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Iraq Will Be Petraeus's Knot to Untie

David H. Petraeus has earned accolades for his work in Iraq ever since the invasion.
David H. Petraeus has earned accolades for his work in Iraq ever since the invasion. (By Christopher Berkey -- Associated Press)

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As he rose through the ranks, Petraeus alternated command and staff assignments with duty as an aide to several of the Army's most prominent four-star generals, a pattern that caused one envious peer to call him a "professional son." At Princeton University, Petraeus's dissertation, "The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam," examined the caution that seized the high command after the war.

His intensity, cutting intellect and competitiveness have rubbed some officers the wrong way. Muttered jibes about "King David" have been heard around his command post. He remains obsessive about what he calls "the P.T. culture" -- physical training -- and has been known to challenge soldiers half his age to various athletic competitions. "If anyone beats him in the shorter runs, four miles or so, he takes them out for 10 miles and smokes them," a staff officer observed several years ago. At 5-foot-9 and 155 pounds, Petraeus evokes George Bernard Shaw's description of the British general Bernard L. Montgomery: "an intensely compacted hank of wire."

Twice, accidents almost ended his career, or even his life. In 1991, as a battalion commander at Fort Campbell, Ky., he was shot in the chest with an M-16 rifle when a soldier tripped during a training exercise. Rushed into surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, he underwent five hours of surgery by Bill Frist, who a decade later became Senate majority leader. While skydiving in 2000, Petraeus survived the abrupt collapse of his parachute 60 feet up. His shattered pelvis was reassembled with a plate and long screws.

As commander of the 101st Airborne, Petraeus saw combat for the first time during the division's drive up the Euphrates Valley, with sharp firefights in Najaf, Karbala and Hilla. But it was during the division's subsequent occupation of Mosul and northern Iraq that he won widespread acclaim by resurrecting the local economy, restoring services and preserving order with strategic force, which included killing Saddam Hussein's two sons. Posters in the division bivouacs read: "What have you done to win Iraqi hearts and minds today?"

More than 60 soldiers from the 101st died during the deployment, and upon bringing the division back to Kentucky in February 2004, Petraeus remarked, "It's been a long, tough year, and I am older in more ways than just age."

His subsequent service as commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command, responsible for training Iraqi security forces, was another long, tough year -- that stretched to 15 months. Tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police were trained, with concomitant efforts to supply infrastructure, equipment and procedures. But the project at best remains an imperiled work in progress, with alarming signs of sectarian fractures spreading through the Iraqi security institutions that Petraeus is known to consider as crucial to restoring stability there as any additional coalition forces could be.

Both long stints in Iraq have given Petraeus an intimate knowledge of the country's ethnic fractures and the limits of American influence. "A certain degree of intellectual humility is a good thing," he once told a reporter. "There aren't always a hell of a lot of absolutely right answers out there."

His cordial relations with the media, and the Newsweek cover story that depicted him as a potential savior for the Bush administration, rankled some of his superiors in the Pentagon, according to two now-retired senior generals. When Petraeus was sent to command the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., in 2005, some of his peers wondered whether his career was in eclipse.

In asking that nettlesome question four years ago -- "Tell me how this ends" -- Petraeus alluded to the advice supposedly given President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the mid-1950s when he asked what it would take for the U.S. military to save the beleaguered French colonial empire in war-torn Vietnam: "Eight years and eight divisions."

With only ten divisions now in the U.S. Army, and the American public's patience ebbing, Petraeus recently acknowledged that such a prescription is not likely to be any more acceptable today than it was in the 1950s.

Conrad C. Crane, a West Point classmate of Petraeus's who last year helped him write the new counterinsurgency manual, said: "There have been situations in our history where American generals were given tough problems to resolve, like Lincoln grabbing U.S. Grant in 1864. Those situations have all demanded steadfastness, fortitude, initiative and creativity. It will take all those traits in Baghdad.

"We've got a big problem," Crane added. "He's the right guy to fix it. If anybody can fix this, he can."

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.


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