For more than two years, the progress in Iraq has often appeared to be in a holding pattern - waiting for an election, the training of more Iraqi troops, or a waning of the insurgency.
Yet many of the variables for progress are at last clicking into place, as witnessed by the decision last week to hold back two US Army brigades scheduled to deploy to Iraq. With a new government and a growing domestic army, Iraq has laid the groundwork for its future politics and security. The new year will be its truest test.
"We've had a lot of these statements of progress just around the corner," says Andrew Krepinevich, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. But "2006 is the crucial year."
American officials and experts have talked many times of turning points and crucial months since the fall of Baghdad. Some analysts caution against drawing too many conclusions from the year to come.
But in three crucial areas - politics, military training, and military strategy - the Iraq enterprise is moving from infancy toward maturity.
In recent weeks, there have been positive signs. The Dec. 15 election gave the country its first permanent government since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Last month, Iraqi soldiers began to take a more active role in the country's own defenses, particularly in the offensive against insurgents in Tal Afar. And a clearer strategy of patrolling border regions, clearing insurgents from cities, and holding the territory to prevent their return played a part in a drop in car bombings in November, officials said.
Now, in the long exhale after the December elections, the coming year will provide the first sketches of whether Iraq's various factions and sects can work together to run a country and an army.
While military leaders have insisted that American forces will remain in Iraq as long as is needed, they have clearly looked to the months after the election as an important time. Before the war began, the Pentagon had expected to be able to withdraw tens of thousands of troops from Iraq not long after the end of hostilities. When it became clear that the insurgency would make that impossible, eyes turned to 2006.
This past April, Gen. George Casey, the commander of American forces in Iraq, told CNN: "By this time next year - assuming that the political process continues to go positively - and the Iraqi army continues to progress and develop as we think it will, we should be able to take some fairly substantial reductions in the size of our forces."
Last week, he announced that two brigades scheduled to go to Iraq will not go - though one will go to Kuwait as a "hedge against the uncertainty of the next few months," General Casey said. It is far from the wholesale withdrawal that critics have called for, but it is significant. It will bring the total number of US troops in Iraq to about 130,000 - 30,000 less than a month ago, and 8,000 below the base line that the military has maintained as a minimum throughout much of the war.
Moreover, it hints at the gradual drawdown that many analysts expect during 2006, with the military attempting to bring its total presence in Iraq to about 100,000 by year's end.
To some, this is as much about necessity as military strategy.
"If we're still at 140,000 troops in a year, I will be severely worried about the well-being of the all-volunteer force," says Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution here in Washington.
Then again, he acknowledges that he is somewhat surprised that the US military hasn't cracked already. There are obvious signs of strain, such as the drop-off in recruiting earlier this year and a rise in the divorce rate among soldiers. But the commitment of this generation of soldiers to the cause - most obvious in high reenlistment rates - makes it difficult to predict when, or if, the military will break.
"That the Army has held together is a great tribute to the patriotism of the American soldier," says Dr. Krepinevich.
For its part, the Army dismisses any claims that it is strained and insists that it can fill deployments to Iraq for the foreseeable future. But the military, too, sees a shift in its role. There is an effort to push Iraqi units into the front lines and increasingly use US forces to help build the Iraqi Army's poor logistics.
The idea is predicated on the expectation that Iraqi soldiers will be ready to take the lead, and it is fundamental to the broader US military strategy in Iraq of "clear and hold." Iraqis will be the ones called on to do most of the holding. Even under the best circumstances, the process of both building the Iraqi Army and defeating the insurgency could take years.
But Krepinevich suggests that now is the time for Iraq to take more of the burden upon itself: "At some point you have to start making progress."