Petraeus: 'A Lot of Soul Searching'

Gen. David Petraeus said he is aware Americans want to withdraw from Iraq.

ByABC News via via logo

July 31, 2007 — -- Many Americans have said they want the United States to withdraw troops from Iraq.

In fact, a July 21 ABC News poll said 60 percent agree with the idea. It's a point of public contention that Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, said he definitely is aware of.

Petraeus' report on Iraqi progress, due in September, could play a vital role in determining how long American troops stay.

"We're going to be engaged in Iraq for some foreseeable future," he said during an exclusive interview on "Good Morning America" today. "I don't think anyone would think that we'd be completely out of here or completely unhooked from Iraq."

"And I think frankly that the American people, if they have a sense of this, can succeed because they know the stakes here. This is an extremely important endeavor."

But as the war trudges into its fifth year, the optimism some Americans previously held onto has faded. In 2004 Petraeus graced Newsweek's cover, and many reports at the time talked about an increasing momentum with huge progress. But the commander said he is no longer as optimistic.

"I'm not an optimist or a pessimist, I'm a realist," Petraeus said. "I think we've learned over the years. We've had our moments of optimism, and frankly some of those moments were in that particular summer as we headed toward the elections. And we remember the purple finger moments and the wave of optimism that accompanied the elections and some of the other moments of progress. Sadly, a lot of that was undone by the horrific sectarian violence."

Troops in Iraq are operating in an environment where, during the last winter, the very fabric of Iraqi society was torn, he said. Petraeus said he was aware of the challenges in Iraq and how difficult the situation is, but he doesn't believe it is hopeless.

Even as Petraeus attempts to renew the public's faith in the war, other officials are beginning to show their emotions publicly. Recently, Defense Secretary Robert Gates broke down at a podium when he talked about the death of Marine Maj. Douglas Zembiac, who was known as "the lion of Fallujah."

"Every evening I write notes to the families of young Americans like Doug Zembiac," Gates said as his voice choked up. "They are not names on a press release or numbers updated on a Web site. They are a country's sons and daughters."

Petraeus, who attended a memorial ceremony in Baghdad for Zembiac, said the Marine was a special warrior and truly great American who was unapologetic about his love serving the nation.

"There's an awful lot of soul searching that goes on when you're a commander of an endeavor like this. And you do occasionally ask yourself, 'Is it worth it?' And I've done that in the past," Petraeus said. "I did that as a commander of the 101st Airborne Division during the first year heading up the training, getting that going in the second, third year and so fourth and it never stops."

Even with those thoughts, Petraeus said he wouldn't be engaged in the situation if he didn't believe it was worth it.

"I certainly ask myself that periodically," he said. "I think any commander should do that, must do it. And if I ever thought that was not the case, I would offer that view through my chain of command."

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