Iraqis, having lived through years of sectarian warfare, are unlikely to revert to mass violence as they sort out their future, the top U.S. diplomat to Baghdad told The Associated Press on Thursday.

Ryan Crocker, a veteran Middle East diplomat who intends to finish his tour in the Iraqi capital in January, said it may take decades for the country to settle its many political, economic and social problems.

And while he would not rule out a return to widespread sectarian violence — which has virtually ceased in recent months — Crocker said the main indicators of change in Iraq point toward an eventual reconciliation.

He cited a "powerful force" of popular sentiment in Iraq that has underpinned the decline in violence.

"And it would probably take quite a bit to shift it back," he said, speaking in his office at the U.S. Embassy overlooking the Tigris. "You talk to people (Iraqis), and they just say, `Never again. We almost destroyed ourselves.' There is almost a kind of embarrassment over it: 'How could we, Iraqis, do that?' "

The ambassador also said he sees almost no chance that provincial elections scheduled for October will take place earlier than December. He described himself as cautiously optimistic that the government will work out the compromises needed to pass legislation required before the landmark elections can be held.