Today, a festive ceremony will mark the end of America's military presence in Iraq's major towns and cities. "Iraqi sovereignty day," as it is being termed, is another milestone en route to the complete withdrawal of all coalition troops, due to take place by the end of 2011.
Iraq will not achieve full sovereignty today, but the withdrawal ushers in a critical period during which the Iraqi army's ability to control major urban areas will be tested.
Already, these areas are posing a serious challenge, given the resumption of mass-casualty attacks. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki vows that Iraqi troops will be up to the task, and in truth, most American bases and positions are already being manned by Iraqi soldiers. But Maliki's assurances still require proof.
The security challenge, which is also worrying Syria, Jordan, Iran and the Gulf states, largely depends on Maliki's ability to stabilize his country's political mosaic.
Thus far, he has displayed an impressive ability to overcome political crises and persuade his rivals to cooperate. For instance, he successfully calmed the situation in the Basra province, and sectarian violence has virtually disappeared.
But he still faces enormous obstacles. These include the Kurds' demand that Kirkuk be made part of the Kurdish district and his rivals' perpetual demand for the establishment of an independent Shi'ite district in southern Iraq.
He will also have to placate the Sunnis, who still feel that they have lost political power and their role in the government is subordinate.
The real political battle will begin in another few months, in the run-up to the parliamentary election slated to take place in January. Maliki has already taken steps to block his political rivals, but he cannot guarantee that new coalitions will not be formed against him and result in him being ousted from power after the election. In that case, Iraq might once again become embroiled in political battles that spill over into the streets.
Another problem is the bureaucratic corruption, which has a decisive impact on Iraq's ability to finance its own budget. This is especially true given that according to Washington's projections, Iraq will be able to fund itself wholly from oil revenues only in another six or seven years.
The question is whether the United States will agree to continue financing the country until then if its forces are no longer stationed there.
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