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Leader of the Fabled 101st to Command in Iraq

Lt. Gen. David Petraeus visits a coalition base in Tikrit, Iraq, in June 2004. (Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

Lt. Gen. David Petraeus is soon expected to take over command of all U.S. forces in Iraq. If he is confirmed by the Senate, this will be his third tour of duty in the country. He commanded the 101st Airborne during the invasion in 2003 and oversaw the northern part of the country immediately after the invasion. He returned to Iraq in 2004 to oversee the training of Iraqi security forces.

The son of a Dutch sea captain, Petraeus began his military career at West Point. And he is no ordinary general. He has a Ph.D. in history from Princeton. His thesis topic: The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam.

Lt. Gen. David Petraeus on the War in Iraq

  

Here, audio excerpts from NPR interviews with Gen. Petraeus:

 

He also recently coauthored an Army manual on counterinsurgency operations. Petraeus and other officers say the Army collectively forgot how to fight an insurgency after Vietnam.

As major combat operations began to end in April 2003, writer Rick Atkinson was trailing the 101st Airborne through the wide-open deserts and teeming cities of Iraq. He says he and Petraeus had a running joke.

"Tell me how it ends," Petraeus would say. Atkinson says it was said tongue-in-cheek, but also with an understanding that it was the pertinent question.

Once Baghdad fell, the 101st was dispatched to Mosul in northern Iraq, where Petraeus won praise for his work. He provided security, listened to tribal and religious leaders and focused on the economy, reopening factories and businesses.

In October 2003, Petraeus described the effort this way: "This is a race. This is a race to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. And there are other people in this race. And they're not just trying to beat us to the finish line. In some cases, they want to kill us."

Retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, a close friend, says Petraeus understands how to work with a local population and encourage them to break with insurgents. That's the essence of what the military calls counterinsurgency. He says Petraeus is the perfect choice for the job.

During a training exercise, Keane recalls, an accidental rifle shot hit Petraeus in the chest. Keane held his hand as he was flown to a nearby hospital. A surgeon named Bill Frist, who would later become Senate Majority Leader, was pulled off a golf course to treat him.

A few days after surgery, Petraeus demanded to be released. A doctor told him that it was impossible to release him so soon after major surgery. According to Kaine, Petraeus told the doctor to take out the tubes and then got down on the floor and did 50 pushups. The hospital sent him home.

Petraeus's almost fanatical devotion to physical fitness is legendary. He often challenges men less than half his age to contests. One story is that a young special forces soldier asked him how many push-ups he could do. "One more than you," replied Petraeus, who immediately proved it.

When he was commanding the 101st in Mosul, Petraeus became known as a man who could get things done, often bending the rules to accomplish his goals.

But Petraeus has also rubbed some fellow officers the wrong way. One former aides described him as the most competitive man on Earth, according to writer Rick Atkinson. He does not suffer fools gladly. He also has had a long history of cultivating high-ranking generals, which led some peers to label him a "professional son."

His intellect, ego and ambition also earned him a less charitable nickname: "King David."

Some say Petraeus was lucky to be stationed in northern Iraq. The violence and ethnic tensions were not as pronounced as in Baghdad or the more turbulent Anbar Province.

Petraeus is credited with doing a better job than his predecessor of training Iraqi soldiers and police in 2004 and 2005. But the Iraqis still cannot secure their own country, and corruption remains endemic. Sectarian militias have penetrated many security forces. And large numbers of Iraqi police and soldiers simply don't show up for duty.

Atkinson says Petraeus began training Iraqis when he was full of optimism and most likely would concede that they aren't where he hoped they would be at this point. But, Atkinson points out, training the Iraqi security forces is the hardest job in the world. Except for the one Petraeus is about to take on.

In a 2003 interview with NPR, Petraeus seemed to be aware that the road ahead would not be easy.

"There are many here who regard us still as liberators," he told NPR's Deborah Amos in Mosul. "But there are also some that say, jeez, when are these guys going to leave? And inevitably, over time, even the best of liberators will become seen as occupiers."

Now it is Petraeus who is in charge — at a time when it is likely that even more American soldiers will be dispatched to Iraq. And there is still no sense of when they might be able to leave.

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Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris. Whatever changes President Bush makes in his Iraq policy, it will fall to Lieutenant General David Petraeus to carry them out. He's been tapped to take command there. Petraeus graduated from West Point and commanded the 101st Airborne Division during the invasion of Iraq. He went on to become the top trainer for Iraqi forces. NPR's Tom Bowman has this profile.

TOM BOWMAN: It was April, 2003. Saddam Hussein's forces were collapsing. The 101st was sweeping through the vast deserts and teeming cities of Iraq with writer Rick Atkinson in tow. Atkinson and Petraeus had a running joke.

Mr. RICK ATKINSON (Writer): Petraeus said - tongue-in-cheek - tell me how this ends. And it did become something of a running joke, but always with the recognition that this was the pertinent question.

BOWMAN: Once Baghdad fell, the 101st was dispatched to Mosul in northern Iraq. Petraeus won praise for his work there. He provided security, listened to local tribal and religious leaders, reopened factories and businesses. He described the challenges in the fall of 2003.

Lieutenant General DAVID PETRAEUS (U.S. Army): This is a race to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, and there are other people in this race, and they're not just trying to beat us to the finish line. In some cases, they want to kill us.

BOWMAN: Retired Army General Jack Keane says Petraeus understands how to work with a local population and encourage them to break with insurgents, the essence of what the military calls counter-insurgency.

General JACK KEANE (U.S. Army, Retired): He's got a huge amount of imagination. He's very experienced in Iraq, and he clearly understands proven counter-insurgency practices, which have got to be put in place.

BOWMAN: Keane has been a key advocate of more troops for Iraq. President Bush is widely expected to send in as many as 15,000 more soldiers and Marines to reduce the violence. Keane says Petraeus knows how to use them.

Gen. KEANE: It's all about securing the population, and it's not been done, and he clearly understand how to secure that population, and that'll be 24/7 outside the military bases, and he's going to get it done.

BOWMAN: Petraeus is no ordinary general. He has a Ph.D. from Princeton, his thesis topic: the American military and the lessons of Vietnam. He is among those who believe the Army after Vietnam forgot how to fight insurgencies. He recently co-authored a new Army manual on that topic.

Petraeus has rubbed some fellow officers the wrong way. His intellect, ego and ambition produced the nickname King David. Rick Atkinson has heard the grumbling.

Mr. ATKINSON: He's very competitive, the most competitive man on the planet, according to one of his former aides, and there's something to that. He's also quite intense.

BOWMAN: There are some who say that Petraeus was lucky, lucky to be stationed in northern Iraq. That area did not have the levels of violence and serious ethnic divisions that plagued Baghdad and Anbar Province. Petraeus is also credited with doing a better job than his predecessors in training Iraqi soldiers and police in 2004 and into 2005. But the Iraqis still cannot secure their own country. There is corruption, ties to death squads, large numbers of absences. Again, Rick Atkinson.

Mr. ATKINSON: My guess is that he would concede that the training of the Iraqi army, the Iraqi police and the other security forces isn't where he hoped it would be at this point. You know, it's the hardest job on earth except for the one he's about to take over now.

BOWMAN: Petraeus himself seemed to be aware of the looming challenges three years ago, when he was still in northern Iraq.

Lt. Gen. PETRAEUS: There are many here who regard us still as liberators, but there are also some that say, jeez, when are these guys going to leave? And inevitably, over time, even the best of liberators will become seen as occupiers.

BOWMAN: Now it is Petraeus who will oversee the entire country, with the likelihood of even more American soldiers, and no sense when these guys are going to leave. Tom Bowman, NPR News, The Pentagon.

NORRIS: You can read Lieutenant General Petraeus' critique of the war from last year and his recommendations for winning it at our Web site, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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