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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The Senate Armed Services Committee today grills the president's new choice to lead the fight in Iraq. General David Petraeus is expected to win easy confirmation to become the top ground commander in Iraq.

And as NPR's Guy Raz reports, it's not just his charm and intellect that's won over Washington.

GUY RAZ: The photograph captures David Petraeus in front of a Black Hawk helicopter. He's wearing combat fatigues, a helmet and a thick body armor. It's the cover of Newsweek. Five giant words in the center: Can this man save Iraq? It's a timely question, seeing as Petraeus is about to take over as the top ground commander there - except that this was a Newsweek cover story in July 2004. That was the last time the White House asked General Petraeus to bail it out in Iraq. He was sent there to rebuild the Iraqi army.

And a few days before Petraeus left for Iraq, he stopped by here at NPR and my colleague, Melissa Block, asked him…

MELISSA BLOCK: How much pressure do you feel that you're under can get this done quickly? To get the U.S. troops in a position where they can leave?

General DAVID PETRAEUS (U.S. Army; U.S. Commander in Iraq): Well, this obviously has a lot to do with our exit strategy, frankly. So all of us want to move out on this as quickly as we can. But at the same time, we need to have what we sometimes call tactical patience - not to over accelerate this and actually rush to failure.

RAZ: That turned out to be a wise premonition. Petraeus hadn't factored in political pressure from Washington. And so he ended up doing just what he hoped not to do - that is, rushing the process. And for a while, the numbers actually looked good. The Pentagon was making sunny announcements about how the Iraqi army was ready to roll. First, it was 50,000 troops, and then it hit 100,000. And by 2006, 200,000 Iraqi soldiers - except that only a tiny fraction of those Iraqis Petraeus trained are actually ready to fight today.

Now, Petraeus isn't the only one to blame for this, but remarkably, he wasn't ever really blamed at all. And there's a simple reason. Almost everybody loves to love David Petraeus, including the hawkish former Army general, Jack Keane.

General JACK KEANE (U.S. Army, Retired): General Petraeus is absolutely the most qualified general officer we have to undertake a change of mission and strategy in Iraq.

RAZ: Retired general and Bush critic, John Batiste, counts himself a Petraeus fan.

General JOHN BATISTE (U.S. Army, Retired): If anybody can figure it out, Dave Petraeus can.

RAZ: And to Senator Jack Reed, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Dave Petraeus is…

Senator JACK REED (Democrat, Rhode Island): An extremely bright, tough-minded -physically tough. He's a frontline leader. He's thoughtful. I think he's very self-confident.

RAZ: Now back in 2003, Petraeus commanded the Army's 101st Airborne Division up in northern Iraq. He had about 20,000 troops under his command. And unlike the rest of Iraq, Petraeus' area of command was remarkably stable. Part of the reason was his philosophy of counterinsurgency. He won over a population by staying attuned to their grievances. And back then, he told me…

Mr. PETRAEUS: We don't want to have a situation months from now where people are saying the equivalent of, oh, you know, Mussolini didn't allow many personal freedoms, but at least the trains ran on time. Some didn't allow us to speak our mind, but at least there was gas at the gas station.

RAZ: It would be nice if this story had a happy ending, but - at least so far -it doesn't. Shortly after Petraeus and his troops left Iraq and returned to Fort Campbell, Kentucky in early 2004, most of what they'd achieved in their patch of northern Iraq disintegrated, just as things deteriorated elsewhere in the country. And so today, David Petraeus finds himself coming back to Iraq -once again, round three - to work his magic.

He spent the past 15 months writing the Army's new counterinsurgency manual. It's an impressive and massive tome. But David Petraeus now has to put up or shut up. Counterinsurgency theory is, well, theory. And this is that rare case where the person who comes up with the theory is also the one who has to implement it.

Guy Raz, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: For more of General Petraeus' views on the Iraq war, you can go to npr.org.

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