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Top US Military Officer Warns of More American Casualties in Iraq

Senior U.S. Defense Department officials said Thursday there will be more violence and more casualties in Iraq as the higher number of U.S. troops pursue their new offensive. They also endorsed moves by American commanders to work with, and even provide weapons to former insurgent groups that now say they want to support the government. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the top U.S. military officer, General Peter Pace, spoke at a news conference at the Pentagon, and VOA's Al Pessin reports.

Secretary Gates says U.S. commanders expected the high casualty rate, at least at the beginning of the new offensive against insurgents north and south of Baghdad.

"We certainly hope and pray that that level of casualties will not be sustained, will not continue," said Robert Gates. "But they are in the middle of a battle and we just will have to deal with that."

General Pace offered a similar view.

"It is an expectation that this surge is going to result in more contact, and therefore more casualties," he said.

The general says insurgents are trying to affect U.S. public opinion by inflicting high casualty rates through dramatic bomb attacks. Nine U.S. troops died in two such attacks in recent days, and several others were killed in smaller-scale bombings. But General Pace says the level of violence is not what people should measure when they try to evaluate the situation in Iraq because the insurgents can affect that too easily.

"It's not about levels of violence," said Generqal Pace. "It's about progress being made, in fact and in the minds of the Iraqi people so that they have confidence in their government in the way forward."

One way U.S. military and civilian officials in Iraq have been working to increase support for the Iraqi government is through local agreements with some insurgent groups, militias and tribal leaders who have opposed the government in the past. That strategy has been successful in al-Anbar Province in the west, which had been an al-Qaida stronghold, and officials are trying to expand the approach to other parts of the country.

But some Iraqi officials and American commentators have expressed concerns about working with, and even arming, former insurgents who could again turn against the government and the coalition. Secretary Gates has spoken about the need for what he calls a "bottom-up" approach to reconciliation in Iraq, along with the efforts at the national level, and on Thursday he defended the local agreements.

"If we refuse to work with or ally with everybody who has been on the other side of the fence, then the prospects for making any progress in Iraq are pretty slim," said Secretary Gates.

Secretary Gates says Iraq's Prime Minister, Nouri al-Malaki, has formed a committee to help American commanders decide which groups they can trust. General Pace says the potential gains from this approach outweigh the risks.

"Is there risk involved with arming groups with whom you've been fighting before? Yes. But I think the greater risk is in not seizing the opportunities as they come available," he said.

General Pace and Secretary Gates say the local agreements and the new offensive are part of the effort to provide the Iraqi government with the opportunity to make progress toward reconciliation, and to demonstrate that it can deliver services to its people. U.S. officials say if that happens, the violence will go down and they'll be able to withdraw at least some of the 155,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq.