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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A September report on President George W. Bush's strategy in Iraq will show whether the plan is progressing, but a fuller assessment will take until November, a top U.S. commander said on Thursday.
Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, deputy U.S. commander in Iraq, told reporters at the Pentagon that trends in the war-torn country have begun moving "in the right direction" since Bush's troop buildup became complete in mid-June.
"Forty-five days from now, September 1 ... I'll be able to make a bit more accurate assessment if it's something we think is going to continue or something we think is just a blip," he said in a video link from Baghdad.
"In order to do a good assessment, I need at least till November to do that," Odierno added.
An Iraq progress report due from U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and U.S. commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus is central to a debate in Congress over whether to force the Bush administration to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq.
The Senate on Wednesday blocked a Democratic effort that would have brought all U.S. combat troops out of Iraq by the end of April 2008.
Odierno painted an up-beat picture of U.S. efforts to curtail violence in Iraq over the past month, when Bush's security crackdown in and around Baghdad began in earnest.
U.S. and Iraqi forces had succeeded in quelling insurgent and sectarian violence in about 50 percent of Baghdad, he said. But he added that most neighborhoods with a mixed Sunni-Shi'ite population were still beyond the security cordon.
"It's not perfect, but we've gained control," he said. "All our trends are going in the right direction."
"This is by far not an inflated assessment. I would argue that in fact if nothing else it's probably an under assessment of the actual reality on the ground," Odierno said.
A reduced number of spectacular attacks in the capital in recent weeks had been accompanied by a flare up of violence elsewhere in the country, including Kirkuk where a suicide truck bomb killed 85 people and wounded 180 on Monday.
But Odierno also sought to convey success in the battle against al Qaeda in Iraq, stressing that Sunnis are turning against the militants in greater numbers. He said that had allowed U.S. and Iraq forces to wrest control of cities in the Sunni heartland from the Islamist militants.
"I can think of no major population center in Iraq that is in an al Qaeda safe haven today," Odierno said.