The summer recess of Iraq's parliament sent a worrisome signal to Americans concerned about U.S. troops bearing more than their share of the war's burdens.
So it's up to the high-level elected officials left behind to send a different signal:
They are ready to move on benchmarks designed to promote national reconciliation, including provincial elections, de-Baathification, and a plan to share oil revenue.
Gen. David Petraeus, commander of multinational forces in Iraq, would like to see signs of such readiness emerge from meetings scheduled for next week, though he recognizes the difficulty of the task ahead.
"To be fair to them, they are dealing with fundamental issues that will shape Iraq for the foreseeable future, so it's somewhat understandable that there's a good bit of wrangling," he said to me in a telephone interview this week. "Provincial powers, for example. That's akin to our own debate during the creation of the U.S. about states' rights. And it took us more than a few years to resolve that."
Nevertheless, as leaders gather to discuss parliamentary boycotts and other crises, Petraeus and his civilian counterpart, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, would like to see Iraqis "develop a process that can give hope they can come to grips with these tough pieces of legislation."
Iraqis share Americans' impatience with the war and are aware of the urgency for political progress. "None of them are happy with the situation either," Petraeus says.
Despite problems at the national level, he says local leaders who have rejected the "Taliban ideology" of al-Qaeda in Iraq are "stepping up to the plate" throughout the country, and so is the Iraqi military.
Of the latter, Petraeus says, "Some need work; some still to a degree are influenced by sectarian agendas, but others are truly high-end, superb units, and a number of them are fighting with our forces and taking some very tough losses." Typically, three times U.S. casualty rates, he adds.
Those efforts and more will be needed before Iraq can achieve the objectives that define winning for Petraeus: a country that can secure itself, that is not a haven for terrorists, that has achieved adequate reconciliation among ethno-sectarian groups, that is no longer in humanitarian crisis, that can enforce the basic rule of law, and that participates in the region and the international community in the manner of other independent states at peace with each other.
Standing in the way of those goals is al-Qaeda in Iraq.
"They're trying to reignite sectarian violence," Petraeus says, "indiscriminately blowing people up, destroying infrastructure, trying to find another event like the destruction of the Golden Dome in Samara that sparked sectarian killings in 2006."
Another problem he points to are "militia extremists trained, equipped, funded and directed by the Quds Force in Iran," which, if left unchecked, could pose the same problem in Iraq that Iran-backed Hezbollah presents in Lebanon.
The surge has made a difference against both al-Qaeda and some militias, though Petraeus is very careful with the picture of Iraq he presents. For example, he will cite the "enormous progress" in Anbar province, the one-time al-Qaeda and Sunni insurgent stronghold, but he quickly follows up with a caveat on the overall picture: "I don't want to overstate. This is by far the most complex and challenging endeavor I've seen in 33 years of military service."
Petraeus reports that a seven-week offensive made possible by the surge has "achieved a good deal of tactical momentum." His forces have taken al-Qaeda sanctuaries in Baquba, north of Fallujah, and several in and around Baghdad. They've done "serious damage" to the terrorists' leadership, killing or capturing emirs and heads of car-bomb networks. More weapons caches have been seized this year than in all of 2006.
Terrorist cells can still lash out with spectacular bombings, Petraeus says, but "we feel a degree of momentum. We've got the enemy moving and we're going after them. They can't get set, can't dig in with deep-buried IEDs or other preparations they otherwise might use."
At the same time, other areas get by with few or no coalition units. Special forces and air support are called in as needed. Otherwise, locals take charge. In Anbar, force levels are being reduced. Even in Mosul, once an al-Qaeda center, the Iraqi army and police often operate without the assistance of the coalition battalion stationed there.
Overall, in terms of the objectives the general spelled out, the picture is mixed, but the country is on the right track. As Petraeus looks over the puzzle that is Iraq, he sees more and more areas where the right pieces are in place, some sections still lacking crucial pieces, as well as areas with considerable blank spots.
Ultimately, success will depend on the Iraqis filling in some of those blanks, starting with the national government.