Gen. David Petraeus says he shares the "frustration" many Americans feel about the state of progress in Iraq, while reiterating how crucial the conflict is to U.S. safety.
Petraeus talked with ABC's Charles Gibson one day after the top military commander in Iraq testified to Congress about his Iraq progress report.
"I get very frustrated and I think I've been open and honest about that, even on Capitol Hill," Petraeus said. "I don't think any of us wanted to be where we are right now, given where we were at other points along the way … only to see some of that really undone, again, by this horrific escalation of ethno-sectarian violence."
Watch the interview tonight on "World News with Charles Gibson" at 6:30 EDT.
Despite those frustrations, he maintains the need to stay in Iraq for America's safety, something that came into question Tuesday when Sen. John Warner, R-Va., asked whether Iraq was making the United States safer. Petraeus said, "Sir, I don't know."
Petraeus told Gibson his answer reflected his stature in the military.
"My response yesterday was actually following a series of questions where I was trying hard to stay the MNF-I commander, if you will, not to try to be the overall commander in the global war on terror, or to talk about what we should do beyond the borders of Iraq," he said.
He reiterated he believes success in Iraq is critical for both U.S. safety and international stability. "This is an enormously important mission. There are huge national interests involved, and that's the basis of my feeling in that respect," Petraeus said.
Political Progress Dashed by Violence
Petraeus' long-awaited testimony on Capitol Hill included a recommendation for a drawdown of 30,000 troops by next summer to bring the number of soldiers in Iraq to pre-troop surge levels.
The military presence is intended to help the Iraqis make political progress, yet Petraeus agreed that has yet to happen. "We have endeavored to give a window of opportunity and the Iraqis have not taken advantage of that the way we had hoped," he said.
He said he has witnessed the challenges to political progress as the violence persists.
"When you're in a meeting with senior Iraqi officials and a massive car bomb has gone off … their mind is not on legislation; it is on the repercussions, the how to take care of that, how to respond to that kind of disaster. When they're getting phone calls all day long about what is happening in this neighborhood or that neighborhood, that dominates the conversation," he said.
"I've literally had meetings where there was an agenda on a host of very important topics and you don't get to any of the topics because the entire conversation is preempted by discussions about what took place, where a market was blown up or a neighborhood is suffering from sectarian violence," Petraeus said.
He said while political progress is slow, some issues are being resolved outside of the legislative process, as with the issue of oil revenue sharing.
"Although there's not an oil revenue sharing law, oil revenue sharing is taking place," he said. "So in the absence of the legislation that we had hoped to see, because it would be a tangible representation of all the different ethno-sectarian political groups coming together sufficiently to agree on this important elements of national reconciliation, they have just done it."
'Just Have Realistic Moments'
Petraeus assumed the post of top commander in Iraq in February, and said while Americans work to turn over more security to the Iraqis, the efforts to train a local military is hampered by their own troop losses and equipment shortages.
There is also the issue of loyalty, as some Iraqis have a greater sense of attachment to their ethnicity than Iraq as a nation. Petraeus said "it is changing slowly" but "there's no question, but that large segments of the population do have that kind of loyalty."
For now, he said the U.S. troops are critical to provide support for their Iraqi counterparts and to take an active role in the fight against the insurgents.
"If we were not helping go after the insurgents, the militia extremists, the terrorists, but were literally just supporting the Iraqis in that role, the operations would not be as effective," he said.
He said the gains against al Qaeda have been both facilitated and led by U.S. troops. "Especially when it comes to our most special special operations forces, which are drawing on levels of intelligence capability and just sheer combat skill and capability and communications and so forth that the Iraqis just do not have."
The troops also face an influx of what Petraeus called "lethal aid" from Iran to the insurgents. Given the range of challenges to progress, Gibson asked Petraeus what he envisions during his most optimistic moments.
"First of all, I have tried to shut out optimistic and pessimistic moments, candidly, and just have realistic moments. And what I see in those moments is a very tough, very hard effort ahead," he said. "And I'm not going to sugarcoat that. And the ambassador [Ryan Crocker] has sought to say that this is hard. He always uses that word."
Still, Petraeus maintains this is a critical mission that is worth the sacrifice of American lives. "If I didn't think that, I wouldn't be doing this job. We have enormous interests at stake in Iraq, and it is hugely important that we help Iraq get it right."