At around in the morning, just south of the town of
It was a quiet night, and there was little to see or hear, apart from the sound of boots crunching along the dirt tracks and the barking of the stray dogs that accompanied them.
Balad Ruz lies near the Iranian frontier.
Until a year ago, the town and its surrounding countryside was a lawless region, a haven for al-Qaeda fighters and a hideout for weapons smugglers.
Since then, al-Qaeda forces have been largely pushed out, by joint US and Iraqi military operations.
But the smugglers are still coming through, bringing in rockets, explosives, bomb-making equipment and expertise across the border from
"They could be moving stuff to go down to either
The American Stryker armoured vehicles are fitted with sophisticated infrared and thermal imaging technology, not at the disposal of the Iraqi police and army.
But despite their hi-tech equipment, so far the Americans are having little luck.
"We do know that a lot of the arms, ammunitions and explosives that we find here, being used against the Iraqi security forces, our forces and against the Iraqi people clearly have originated from Iran," says Col David Funk.
Col Funk is the officer in charge of US forces in Diyala province, an area of eastern
The Americans believe that their presence there, and their training of the Iraqi border force, is at least partly responsible for a drop in weapons smuggling.
But rockets and other ordnance are still coming through, and the
"There are those in the Iranian government who clearly do not want
With less than a week to go until the Parliamentary vote, the streets of
A profusion of faces stared down at the traffic.
The Americans have accused
Maj Gen Steve Lanza, the chief spokesman for US forces in
"What we've seen in some cases is what we call a malign influence. And that influence in some cases has come from
In the past few weeks, accusations of foreign funding have flown back and forth between the various political parties.
In the absence of a legal paper-trail, the allegations are hard to prove. In any case, such financial contributions would not be illegal.
But Western diplomats in
The history of
As a member of
In the 1980s and 1990s, during and after the decade-long war between the two countries, many Shia leaders fled
But the toppling of Saddam Hussein has led to a Shia renaissance.
Many of those Shia politicians have now returned from
Movement and links between the two countries, once virtually impossible, are now blossoming.
Nowhere is this new relationship more apparent than in the city of
The city is a magnet for Shia pilgrims.
They flock here from across the Islamic world, arriving in their millions every year.
The biggest groups come from
On a recent Friday, several hundred mostly Iranian pilgrims were kneeling on the carpeted floor in the courtyard of the shrine, chanting in Persian, beating their chests.
Released from its Saddam-era constraints, Najaf is rapidly regaining its place as the epicentre of Shia religious and political power.
Sheikh Mohammed al-Yakoubi is one of the top religious authorities at the shrine.
He says that unlike the clerics of
They have resisted considerable pressure to publicly endorse any Shiite parties.
But, in carefully-worded language, he admits that there are those who would like to harness that Shia power for their own ends.
"Certainly there are schemes to manipulate the outcome of the elections in a way that would suit the major regional players."
But many believe it is
Iyad Jamal Aldin is a Shia cleric and a candidate in the upcoming election.
He is also a fierce critic of
At the end of last year, Iranian forces seized an Iraqi oil field near the Iranian border, an area that has never been properly defined since the Iran-Iraq war.
The dispute was eventually resolved peacefully:
But Aldin cites the incident as one of many reasons why
And, he says, the wholesale dismantling of the Iraqi army by the
"Americans opened the door for Iranians to occupy the country," he said during a recent meeting at his home in central
"And now they want to withdraw. The Americans have to stay until we have a proper army."
'Hard to soft'
It plans to withdraw all its combat forces from
Back in Diyala province, within sight of the border with
The commanding officer, Capt Andrew Marsh, calls their activities here "on the job training" for the Iraqi border force.
He is confident that the Iraqi military will be capable of securing the border on their own, once the Americans leave.
While out on patrol, Capt Marsh and his men took time out to inspect flood damage after recent heavy rains.
They will rebuild bridges and roads that have been swept away.
But as they reduce their numbers, that "soft power" is also getting softer.
On either side of the border everyone is conscious of the fact that the Americans will not be here for much longer.
The question is, what happens once they are gone. Because
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