Iraq's leaders are facing an acid test on security in coming weeks as the Iraqi and U.S. military launch their new program to clear neighborhoods of militants and death squads district by district.
But to Iraq's government, the real key to longterm success is its neighbors: Will they begin to give it their genuine support, and will Iran and Syria be persuaded or pressured to end the conduct that Iraq believes is giving oxygen to insurgents, militias and death squads inside Iraq?
These were among the themes expressed by a number of Iraqi leaders and foreign policy experts circulating at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week. Among them were Iraqi Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister and Sunni elder statesman who is now in the parliament.
All were painfully aware that patience for the war is ebbing among the U.S. public, and that they must move quickly to solidify authority and stamp out violence.
One initiative now being pushed aggressively by the Iraqi leadership is to convene in Baghdad a regional meeting of foreign ministers from Iraq's neighbors, including the Arab Gulf countries, Syria, Turkey and Iran.
They see it sending a signal that the region is behind the government and recognizes that it needs to be strengthened because there is no good alternative to holding Iraq together as a pluralistic, integrated and democratic country, Zebari told The Associated Press.
"We are building a strong case that if you care (and) if you want to help the people of Iraq, the elected, legitimate Iraqi government, you should show some tangible support," said Zebari.
"It will send a good signal to ... ease this tension, this violence, and it will send a message to the insurgents, the terrorists, who will see that Iraq is managing to deal with its neighbors constructively" and that the region is "unified to help this country recover," he said.
With a series of high-casualty bombings in Baghdad in the past few days, Zebari said the country has been suffering through an entirely expectable and expected offensive by Sunni insurgents before the new Iraqi security offensive gets under way.
Forming a regional consensus behind the Iraqi government has become more and more difficult as fighting inside Iraq has become more sectarian.
Sunni Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt have displayed a hesitant attitude toward Iraq. The death-squad killings of Sunnis, attacks against Arab embassies and diplomats in Iraq and the hanging of Saddam Hussein have strained the government's image in the Sunni Arab world.
But probably the main problem is fear that Shiite Iran exercises too much influence over the new Iraqi leadership.
Iraqi leaders here, however, argue that although the political coalition supporting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is Shiite-based, it is an Arab and Iraqi national government first, and even Shiite members are far too loyal to Iraq to be willing to turn the country into an extension of the Iranian political system.
However, if Arab states remain standoffish, it could have the consequence of driving Iraq closer to Iran, the leaders here warned, on and off the record. That is why they consider it essential that the Arab neighbors of Iraq engage the government directly, and not yield to the temptation to deal specifically with Sunni groups within Iraq.
Iran and Syria were said to have already agreed to the meeting, along with at least one Gulf country. But Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa appeared to be holding back _ saying at one open session here that the more important thing was for Iraqi leaders to work first themselves to calm sectarian tensions.
Syria is a special case. Under President Bashar al-Assad, the Syrians are viewed as having failed to close the country's border to jihadists and weapons flowing into Iraq, even while it trades with Iraq and gives vocal support to the Iraqi government.
Some Iraqi leaders believe Syria has given sanctuary to members of the old Baathist regime and encouraged chaos in Iraq in hopes that the Baath Party might eventually get back into power. The party shares a name, roots and philosophy with Syria's own ruling party.
Iraq has gone on a diplomatic initiative with Damascus in recent weeks, with President Jalil Talabani and other officials visiting to warn Syria that Iraq knows what it has and has not been doing, and encouraging it to abandon its stances. There are signs that the Syrians are more willing to cooperate, officials believe.
Iran's aim in Iraq is somewhat different. It has agents and clients inside Iraq because it wants the current Iraqi government to survive, but hopes to have a large amount of political capital within it. It also likes having American forces kept pinned down in Iraq, both to help keep the country together and also so that U.S. troops cannot easily be turned against Iran.
The Iraqi government would like to convince both Syria and Iran separately and on different levels that these dangerous games cannot continue.
"The stakes are too high really and everybody has pushed the envelope too far. God forbid if Iraq were to break down or to fail, the threat of spillover is imminent to their countries," said Zebari. "That is why everything has really reached to some climax."
The new security offensive in Baghdad also is critical. All the leaders here said they were putting high hopes on its success, in spite of the bloody attacks of the past week. They rate its chances higher than previous efforts to clean up the capital because Iraqis will be in charge, and the governmment has everything at stake.
Zebari, a Kurd, said that the offensive would be evenhanded across ethnic and sectarian lines.
"This time it is different because U.S. officers would be embedded with all Iraqi units so that is a precaution to prevent ... going astray or to settle their own sectarian differences," said Zebari.
"All neighborhoods would be treated equally. Death squads or Sunni insurgents would be treated equally and on the same basis."
The plan envisions an overall commander who is Shiite, but who is a professional officer from the old Iraqi army, assisted by at least one Sunni deputy.
"We are not expecting that car bombs or suicide bombers will disappear completely," said Zebari. "But I think it will give the people some confidence that the government and the coalition are doing something really serious."
Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer and Sally Buzbee contributed to this report.