BAGHDAD — Iraq will serve as an early test of Barack Obama's skill in weighing options and measuring risks. The next few months should give an indication whether he can end the Iraq war without risking new violence that could threaten U.S. interests throughout the Middle East.
Ending the war, which the Congressional Budget Office says costs $145 billion a year, would fulfill an important campaign promise and free up military resources for the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
But can Iraq stand on its own without the U.S. presence?
After so many sacrifices, can the U.S. afford to watch a country of 27 million people, strategically located next to Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia and with one of the world's major sources of oil, collapse into chaos?
The first signs of where Iraq is headed should come soon after the president-elect takes office Jan. 20, when Iraqis choose ruling councils in most of the country's 18 provinces.
At the same time, the Iraqis will be assuming more control of Baghdad and integrating former Sunni insurgents into the security forces or civilian government jobs.
If those steps go smoothly, Iraqis will have a real chance of maintaining the security gains since the U.S. troop buildup of last year.
If they don't, the new president would have to decide whether to slow the U.S. departure despite his promise to remove American combat troops within his first 16 months in office.
Provincial elections have been widely seen as a major step in forging power-sharing agreements among Iraq's religious and ethnic communities that the U.S. believes are key to lasting peace.
The Bush administration has been pressing the Iraqis to hold those elections to empower the Sunnis, who launched the insurgency in 2003. Many Sunnis have stopped fighting and forged ties with the U.S.
But Sunnis largely boycotted the last provincial ballot in January 2005, depriving them of representation on local ruling councils and giving a greater share of power to Shiites and Kurds, even in areas with substantial Sunni populations.
There's real fear that the election, expected at the end of January, could heighten tensions among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds -- especially in the ethnically mixed north, where those groups are competing for power in the volatile city of Mosul and elsewhere.
Trouble is also possible in the heavily Shiite south, where the competition is between Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's Dawa Party and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the two main Shiite parties in the national government.
Both face a common challenge from followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr, who maintains a following among impoverished Shiites despite the defeat of his Mahdi Army militia.
The Supreme Council, which controls most southern provinces, wants to establish a nine-province Shiite self-ruled region in the south similar to a Kurdish area in the north that has enjoyed broad autonomy since 1991.