The U.S. Defense Department says it is too soon to begin the next assessment of the troop surge and the new counterinsurgency strategy implemented in Iraq last year, and that the violence of the last two days does not indicate any significant setback in the effort.  VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman says officials are focused on the plan for an assessment in March, as promised, and there is no reason to begin working on that assessment now.

"There won't be a lot of judgments made well in advance," he said.  "You want to use the time that you have - it's only the beginning of January - until March to continue to implement the strategy and not make premature judgments in January as to where you're going to be at in March."

The March assessment was promised by the U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, during his last report to congress in September, and President Bush endorsed the plan.  The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, is also expected to make a report.

In Iraq on Wednesday, General Petraeus told reporters the insurgents are on the defensive more than they have been in years.  The French News Agency AFP quoted the general as saying that as the U.S. troop surge gradually ends in the coming months, reducing the U.S. troop presence by about 30,000, many more newly trained Iraqi troops will take their place. 

The general spoke to a small group of reporters as he toured a former al-Qaida stronghold - the village of Owesat, southwest of Baghdad.  He said the pursuit of the insurgents will be "relentless," even as U.S. troops withdraw and Iraqi troops take over.

Last year was the deadliest ever for U.S. troops in Iraq, with 900 killed in combat and accidents, but violence dropped significantly during the last several months of the year as the new strategy took hold.  Part of that strategy has included the formation of neighborhood security groups that work with U.S. and Iraqi forces. 

U.S. commanders have said the progress in Iraq is still "fragile," but at the Pentagon Thursday, spokesman Bryan Whitman said a series of deadly attacks in recent days is not evidence of any significant setback.

"I think that despite the last 48 hours of some significant violence that there continue to be positive signs with respect to how well the surge has been able to give the time and space that's required for the Iraqi security forces, for some of this kind of grass roots reconciliation that's been taking place, and for large segments of the population that are turning away [from] and against al-Qaida influences," he added.

Whitman was referring to a bombing in Baghdad on Tuesday that left about 30 Iraqis dead at the funeral of a retired army officer, and two attacks on Wednesday north of the capital.  A suicide bomber killed about 10 people at a checkpoint in Baquba manned by one of the local citizens groups, and attackers killed an Iraqi policeman in an ambush in Salah ad Din Province.