BAQOUBA, Iraq — Only about 200 American soldiers regularly patrol this city near Baghdad, and more will be leaving soon, handing control to Iraqi security. Although the Americans are leaving, the trouble stays behind, and it remains unclear whether the Iraqis can cope.

Debate is raging in Washington about the pace of a U.S. drawdown in Iraq, with all sides in agreement that handing security responsibility to the U.S.-trained Iraqi forces is the best way to reduce American deaths.

In Iraq, however, some American soldiers charged with training and preparing the Iraqis worry whether the rookie force is ready.

In Baqouba, for example, at least 100 civilians and Iraqi troops have been killed since Sept. 1, according to security and hospital officials. Provincial police statistics also show that about 300 have been killed in the city and surrounding province.

The situation is not entirely bleak in Baqouba and surrounding Diyala province, a religiously mixed area of lush citrus groves.

U.S. troops say attacks in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, have been cut in half since this time last year. Some Iraqis find hope in the fact that thousands of Sunni Arab residents turned out for the Oct. 15 referendum on the new constitution — even if most voted against it.

Officials expect a strong turnout again Thursday when Iraqis choose a new parliament to serve a full four-year term. U.S. and Iraqi officials believe a strong turnout would affirm public support for democracy and show that Iraqis are increasingly turning away from the Sunni-led insurgency.

Buildings scarred by gunfire and explosions are now plastered with hundreds of campaign posters of turbaned Shiite clerics running for office. At sunset, wedding parties in colorfully decorated cars cruise dusty streets marked by craters from roadside bombings.

But the signs are mixed.

In a bustling market filled with washing machines, mobile phones and other goods, a group of men confronted U.S. soldiers handing out leaflets offering rewards to turn in bombmakers and challenged claims that life here is improving.

"What does my government do?" one man asked aggressively.

"Doesn't he know about the millions in projects that his government has started?" Cpl. Zane Metin of San Jose, Calif., asked his interpreter.

"I haven't seen it," snapped the middle-aged man. A crowd of bystanders nodded in agreement.

"Look at my city," one said. "It is dirty, with all this trash."

Metin asked for patience.

"It takes time. The government is a baby and it can't grow up in one day," Metin said. He noted that dozens of trash bins had been added in each city district as part of a $1 million-cleanup campaign.

"We've been waiting for three years. You see all these people without jobs," the man said before an anxious commander told his soldiers to keep moving.

At the center of the debate about the city's future is the new Iraqi police force, which has withstood dozens of attacks that have killed over 30 soldiers and policemen since Sept. 1.

"In the last few months the relationship with the people and the Iraqi police has improved," said Khalid al-Singri, the mayor of Baqouba. "The police in the old days had no respect for people, but that's changed."

Unlike their predecessors who abandoned posts en masse in the fall of last year, over 3,000 policemen have shouldered the burden of patrolling the city and responding to attacks, say U.S. soldiers who work with them at a shared police station.

"Combat operations are not our primary mission anymore. It's training the Iraqi police," said Capt. Tony Caracio of Allentown, Pa., who said U.S. forces now mostly respond to large attacks while Iraqi soldiers have moved outside the city to defend the city's perimeter.

But other soldiers wonder if the Iraqis can stand up to the test on their own. One trainer, a police officer from California who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to talk to reporters, said it would take five years before the local police could handle the city without substantial U.S. help.

In August, a man with explosives strapped to his body sneaked into the police station dining hall, killing an American soldier and contractor and six Iraqis. Soldiers suspect that a policeman allowed the bomber into the walled facility.

Mismanagement has also hampered the force. This fall, one police chief in the city improperly hired nearly one 1,000 officers without authorization from the government, including hundreds who were illiterate and later dismissed, said Capt. Patrick Moffett of Manhattan Beach, Calif. The chief was also arrested for abusing detainees.

U.S. soldiers said abuse by Iraqi policemen had been evident, pointing to at least one case where a detainee suffered a broken ankle and arm during a police interrogation, but add that a subsequent crackdown and increased oversight had improved matters.

Although attacks have continued even with the addition of Iraqi troops, other soldiers say they have decreased to a point where a handover is possible within months, adding that hundreds more policemen will be added in the coming months.

"I think they're ready for it," said Moffett, a company commander in the 1st Battalion, 10th Field Artillery Regiment, about the scheduled cutback of U.S. forces by one-third to one-half its current size. "We do more than we need to right now, because we're here and we feel we should help."