Significant U.S. combat troops could be pulled out of Iraq by early 2008 as long as the Iraqis meets specific goals toward establishing a unified government, a senior U.S. commander in Iraq said Friday.

"I think that's possible, if, in fact, we have interim steps that are agreed upon, with timelines that basically move us toward reconciliation," said Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who oversees U.S. military operations throughout Iraq. One key move, he said, would be to set a date for provincial elections, as well as critical economic improvements that would get the "angry young men" off the streets and out of the insurgency.

Asked if the U.S. is winning the war in Iraq -- a question incoming Defense Secretary Robert Gates answered with a flat no last week -- Chiarelli offered Pentagon reporters a more optimistic view.

"Militarily I can say without a doubt that we are winning. We've never been defeated on any battlefield, sir, in this conflict, nor will we be," he said.

Chiarelli added, "The real question that I think we should be asking ourselves is, are we making the progress toward our strategic objectives? And I would have to give that answer a yes. Are we moving as fast as I wish we were and I know General Casey wishes we were, toward meeting those strategic objectives? We are not."

Chiarelli, who has served two separate tours in Iraq, also acknowledged that this time he is "leaving Iraq in a more uncertain and somewhat more tumultuous state than the last time I left."

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