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September is supposed to be the critical month for assessing the president's so-called surge in Iraq. The strategy is to send more U.S. troops into areas around Baghdad to create a more secure environment so that Iraqis can make progress on the political front.

September is when the U.S. commander, General David Petraeus, and the U.S. ambassador, Ryan Crocker, will give Congress their progress reports on how the surge is working. But the word from the Pentagon brass this week is that September may be too soon for a real assessment.

Here's NPR's Tom Bowman.

TOM BOWMAN: Senior U.S. military officers and civilian officials in Iraq are being pretty clear. You will still get a report in September, but don't expect the whole story.

Here's Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, the number two officer in Iraq, talking to Pentagon reporters on Thursday.

Lieutenant General RAY ODIERNO (Commander, Multinational Corps in Iraq, U.S. Army): In order to do a good assessment, I need at least until November to do that assessment.

BOWMAN: Another officer said high levels of American forces will be needed well past November. Major General Rick Lynch told the Associated Press the surge in American forces should last into next summer. He said the 3rd Infantry troops he commands are in a tough fight south of Baghdad and he's lost 80 soldiers. The general said it would be wrong to have fought and won terrain, only to turn around and give it back.

As the White House appealed to Congress and the public for more time this week, it had Ambassador Ryan Crocker brief lawmakers. He said the benchmarks toward national reconciliation that President Bush outlined in January were perhaps not the best measures of success in Iraq. And Crocker warned that pulling out American troops before the Iraqis are ready could only lead to further chaos.

Mr. RYAN CROCKER (U.S. Ambassador to Iraq): Non-conditioned based withdrawals could lead to a sharp spike in precisely the sectarian violence among the population that the surge was intended to diminish, and which it has diminished.

BOWMAN: But at some point, the U.S. will have to start making withdrawals. There are now about 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Come next spring, the Army hits a wall. It will run out of fresh troops to rotate into Iraq and maintain that high level of force. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, himself a retired Army general, can see the problem ahead for the Pentagon. He had this to say on NPR.

Mr. COLIN POWELL (Former Secretary of State): My experience, as somebody who used to have to deal with such matters, is that they probably can't keep this up at a this level past the middle of next year, I would guess.

BOWMAN: This point is not lost on the current commander, General David Petraeus, who also spoke to NPR this week.

General DAVID PETRAEUS (Commanding General, Multinational Corps in Iraq, U.S. Army): Obviously, at some point, the surge has to end. And that maybe, that over time, we'll do some redefinition of our missions as well.

BOWMAN: But, Petraeus said, that point has not yet arrived. Pentagon sources say that in his classified video teleconference for lawmakers this week, Petraeus said he needs more time. There are some positive signs in Iraq, he said, but challenges remain.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, the Pentagon.

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