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General is cautious of milestone

Times Staff Writers

The top U.S. ground commander in Iraq warned Thursday that September may be too soon to tell whether the American troop buildup in Baghdad has worked, casting doubt on a crucial milestone set by Congress to reassess Iraq war strategy.

With the last units of the U.S. combat troop buildup reaching Baghdad this month, the U.S. strategy will have been in full effect for about 60 days by September, said Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of day-to-day military operations in Iraq.

The buildup, ordered by President Bush in January, eventually will consist of 28,500 combat and support troops.

Congress has mandated that military commanders measure results of the U.S. strategy by September. Odierno said he would deliver his evaluation to Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American general in Iraq, late this summer. But Odierno said repeatedly in a briefing that he was likely to report that he needed more time.

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“The assessment might be [that] I need a little more time; the assessment might be I’ve seen enough and it’s effective; or I’ve seen enough and it’s not going to be effective,” Odierno said. “Right now if you asked me, I would tell you I’d probably need a little bit more time to do a true assessment.”

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, speaking to reporters in Honolulu, said he expected Odierno to deliver an honest evaluation and would not mind a request for more time. But Gates added that political realities in Washington might dictate a different timetable than the generals might like.

“It’s those of us in Washington that have to take into account the Washington clock when we receive the report from Gen. Petraeus and Gen. Odierno,” Gates said.

Republicans in Congress have begun conditioning their support for Bush’s Iraq strategy on progress by September. House and Senate GOP leaders have said that they expect new strategies unless security improves.

Bush said last week that he would consider a new military configuration. He met with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani at the White House on Thursday and pledged new efforts to help the Iraqi government try to reach key political benchmarks.

Odierno would not estimate how much more time he might need for a full assessment. Under the new counterinsurgency strategy, units need 30 to 60 days to become effective, he said. Only some time after that period can the strategy be evaluated, he said.

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Frankness encouraged

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Gates, who was in Hawaii for meetings before beginning an extended Asia tour, said he did not believe Odierno was seeking to change the timeline.

“I don’t think that the goalposts have changed really at all,” Gates told reporters traveling with him. “I think he basically was saying that that report can go a number of different ways, one of which is: ‘I need a little more time.’ ”

Gates said the commanders in Baghdad should give their most honest evaluation.

“In my opinion, our military commanders should not have to worry about the Washington clock,” he said. “That’s for us in Washington to worry about.”

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Gates has called for a bipartisan agreement on long-term troop levels in Iraq.

Commenting on White House comparisons this week of Iraq and South Korea, where U.S. troops have been stationed for more than 50 years, Gates said that the Pentagon wants to avoid a complete withdrawal like that seen at the end of the Vietnam War.

Such a withdrawal, Gates said, would deprive allies in the area of the assurance that the U.S. was committed to long-term regional stability.

An estimated 146,000 American troops are in Iraq, and May was the third-deadliest month for them since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. Odierno explained that American forces are moving into previously unpatrolled areas.

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Iraqi civilian deaths also rose in May from the month before, but Odierno said that the killings remained below pre-buildup levels.

“We’ve made small progress here. We have not made the progress that I think is necessary yet,” he said. “But I hope over the summer that we will continue to make progress.”

Odierno, delivering the first of what he said would be monthly progress reports, pointed to some positive signs. In Al Anbar province, the number of attacks has fallen sharply -- to a little over 400 last month from 811 in May 2006.

Commanders in Iraq have reported that attacks in Diyala province, east of Baghdad, have risen sharply, in part because fighters may be relocating there from Al Anbar.

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Body counts offered

Departing from earlier protocols, Odierno offered body counts to measure progress.

He said U.S. and Iraqi forces had killed 3,184 enemy combatants, including 837 in Baghdad, since the Feb. 13 start of the troop buildup. And he said 291 militants considered “high-value” targets have been killed and 1,499 more detained during the same period.

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“Although we’ve made some very clear progress, there’s still, as you all know, a great deal of work left to do,” the ground commander said.

Odierno said his commanders were reaching out to militants to negotiate deals, including cease-fire agreements.

“We’re talking about cease-fires and maybe signing some things that say they won’t conduct operations against the government of Iraq or against coalition forces. It’s happening at small levels,” he said.

He estimated that 80% of militants could be persuaded to lay down arms and reconcile with the Iraqi government.

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Talabani, after meeting with Bush, said that the Iraqi government also was negotiating with insurgent groups to “get them back to the political process.”

“We hope that this will lead to more big steps forward to national reconciliation in Iraq,” Talabani said.

To help advance those efforts, Bush said he was sending one of his top Iraq policy aides, Meghan L. O’Sullivan, to Baghdad to work with the Iraqi government on key reform legislation.

U.S. military officers and advisors consider most reform legislation unlikely to pass. Instead, the military is likely to emphasize local and neighborhood reconciliation efforts in its upcoming assessment.

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Talabani said that reconciliation legislation would be sent to parliament for approval.

“I must tell you that I am committed as the president of Iraq to benchmarks and to do our best to achieve some progress forward for national reconciliation,” he said.

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

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peter.spiegel@latimes.com

Barnes reported from Washington and Spiegel from Honolulu.


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