It was one of Obama’s biggest campaign promises: withdrawal of “combat forces” from Iraq within 16 months. He promised to give the Pentagon that new mission on his first day in office: one to two brigades would be withdrawn every month. He formulated that policy when Iraq was still a bloody battlefield for the United States. In those days, he wanted to end a war he felt was not only unjust, but also unwinnable. American soldiers, he said, shouldn’t be dying in a foreign civil war. Besides, the troops were needed more in Afghanistan.

The latter point remains valid, but it is Iraq, of all things, that counts as one of the few positive surprises of Bush’s legacy. Conditions there are better than even optimists had hoped for at the high point of the violence two years ago. At that time, Obama rejected George Bush’s strategy of a troop surge in early 2007. Today, Obama checks with his Generals as to what was learned in Iraq and how it could apply to the war in Afghanistan. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says there is no doubt that Afghanistan is today’s biggest military challenge.

Clearly, that doesn’t mean that it will be any easier for Obama to keep to his promised timetable, as conditions in Iraq remain fragile. Still, there is a broad consensus in Washington that a withdrawal will take place in the near future. The Bush administration already concluded a security agreement with Baghdad calling for the exit of all US troops by the end of 2011; unless the Iraqi government asks them to stay. But the Pentagon has countered Obama’s 16-month deadline by applying serious conditions. First and foremost, the US Commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, wants to leave as many of the 142,000 troops in the country as possible. Since his move into the White House, even Obama no longer talks about 16 months, but instead the “difficult decisions” that have to be made concerning Iraq and Afghanistan.

America’s dilemma in Iraq remains the same: nobody knows how sustainable the current period of relative peace really is, whether the nation is ready to stand on its own, or whether violence will again break out once the Americans leave. One important touchstone in Washington will be the regional elections this Saturday in 14 of the 18 Iraqi provinces. The balloting will be an early test of the political factions’ ability to bring about a peaceful coordination of interests. There are 14,400 candidates running on about 400 different platforms for 440 parliamentary seats. About 15 million of the 17.2 million eligible Iraqis are registered to vote, according to United Nations sources. Despite several political assassinations in the run up to the election, Washington hopes for much different conditions for this election than the one held in 2005, when candidates’ names were kept secret and a majority of Sunnis boycotted the voting entirely. The results of Saturday’s voting will not only determine the division of power in the Iraqi provinces, but perhaps whether or not Obama will be able to keep his promise for a troop withdrawal by May of 2010.