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Reporter's Notebook: Finding an Exit

I first met David Petraeus (search) in a rustling tent in the wind-swept desert of Kuwait almost two years ago. A scholar and one of the brightest stars in the U.S. military, Petraeus is measured and careful about what he says.

Petraeus sat to talk about America's exit strategy. He offered no cheerleading, just a dry dose of where we are in getting out of Iraq.

But whether he would like to admit it or not, Petraeus — as with anyone who has stars crowding the collar of his uniform — is a good politician as well as a soldier. He's Lt. Gen. Petraeus now, which gives him three stars, one more than he had almost two years ago.

In the days before the war in Iraq and during it, he was C.G. (Commanding General) of the 101st Airborne Division (search). I was embedded with one of his Strike Brigades to cover the war.

As the 101st prepared its missions to take Karbala or An Najaf or southern Baghdad, I got to hover nearby as Petraeus and Col. Joe Anderson, who I was fortunate to follow through the war, laid out maps on the hood of a Humvee. They discussed whether they should use an air strike or artillery to take out a particularly bad area of resistance. Petraeus chose to ask for a precision air strike in that case to avoid hurting innocent Iraqis in case the "pinpoint artillery" proved to be less than accurate.

In post-Saddam Iraq, the 101st Airborne moved north to Mosul and for a brief period managed one of the most peaceful and successful areas in the country. But in the last few months, even Mosul turned ugly. Helicopters were shot down. A sergeant major of the strike brigade who was a close friend was murdered in the center of the city by insurgents. All of the problems that swept across Iraq, including the targeting of political officials and security officials, enveloped Mosul as well.

And Petraeus, who got to go home early last year, was called back several months later to construct America's exit strategy in Iraq and plan for the time when U.S. troops can go home once and for all. Last week, Petraeus sat with me to discuss the progress in Iraq. At the end of our chat, he said: "I want to be straight, not overly optimistic about this, but realistic and that's why I answered you the way I did."

Here's part of our conversation:

Dana Lewis: "Do you have a timeline? Do you say we've got to be ready within six months, ready within a year?"

Lt. Gen. David Petraeus: "My timeline is to help multinational forces help Iraqi forces to achieve the necessary conditions in the most challenging areas as we quite possibly can. I've been over here 20 months now, as you well know, Dana, as having started with us in Kuwait in March 2003. We want to get this job done."

Lewis: "And in 20 months what's been accomplished?"

Petraeus: "I think we've achieved a considerable momentum. We've been at this for seven months or so. You have to remember back in June, there was not even an Iraqi Ministry of Defense to speak of. That's been established. There was one operational or intervention force battalion; there are now 21 battalions in operation."

One day before my interview with Petraeus, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi issued an Internet audio message predicting the struggle against American forces could go on for years. Petraeus noted that Iraq's most wanted terrorist has steadily lost his places to operate from including Fallujah and now Mosul. But he was careful not to predict how long the fight with the insurgency could go on for and how long American forces could be stuck here.

Lewis: "You don't want to make a prediction in this?"

Petraeus: "No. I think everything has to be condition-based in this. I think Senator [Joe] Biden asked a good question when he asked 'What's the substitution factor?' In other words how many Iraqi security forces, how many battalions does it take to replace a U.S. battalion in a difficult area? And the answer is, it depends on the security factor, how well we've done our job in helping Iraqis to train those battalions to a high standard to give them the equipment they need.

"And again what I'd say is there is a lot of progress being made in all these areas. Just in the past seven months since July 1, we've issued to Iraqi security forces over 50,000 AK-47s, 80,000 sets of body armor, over 150 million rounds of ammo ... An enormous logistical effort to strengthen these forces to give them what they need, again a tremendous amount to do and it will be done in the months ahead."

But even if the Americans don't have a timetable or won't admit there is one, increasingly Iraqis believe the U.S. presence is attracting and sowing violence rather than repelling or extinguishing the bloodshed. And as the Jan. 30 national elections approached, I asked Petraeus what if a new Iraqi government tells the United States to leave now?

"That's hypothetical and in all honesty not worth addressing, because in all honesty there's no serious member of the Iraqi leadership who has had any platform of immediate withdrawal of coalition forces. I think all have agreed there should be conditions met before the transition takes place, and that's all our expectation."

Not all share his view, but Petraeus is correct when he says that a new government wants to know it's got the muscle to fight the insurgency. Petraeus tells me that after the election, many U.S. forces that are now conducting operations will be drawn into the process of training Iraqi forces more quickly.

Lewis: "Did you ever think you'd get thrown the curve balls you've had in the last year or two?"

Petraeus: "I confess I didn't. There have been more unexpected situations and more challenges, setbacks, wonderful achievements, highs and lows. Iraq is a roller coaster, ups and downs on a daily basis. There will be ups and then a sensational attack. The question you always have to ask yourself at the end of the day, or end of the week, is are you maintaining perspective? And do you think that roller coaster is still going up? How's it going?"

At the end of our interview, Petraeus showed me a print of an American cowboy herding cattle across some Western plain. He likened his mission to pushing the herd forward.

There are cows that will break away. Some will fall and die on the trail. There are lots of twists and turns and a constant challenge of moving through adversity to get all those different pieces to the same place. It's a romantic notion, but one gets a sense of the wild ride Petraeus, American forces and Iraqis are in the midst of.