BAGHDAD - Ambassador Ryan Crocker was holding his last meeting in the grand marble rooms of Saddam Hussein's former palace, before the U.S. Embassy formally moved into new quarters and returned the building to the Iraqi government.

As it happened, my interview with him comprised that meeting. The ambassador - who completes his assignment in January - was in a ruminative mood.

No wonder. We are approaching Jan. 1, 2009, when a new status-of-forces agreement (known as a SOFA) takes effect; it calls for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces by the end of 2011, and all combat forces from Iraqi cities by June 30.

The accord also turns the Green Zone, which contains the palace and many Iraqi government buildings and foreign embassies, over to Iraqi control by year's end. Numerous joint Iraqi-U.S. committees are planning the transition, and U.S. officials are rushing around the palace carrying packing boxes. (I'll write more about the impact of a SOFA on the role of U.S. troops in a subsequent column.)

But what the ambassador said indicates how much the political landscape has already changed.

Crocker served in Lebanon during its vicious 15-year civil war. He has warned repeatedly that Iraq could dissolve into a similar sectarian hell if U.S. troops left before the country became stable. But last week he told me his Lebanon comparison had been wrong.

Yes, American troops did help Iraqis break their cycle of violence. But Iraq's civil war was provoked from outside, deliberately stirred up by al-Qaeda in Iraq. Iraq is a country where Sunnis and Shiites are linked by tribal connections and intermarriage and have rarely battled each other.

"The longer I'm here, the fewer parallels I find with Lebanon," Crocker said. He added he'd come to realize that sectarian war in Iraq was "the exception rather than the rule here. As awful as it was, you begin to see things starting to knit together."

Politicians, he said, are starting to reach out across ethnic and sectarian lines and cooperate on some issues of mutual interest.

This colors how U.S. military and civilian officials are defining their strategy for the coming three years. Their new goal: to help knit together a fragile state.

Tensions between - and within - sects are still high, Iraq's government is dysfunctional, electricity and other services are dismal, roads north are still not safe, and suicide bombers still threaten. But Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds recognize that no one wins if they struggle for power post-Saddam with weapons. I've been told repeatedly that "the civil war is over."

I just came back from the city of Kirkuk in the north, where Sunni Arabs and Kurds are bitterly contesting control of a region with oil. Yet I found the city surprisingly calm and local politicians adamant that their conflict would not be bloody. When a suicide bomber blew up a popular family restaurant a week ago, killing dozens, many feared that one sect would blame the other; instead, all factions joined in blaming terrorists for the massacre.

Crocker summed up the uncertain mood in Iraq with these words:

"I worry that the single word that best describes Iraq is


. Everyone is afraid, less than a year ago, but fear and mistrust still dominate. I worry about a spike in violence, but I think it is containable."

The danger is no longer of battling Sunni and Shiite militias, but of a fragmented political landscape and a dysfunctional state. That calls for a reassessment of America's role in Iraq.

"In 2006," says Emma Sky, a British specialist on the Mideast who is political adviser to the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Raymond Odierno, "Iraq was a failed state in a civil war. It progressed to a fragile state in '07. We want to help take it to a stable state."

"Now that we have a good degree of security, the issue is maintaining that security and building stability," Odierno told me in an interview. "They still need us to make sure they can go through a period where there are strong internal tensions."

And 2009 will bring internal tensions galore to Iraq, with regional and national elections scheduled. Al-Qaeda in Iraq will still send suicide bombers, and Iran may try to exploit these tensions. "If we get through safely, Iraq will take a large step forward towards becoming a stable country," Odierno says.

Of course the tricky part is how the United States can help a fragmented Iraq become more stable. Even the effort involves contradictions. Many Iraqis blame the United States for inflaming ethnic tensions in 2003 by backing political parties based on sect and ethnicity. And U.S. officials will be caught between Iraqis who want a stronger central government and those who seek more decentralization.

Moreover, the huge new U.S. embassy complex on the Tigris gives the impression America wants to play an imperial role.

Crocker insists otherwise. "It doesn't really work for us to set ourselves up as overlord," he says. "There are a lot of countries where the United States plays an important role as mediator, go-between, catalyst. That we'll continue to do, but Iraq is evolving."

"What I'd hope to see is an increased focus on political issues and institutional development."

The end of Iraq's civil war - and the change in U.S. force posture - do open up a chance for Washington to try to help Iraq attain greater political stability before the 2011 deadline. We know now that Iraq will not become a Lebanon. And so it might have a chance.