WASHINGTON -- The U.S. military is working more aggressively to forge cease-fires with Iraqi militants and quell the violence around Baghdad, judging that 80 percent of enemy combatants are "reconcilable," a top U.S. commander said Thursday.
However, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno also warned that he may not be able to make a full assessment of the situation in Iraq by September, as demanded by lawmakers.
Odierno, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, told Pentagon reporters by video conference that he is pressing his military officers to reach out to the tribes, to some small insurgent groups and to religious and political leaders to push them to stop the violence.
"We are 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," Odierno said from Camp Victory in Baghdad. "We believe a large majority of groups within Iraq are reconcilable and are now interested in engaging with us. But more importantly, they want to engage and become a part of the government of Iraq."
Stemming the violence in and around the capital city is key to giving the Iraqi government time to stabilize and move toward reconciliation with the warring sectarian factions. That would then allow the United States to begin withdrawing troops.
Odierno said he believes that about 80 percent of the enemy fighters -- including key Sunni insurgent groups and Shiite militia -- could be brought into the political process. The remainder, he said, are largely al-Qaida operatives who will have to captured or killed.
He cautioned that the process will be slow. And he repeatedly warned that he may need more time to determine if the military buildup ordered by President Bush earlier this year has begun to work.
He said he will provide his report in September as required.
"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," said Odierno. "Right now if you asked me, I would tell you I'll probably need a little bit more time to do a true assessment."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was visiting the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii, said Thursday that he expects commanders to begin evaluating the buildup by the end of the summer and he will provide an interim report due to Congress in July.
"I don't think the goalposts have changed really at all," he said, when asked about Odierno's comments.
Odierno added that as the final units of the troop buildup move into Iraq, it may take them up to two months to "really get a feel for their sectors, so they truly can have an impact on security and stability in their area."
Complicating matters, he said, is that the enemy knows about the September deadline and is likely to increase the violence during the next few months in an effort to push the U.S. out.
"They understand that if things aren't going well, a recommendation might be made to reduce our force presence here in Iraq," said Odierno. "So in my mind, of course they're going to try to do that."
Noting that May has been a particularly deadly month for U.S. troops -- at least 122 have been killed -- Odierno said the recent surge in violence may be part of that effort.
One key area is the Diyala province, where commanders are working to boost U.S. troop levels. There, Odierno said, insurgents have had time to build bigger roadside bombs, bury them more deeply, and use them to set up their own security perimeters.
"Some of them have been somewhat effective, which has raised our death toll," said Odierno. "We are working very hard to counter this. ... I have confidence that we'll be able to do that over time. But it's going to be some hard sledding here."
There are currently about 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, including some of the final 8,000 in the Bush-ordered buildup that are now moving into their assigned battle spaces. The 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit is probably headed to Anbar Province, while the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division will probably be stationed around Baghdad. The 3rd Aviation Combat Brigade is also moving into Iraq.
In other comments, Odierno mapped out some signs of progress he is seeing in Iraq.
He said efforts to engage tribal leaders in Anbar -- who have been turning against al-Qaida there -- have helped cut violence and draw people to serve in the Iraqi security forces in record numbers. Attacks in Anbar totaled 811 in May 2006, but this month are a bit more than 400. In Ramadi there were 254 attacks in May 2006, compared with 30 this month, he said.
In addition, he said that troops aided by Iraqi tips have uncovered 2,400 weapons caches in Iraq so far this year, including 441 in Baghdad alone. In all of last year they found 2,600 caches, and just 266 in Baghdad.
Odierno said successful operations are often lost in the blur of the latest roadside bomb or bridge explosion. And despite the spike in violence in May, he said the overall number of civilian and sectarian deaths have dropped from their January levels.
"We spent so much time on that (violence), we don't realize that there are many other things going on," he said. "We've made small progress here. We have not made the progress that I think is necessary yet, but I hope over the summer that we will continue to make progress."