WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The sectarian violence engulfing Iraq will only grow worse if the U.S. abandons its current military strategy and begins to withdraw its forces, the top American war commander said yesterday.
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, speaking at a Pentagon news conference, said he was trying to steer clear of the "political minefields" of Washington and avoided any direct comment on the showdown between Congress and the White House over Iraq.
But he said that limited improvements resulting from President Bush's new war strategy would be eroded by troop withdrawals. The Democratic measure would require withdrawals to begin by October, with a goal of completing the pullout in six months.
"My sense is that there would be an increase in sectarian violence, a resumption of sectarian violence, were the presence of our forces and Iraqi forces at that time to be reduced," Petraeus said.
Bush summoned Petraeus to Washington this week to help the administration make its best case for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq. Petraeus is the Army's leading counterinsurgency theorist and has a reputation for being politically adept but independent.
He offered new detail of Iranian involvement in Iraq, addressed U.S. efforts to counter the suicide car bombs that have killed hundreds of Iraqis in recent months and warned of the likelihood of additional U.S. casualties.
Petraeus said he has agreed to provide Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates with an assessment of the new strategy in September and a recommendation of how to improve American military operations: "We will be forthright in that assessment."
A veteran of multiple tours in Iraq and Washington, Petraeus is a practiced speaker, adept at weaving together specific details and sharply drawn images to argue his larger viewpoint. In the news conference, he talked about the numbers of small shops that had opened since the new strategy began, dropped the names of tribal leaders now supporting American efforts, and spoke about flying above Baghdad and watching ordinary Iraqis engaging in ordinary activities, such as watering the grass.
Since the U.S. troop buildup began, Petraeus said, the overall level of violence and death in Iraq has remained unchanged. But he said there had been a reduction by two-thirds in the number of sectarian murders carried out by Shiite death squads. Nonetheless, suicide car bombs have continued to kill hundreds, he said.
Having previously served as the two-star division commander in Mosul and as the three-star head of the Iraqi security force training effort, Petraeus said the current situation in Iraq was the "the most complex and challenging" he has yet seen. Still, he cautioned that the situation in Iraq is likely to get even more difficult.
Petraeus conceded that could mean more American deaths as U.S. forces move into neighborhoods and territories that previously were left unpatrolled.
"There is a very real possibility that there's going to be more combat action and that, therefore, there could be more casualties," he said.
Eighty-seven American troops have been killed in April, the most since 112 in December.
Petreaus said he was aware that sensational car bomb attacks often "overshadow our daily accomplishments":
"While the enemy's effectiveness in carrying out such attacks has been reduced by our operations to some degree, there clearly are still far too many of them."
In Iraq yesterday, bombers struck an Iraqi army post northeast of Baghdad and civilian targets in the city as violence across the country killed at least 72 people, including 27 men whose bullet-riddled bodies were dumped in the capital - apparent victims of sectarian death squads.
The deadliest attack occurred about 9 a.m. when a suicide car bomber killed 10 Iraqi soldiers at a checkpoint in Khalis, a city about 50 miles northeast of Baghdad. Ten other soldiers and five civilians were wounded, police said.
Julian E. Barnes writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.