In the days before Saturday's key provincial elections in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, the top American commander in the country, told ABC News in an exclusive interview that Iraq is "moving toward sustainable security and sustainable stability" but that U.S. commanders will have "to continue assessments" to determine how quickly to withdraw U.S. forces.
"I think we have to go through 2009 because of the three sets of elections that go on -- provincial elections, local elections and then national elections at the end of the year," he said. "And I think if we can get through that with the same or less number of incidents that are on going on [and] there is a transition of power in a safe way, then the transition is sustainable."
Odierno will tour Iraq in the spring to assess the situation on the ground before detailing a withdrawal proposal.
President Barack Obama recently has hinted he may not meet his campaign promise to withdraw the bulk of U.S. troops within 16 months of taking office. Odierno's assessment that it will take the rest of 2009 to determine the answer suggests the president's original timetable will be difficult to meet.
"We are discussing when we will reduce further -- not if, but when -- and that's all based on the progress we've made here," Odierno said.
The provincial elections and two others that follow are key determining factors. If they proceed safely -- and if they lead to peaceful transitions of power after the fact -- the withdrawal can proceed more quickly.
"The government has made progress," Odierno said. "But they still have a way to go yet. They still have some things they have to reconcile with. So again, I think it's an evolutionary process. We are moving forwards in that process but we still have a way to go."
The provincial elections are the equivalent of elections for U.S. state legislatures -- and they are enormous: 14,400 candidates representing 407 parties vying for 440 seats.
The elections present several firsts -- the first time individual candidates are on the ballot rather than general party lists, the first time it's been safe enough for candidates to campaign publicly and the first time Sunni parties are taking part en masse. This is a significant change from previous elections when Sunnis stayed away in droves, leaving themselves with little political representation -- a move now largely seen as a strategic mistake.
Security risks still are present. Five political candidates were assassinated in a recent 24-hour period.
One of the biggest challenges is not conflict but corruption. Good governance is essential. Without it, the political process appears hollow to many Iraqis.
Sheikh Fateh Kashif al-Ghita'a, director of the Al Thaqalayn Center for Strategic Studies in Baghdad, said that ordinary Iraqis remain disillusioned with politics.
"They don't have any trust in these people," he said. "For the past four elections, the people have lost faith, I'm sorry to say."