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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, the U.S. and Iraq will try to reach an agreement that will allow the U.S. military to stay. Some influential administration advisers are also optimistic about the chances of changing the U.S. mission in Iraq. They say that if security continues to improve on the ground, the U.S. may be able to shift the military from fighting the war to keeping the peace.

NPR's Guy Raz has that story.

GUY RAZ: Back in September 1999, Texas Governor George W. Bush gave a speech at The Citadel military college in South Carolina. He just launched his candidacy for president. And in that speech, he talked about what a Bush administration's military policy would look like. Here's what he said.

SIEGEL: What is our goal? Can it be met? And when do we leave? Then Governor Bush finished his speech by saying the U.S. military, quote, "will not be permanent peacekeepers, dividing warring parties. This is not our strength or our calling," he said. But peacekeeping is, in fact, what some influential administration advisers are starting to talk about in light of the recent security gains in Iraq.

STEPHEN BIDDLE: If things continue, we may cease to be war fighters but we will remain necessary, if so, as peacekeepers.

RAZ: This is Stephen Biddle, an informal adviser to General David Petraeus, who spoke at the conservative Heritage Foundation this week. Now, Biddle, up until just a few months ago, was deeply pessimistic about the prospects for success in Iraq. But he now says Iraq is at a turning point and...

BIDDLE: If current trends continue and if the United States 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 ceasefire.

RAZ: This is what administration policymakers like Mark Kimmit hope to broker sometime this year.

MARK KIMMIT: 2008 and beyond will be a success. The surge will be a success if the gains in security can be translated into gains in stability.

RAZ: Kimmit is the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East. At a recent forum, he acknowledged that much of what President Bush promised to achieve in Iraq last year didn't happen. And so 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.

KIMMIT: This is where the focus for 2008 and beyond will need to be.

RAZ: Except, there may be some problems with achieving these things.

EDWARD JOSEPH: I think that that is optimistic. I think it's putting the car before the horse.

RAZ: Edward Joseph, a fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies, says any talk of brokering ceasefires or political agreements anytime soon is way too optimistic.

JOSEPH: The main factor that drives the sectarian fighting and controls the kind of mission and the transformation that all of us would like to see, is the underlying political relationship, finding a meaningful role for Sunnis in Iraq.

RAZ: Joseph and many others argue there are no obvious indicators to suggest that Iraq's political leaders are prepared to make the kinds of compromises that could at least temper some of the sectarian tension. And besides, 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 the very least - December 2009, the month when Iraq will hold its next general election.

Guy Raz, NPR News, Washington.

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