Iraq held provincial elections a little over a week ago, and while final results are not published yet, many of the signs and portents seem hopeful. The Iraqis mostly ran the elections and they were not marred by violence. The results suggest something of a turning-away from the kinds of extreme and sometimes violent Shia dispensation that marked, for example, Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army, and (perhaps) toward an almost-secular nationalism (though Dawa, the party of current prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who did better than expected, is certainly rooted in Shia religiosity.
The major lesson, as this Register editorial explains, is that there is no solid reason to delay the beginning of serious U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq. There's certainly no guarantee that Iraq will become a model democracy, as some have fantasized, and sectarian violence is certainly a real possibility for the future (e.g., the Kurdish regions didn't vote this time around but Sunni Arab/Kurdish relations in Mosul, which did vote, are hardly warm and fuzzy). But Iraqis are increasingly taking hold of their own destiny, though they are more likely to muff important aspects than to effect a peaceful transition to a unified Iraqi state. But it's their country, not ours. The U.S. occupation was not an election issue precisely because all parties expect the U.S. to leave, so they're jostling for power in the post-occupation Iraq. It's about as normal as politics is likely to be in Iraq for a while. But the U.S. presence is likely to be more destabilizing than stabilizing. Bring them home!
Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who is generally a reaslitic and informed observer, thinks the U.S. and some western European countries will have to continue giving aid and civil society-building assistance for a good while yet. Cordesman is worth reading, but I disagree. Iraq will never look like a model Western European state (even if that were the highest possible aspiration for excellence, which is dubious). It's always hard for parents (sometimes agonizing as a father of three might know) to let go and let their children become responsible adults, in part by being able to make mistakes and taking responsibility for the consequences. But for a child to become an adult it has to happen. Same for nations that fancy themselves in loco parentis to other countries.