Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
President Bush shakes hands with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki after a bilateral meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, Sept. 25, 2007.
President Bush shakes hands with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki after a bilateral meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, Sept. 25, 2007. Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images
Supporters of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hold his portrait outside al-Dawa party's headquarters as they celebrate his return to Baghdad, Jan. 5, 2008.
Supporters of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hold his portrait outside al-Dawa party's headquarters as they celebrate his return to Baghdad, Jan. 5, 2008. Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
Iraqis walk past soldiers of the 4th Battalion, 64th Armour Regiment of the U.S. Army, near the venue of a reconciliation meeting between the Shiite and Sunni Muslim sects in Baghdad, Jan. 5, 2007.
Iraqis walk past soldiers of the 4th Battalion, 64th Armour Regiment of the U.S. Army, near the venue of a reconciliation meeting between the Shiite and Sunni Muslim sects in Baghdad, Jan. 5, 2007. Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
By the end of this year, U.S.-led forces in Iraq will no longer operate under a U.N. Security Council mandate.
So, over the next six months, U.S. and Iraqi officials will try to reach an agreement that will allow the U.S. military to stay.
Some influential administration advisers also believe that by the end of this year, if security conditions continue to improve, the United States may be able to shift its mission in Iraq from war-fighting to peacekeeping.
Bush's Peacekeeping Policy
In September 1999, Texas Gov. George W. Bush gave a speech at the Citadel military college in South Carolina, just after launching his candidacy for president.
In the speech, he talked about what a Bush administration military policy would look like. Anytime the U.S. embarked on a military operation, he would ask three questions: "What is our goal? Can it be met? And when do we leave?"
Then-Gov. Bush finished his speech by saying the U.S. military "will not be permanent peacekeepers, dividing warring parties. This is not our strength or our calling."
But peacekeeping is, in fact, what some influential administration advisers are starting to talk about in light of the recent security gains in Iraq.
Opportunity to Move Forward
Stephen Biddle, an informal adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, spoke at the conservative Heritage Foundation this week. Up until just a few months ago, Biddle was deeply pessimistic about the prospects for success in Iraq. But he now says Iraq is at a turning point.
"If current trends continue and if the U.S. government continues to play its cards right, I think we could be within reach in the next 12 months of something that looks like a reasonable approximation of a nationwide cease-fire," Biddle says.
This is what administration policymakers hope to broker sometime this year.
"The surge will be a success if the gains in security can be translated into gains in stability," says Mark Kimmit, deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East.
At a recent forum, Kimmit acknowledged that much of what President Bush promised to achieve in Iraq last year didn't happen. Now the talk among administration officials is to attempt to do this year what wasn't accomplished last year; things like brokering political agreements and pushing the Iraqi Parliament to pass important legislation.
Dealing with Sectarian Tension
But there may be some problems with achieving these things.
Edward Joseph, a fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, says that talk of brokering cease-fires or political agreements anytime soon is too optimistic.
"The main factor that drives the sectarian fighting and controls the kind of mission and transformation that all of us would like to see, is the underlying political relationship, finding a meaningful role for Sunnis in Iraq," Joseph says.
Joseph and many others argue that there are no obvious indicators to suggest that Iraq's political leaders are prepared to make the kinds of compromises that could temper some of the sectarian tension.
Much of this year will be spent trying to hammer out a long-term arrangement that would keep the U.S. military in Iraq until at least December 2009, the month when Iraq will hold its next general election.