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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

And I'm Deborah Amos sitting in for Steve Inskeep.

General David Petraeus is nearing the end of his time as the top U.S. commander in Iraq. This fall he takes over as commander of U.S. central command. He'll turn his attention to military operations in other parts of the region, including Afghanistan.

We asked General Petraeus to give us a sense of how Iraq has changed since his work began five years ago. But first: his assessment of the most recent trip of presidential hopeful Barack Obama.

When you met with Senator Barack Obama last week, he talked about a timetable for troop withdrawals from Iraq. Iraq's prime minister also seems to favor a timetable. But the senator said he discussed with you your deep concerns - and those are his words - and he said that you wanted maximum flexibility in Iraq. How would you characterize those discussions?

General DAVID PETRAEUS (U.S. Army): Well, they were very good discussions. Ambassador Crocker and I tried to do what we have always done with members of Congress, and that is to portray reality. We described the very significant change in the security situation on the ground, one that has seen Iraq go from 170 attacks a day back about a little over a year ago to an average of less than 25 a day right now.

And also described very clearly the challenges that lie ahead for Iraq for the security endeavor and also in the political and economic and diplomatic arenas as well.

AMOS: The White House, which one said there would be no timetables, now is talking about a general time horizon. John McCain has said a timetable is pretty good if it's based on conditions on the ground. Do you think this debate is shifting in Washington?

Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, I'll leave that to those in Washington. Again, what Ambassador Crocker and I also the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and a number of others have tried to focus on is indeed the idea of conditions. Another month or so we can probably have an assessment that provides us with the possibility of further recommendations on reductions.

But again, we'll see how the conditions are at that time. Prime Minister Maliki has used the term conditions in his session with Senator Obama and the congressional delegation, as did his spokesman.

AMOS: Is politics driving the Iraqi government to bring the issue up? They were the ones who opened that discussion.

Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, there are clearly domestic politics at work. And there is a very keen sense of desire to exercise sovereignty. And so there is a natural impulse. It's also, by the way, it's not only an election year in the United States; it's an election year in Iraq. And not unsurprising, certain political leaders and elements will criticize the incumbent government and use whatever angles they can.

And one of those is certainly to challenge their assertion of sovereignty when there are, as they might term it, occupying forces on Iraqi soil. So I think it's very important to understand the context in which the debate here is carried on.

AMOS: Apart from security, political reconciliation has always been the ultimate goal of the surge, and one test of reconciliation is setting a date and a formula for provincial elections, and that has been very tough for the Iraqis. They haven't done it yet. What does that say about where Iraqis are in political reconciliation?

Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, it says that democracy in a new country is difficult. On the one hand they have passed some impressive legislation, (unintelligible) law that distributes revenue equitably, a provincial powers law, and a number of others. And in fact, voter registration started on the 15th of July.

On the other hand, this is a very difficult piece of legislation that they are now negotiating - the provincial elections law. And while it's certainly everyone's hope that they will approve it at the end of the month, it is very, very fiercely debated. And so I think it is bringing out differences between the political parties and even between ethno-sectarian groupings.

But it is democracy, or Iraqcracy, as some term it, and we are all keenly watching the debate.

AMOS: General, there are officials in Washington, including the secretary of defense, who say that more troops are needed in Afghanistan. Do those statements figure into your calculations about Iraq?

Gen. PETRAEUS: They do - is the short answer - and I have always noted that my keen awareness of a strain in our force, the human cost and the financial cost, and the strategic opportunity cost, if you will, that the forces are here, they can't be elsewhere, figures into the recommendations that I make. They are factors, so they do figure in but they don't drive the recommendations.

AMOS: You've been in Iraq for five years and you now are thinking about leaving this job. You once were famously quoted as saying: how does this end? Do you have a better idea now about the answer to this question?

Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, this has been a very long, hard slog, and there are many, many tough miles still to go. I think it was the U.N. secretary-general who announced that Iraq could now be characterized by the world hope. And I think that is a pretty significant statement and it does reflect how far the situation here has evolved from the days when there were 55 dead bodies every 24 hours were turning up on the streets of Baghdad alone.

And the reality is that Iraq has been hard, is hard, and will continue to be hard, but there is a country where there have been very significant progress made over the course of the last year, year and a half.

AMOS: Thank you very much.

Gen. PETRAEUS: Great to talk to you, Debbie.

AMOS: General David Petraeus finishes his duty as top U.S. commander in Iraq in September. He'll begin a new post as the head of U.S. central command.

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