summer but has done little to foster reconciliation.
"It's a start," Capt. Penney said. "I think it is more of a power struggle than an issue of reconciliation."
One night, as he sat in his cramped quarters before a picture of his two young boys, Michael Ezekiel and Samuel Christian, Capt. Penney mused on his family and his mission in this dusty corner of Iraq.
"Personally, I feel good about what we have accomplished here," he said.
And does he think the calm in the city can last?
"Our experience tells us that as fragile as reconciliation is in Iskandariyah, it will take something really big to break it down," he said.
Sheik Abdul-Ameer al-Wajid and 1st Lt. Eric Zellers hugged and kissed before the Iraqi complained that the 24-year-old West Point graduate had not been to see him in three weeks.
"How could a friend do that to a friend?" said the sheik, assuming a hurt expression and peering from behind tinted glasses.
Sheik al-Wajid, 65, and his son, Wissam, run a group of 200 Shi'ite fighters who have joined the Americans in Iskandariyah to fight Sunni and Shi'ite militants.
The sheik is typical of community leaders who have offered the Americans loyalty and inside knowledge of the region in exchange for wages for themselves and their armed neighborhood guards. Such communities with guards to support U.S. troops across Iraq received more than $200 million through July.
Lt. Zellers, an engineer, is among hundreds of young American officers in Iraq implementing a new strategy that focuses on financing small projects such as fish and poultry farms to generate jobs and win good will for the U.S.
"Iraq is so complex. It is not easy to work here or get things done," Lt. Zellers said before he heard a lengthy list of complaints about problems the sheik faces running U.S.-backed armed checkpoints.
Lt. Zellers, who is from Battle Creek, Mich., wanted to weed out some lazy or incompetent men on the sheik's neighborhood guard.
"Obviously, we must start firing people. I will do it. Just put together a list of names and I will take care of it," Lt. Zellers said. "I am tired of talking."
The sheik was afraid of losing face with his clan.
"Give me the power and I will have them beaten up or jailed," he suggested.
Lt. Zellers nixed that idea. Then came the announcement that dinner was ready, and Iraqis and Americans dug into rice, lamb and chicken served on communal platters, ending any discussion of firing the sheik's clansmen.