Polls open throughout most of the country for a provincial election that could shift the balance of power.
Violence has plummeted and US forces are pulling back, but the year ahead will test the staying power of gains throughout the country.
The Iraqi premier is increasingly at risk as cracks in his Shiite-Kurdish coalition grow in the waning days of the Bush administration, his other main ally.
At a flash point for violence, an Army general plays diplomat.
The Kurdistan Regional Government is briskly pursuing oil and gas contracts and economic development, a drive that is chafing Iraq's central government in Baghdad.
Taha Barwari came back to northern Iraqi from Sweden with a mission to inspire young Kurds disaffected by decades of war.
The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq is expected to unveil a plan in May that it hopes will lead to a compromise over contentious land issues in oil-rich northern Iraq.
Tensions are rising between Kurdish, Arab, and Turkmen factions over power and populations in the province, the heart of northern Iraq's oil industry.
Al Qaeda-linked militants and Kurdish ultranationalists are both pressuring Iraq's largest Christian enclave.
American support in strike against PKK rebels threatens relations with key Iraqi allies.