The debate is hardly over in Washington over the war on Iraq and this week, the American commanders have been meeting players in that debate. General David Petraeus is asking for patience. Yesterday he spoke with reporters including NPR's Tom Bowman.

TOM BOWMAN: When it comes to Iraq, Gen. Petraeus likes to talk about two clocks. There's an American clock that runs too fast and then there's a slower Iraqi clock. Polls show Americans want troops to start leaving. They see the car bombs, the rising death toll. Democrats in Congress are pressing for timetables - some type of troop pullout as early as this summer.

General DAVID PETRAEUS (Commander; Multinational Iraq Force): That clock is moving, and it's moving at a rapid rate of speed. And it reflects the frustration, impatience, disappointment, anger and a variety of other emotions - feel about the pace in Iraq, and the situation in Iraq.

BOWMAN: Petraeus says Americans should expect increasing casualties in the coming weeks and months as more Americans head into Iraq. The new security plan calls for troops to move away from their fortified bases into dozens of small, more vulnerable outposts in Baghdad's neighborhoods.

The added American troops has led to a reduction in sectarian killings. Some displaced Iraqis are returning to their homes. Petraeus made clear, he thinks the start of a troop pullout this summer would reverse those trends.

Gen. PETRAEUS: My sense is that there would be an increase in sectarian violence, a resumption of sectarian violence.

BOWMAN: Petraeus then turned to that other clock. Reconciliation among the warring parties in Iraq has lagged. The government itself has a hard time functioning, even spending money. Last year, billions of dollars just sat in accounts, unspent.

Gen. PETRAEUS: The Baghdad clock, for all the reasons that I mentioned, is not moving as rapidly.

BOWMAN: Petraeus says Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is trying to move forward. But he is not really the head of the unity government. Instead, Maliki rules over a collection of competing parties, factions, and interests.

Gen. PETRAEUS: The key leaders of the key parties of the key blocks of the Shia, Sunni, Kurds and so forth. And they're all going to have to work together to make progress.

BOWMAN: Senator Jack Reed is a Rhode Island Democrat, who has been frustrated about the lack of movement by Iraqi politicians. And he didn't hear specifics from Petraeus.

Senator JACK REED (Democrat, Rhode Island): I think what we didn't hear from him is how long it will take if we are holding to the Iraqi timetable. That, I think, is difficult to sustain in terms of public support, which is critical to any foreign policy. It's difficult to sustain in terms of wear and tear on our military forces.

BOWMAN: Then there is Congressman Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland. He was one of only two Republicans who voted for the Democrat's plan to start pulling troops out.

Representative WAYNE GILCHREST (Republican, Maryland): We also have not seen nearly enough diplomacy and dialogue with all of Iraq's neighbors including Iran and Syria to help with resolving this sectarian violence.

BOWMAN: Petraeus will make an assessment in September on how Iraq is doing in terms of security, economic progress, and political reconciliation. He gave no hint what may occur then, whether it could be a recommendation for a reduction, a leveling off or an increase in American forces.

He echoed what the White House and the Pentagon had been declaring since 2003. American combat troops can't create a new and peaceful country, only the Iraqis can.

Gen. PETRAEUS: Success in the end will depend on Iraqi actions. We can provide the Iraqis an opportunity, but they will have to exploit it.

BOWMAN: But Petraeus sidestepped the question about how long the American people should expect high levels of U.S. troops in Iraq.

Gen. PETRAEUS: I'm not - I wouldn't try to truly to anticipate what levels would be some years down the road. It is an endeavor again that clearly is going to require enormous commitment, and commitment over time.

BOWMAN: Robert Scales is a retired Army general. He says that comment from Petraeus goes beyond what most political and military leaders had been willing to say.

General ROBERT SCALES (Retired, U.S. Army): I think without question, Petraeus is telling us that we're going to have troops in the region for, perhaps, decades and certainly some vestige of American presence inside Iraq for years to come.

BOWMAN: And it all comes back to a question of time in two competing clocks.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, the Pentagon.

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