The plan was simple: Iraqi troops would block escape routes while U.S. soldiers searched for weapons house by house. But the Iraqi troops...

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — The plan was simple: Iraqi troops would block escape routes while U.S. soldiers searched for weapons house by house. But the Iraqi troops didn’t show up on time.

When they finally did appear, the Iraqis ignored U.S. orders and let dozens of cars pass through checkpoints in eastern Baghdad — including an ambulance full of armed militiamen, U.S. soldiers said.

It wasn’t an isolated incident, they added.

Senior U.S. commanders have hailed the performance of Iraqi troops in the crackdown on militias and insurgents in Baghdad. But some U.S. soldiers say the Iraqis serving alongside them are among the worst they’ve seen — seeming more loyal to militias than the government.

That raises doubts whether the Iraqis can maintain order once the security operation is over and the Americans have left. It also raises broader questions about the training, reliability and loyalty of Iraqi troops — who must be competent, U.S. officials say, before America can begin pulling out of Iraq.

Last week, for example, Sgt. 1st Class Eric Sheehan could barely contain his frustration when he discovered that barriers and concertina wire that were supposed to bolster defensive positions had been dragged away — again — under the noses of nearby Iraqi soldiers.

“[I] suggest we fire these IAs and get them out of the way,” Sheehan, of Jennerstown, Pa., reported to senior officers, referring to Iraqi army troops. “There’s nothing we can do,” came the reply.

U.S. soldiers from the 4th Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment eventually blocked the road again while Iraqi troops watched from a distance.

Some Americans speculated the missing barriers were dragged off to strengthen militia defenses in nearby Sadr City, a sprawling Shiite neighborhood that is a stronghold of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

“They’ve been doing this all week. They’re working against us,” said Sheehan, who resorted to waking up the senior Iraqi officer at the checkpoint to complain — futilely.

Some Americans said they had seen much better Iraqi troops in the northern cities of Mosul and Tal Afar, which have more Kurdish soldiers. They have been disappointed by the performance of units committed to the Baghdad fight.

U.S. officers believe the problem has political and sectarian roots: Many of the Iraqi soldiers here are Shiites recruited from the Baghdad area.

As the security crackdown focuses on Shiite neighborhoods, Iraqi troops come in contact with fellow Shiites from some of the 23 known militias. That puts great stress on the soldiers, who grew up in a society where respect for religion runs far deeper than for government institutions.

“From my perspective, you can’t make a distinction between Iraq army Shiites and the religious militias. You have a lot of soldiers and family members swayed and persuaded by the religious leadership,” said Col. Greg Watt, who advises one of two Iraqi divisions in the city.

Watt expressed confidence the Iraqi army could win in a pitched battle against militias.

“But what the Iraqi army can’t do is protect soldiers when they go home, or protect their families,” he added. “It’s very, very difficult. That’s why a solution has to be a political one and not a military one.”

U.S. military leaders have repeatedly called on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, to aggressively disband the predominantly Shiite militias, but, so far, little progress is seen on Baghdad’s streets.

Other developments

• Iraq’s feuding ethnic and sectarian groups agreed Sunday to consider amending the constitution and begin debating legislation to create a federated nation. Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish political leaders agreed on a compromise that will allow parliament to take up Shiite-proposed draft legislation to permit creation of partly self-ruling regions. Sunni Arabs have fought the federalism bill, fearing it will splinter the country and deny them a share of Iraq’s oil, which is found in the predominantly Kurdish north and the heavily Shiite south.

• Two U.S. Marines died in combat in restive Anbar province west of Baghdad, the U.S. military said. As of Sunday, at least 2,701 members of the U.S. military have died since the war began, according to an Associated Press count.

• At least 20 people were killed and 37 injured Sunday in violence around Iraq, including a mortar attack on the Health Ministry in Baghdad and a car bombing aimed at a police patrol in the city. Police also discovered 13 more apparent victims of sectarian death squads.

• The prime minister’s office said Iraqi forces had arrested a leader and seven aides in the 1920 Revolution Brigades, also known as the al-Ashreen Brigades, a group responsible for attacks and kidnappings.