The U.S. military says it controls most of Iraq, but the truth is that nobody controls much of anything.

While military action and media coverage have focused mostly on the major cities -- such as Nasiriyah, Najaf and Basra -- scores of smaller cities remain inaccessible. And what's happening in them is essentially a question mark.

Although Central Command said late last week that U.S. forces have covered more than half of Iraq, relief agencies have been restricted to small portions of the country, and representatives say a vast majority of small and medium-sized towns are relatively quiet -- perhaps too quiet.

"We really don't know," said Michael Kocher, an official with the International Rescue Committee relief group. "Towns with 30,000, 40,000, 50,000 people. I would find it extraordinarily surprising if looting is going on in all these places."

The fact that nobody seems to be running from them -- something relief groups consider the first sign of trouble -- suggests that local civil authority has already made the leap to a new era.

Looting and factional feuding, along with pockets of pro-Saddam resistance, have erupted in most of the major urban centers in the country, putting pressure on the U.S. military to take on the sort of police duties it abhors.

Yet lawlessness has abated in those places, and local leaders are emerging with the fall of an oppressive regime. Iraqis may have a clearer and more complicated picture of postwar Iraq than the U.S. planners who aim to lead reconstruction -- particularly in the small towns under the radar of media and the military.

"If you have a council of elders and the coalition did not go through, you might even have police in uniform," Kocher said. "We have heard of civilian patrol groups."

Marine Maj. Brad Bartelt, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said he could not say much about what the military knew about areas outside its control for "operational security issues."

"The coalition is expanding areas of influence throughout the country, concentrating efforts on security and stability," Bartelt said. "The gradual indications of everyday life are returning to Iraq."

Outside the U.S. sphere of influence, Bartelt said he could not confirm rumors and press reports that indicate conditions are mixed -- with Saddam Hussein's Baath party officials already chased out in some areas, but still wielding control in others.

Some war critics feared that Iraq would break up along ethnic and religious lines, just as Somalia and Yugoslavia collapsed into anarchy after the fall of a strong central authority.

One of the most visible signs of partitioning may be occurring in Baghdad. Local clerics in a district called Saddam City have take over police duties, hospitals, clinics and food distribution. The district is home to 2 million Shiite Muslims, who make up a majority of Iraq's 24 million people.

Military action and media coverage have focused mostly on the major cities, but relief groups have been restricted to small portions of the country. Three relief groups will get one of the longest tours of the hinterlands on Wednesday, when the U.S.-led military opens Nasiriyah to humanitarian agencies.

The lack of clean drinking water is the most pressing need, aid groups say.

On a map, Iraq's borders are vaguely triangular, with the Euphrates River slicing the country in half from the center of the triangle's northwest side to its lower right corner in the southeast near Basra and Umm Qasr.

Southwest of the river lies a vast desert wasteland, virtually uninhabited, according to population density maps. Almost all the nation's 24 million inhabitants are along the Euphrates and to the northeast toward the border with Iran.

While Pentagon maps show huge swaths of western Iraq under coalition control, very few Iraqis live there. And while coalition troops have moved into major cities like Basra, Nasiriyah, Najaf and Karbala along the Euphrates, as well as Kut and Amarah to the east along the Tigris River, hundreds of towns and villages have been hopscotched past.

"I would tell you that we know that there are still some places where we have not accounted for all military activity," U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said Monday in Qatar. "There are also places inside of the country that we have not physically gone to yet, and that has to be done."