April 27, 2007— -- Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, has been making the rounds in Washington this week, meeting with top politicians about where the war in Iraq is headed. But he has cautiously avoided questions that ask him look too far ahead into the future, especially when it comes to estimating a date for a total U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq..
"I've tried this week to stay away from predictions," Petraeus told ABC News' Jonathan Karl in a one-on-one interview. "I think that predictions at various points in the past have perhaps raised expectations that have proved difficult to meet."
Sidestepping what he calls "minefields," Petraeus avoided commenting directly on Congress' passage of the $124 billion Iraq War funding bill, which requires troop withdrawal to start by Oct. 1 -- a bill President Bush has vowed to veto.
Petraeus' thoughts on the issue are clear. When asked why he thinks it's so unlikely that all combat troops could be home by next year, he responded, "Well, again, it depends, you know, on what it is you want as an outcome, what would the implications of that be, and are you willing to accept that there could be, for example, a huge increase in sectarian violence, that al Qaeda could go on a rampage?"
In a country ravaged by sectarian violence and political unrest, the general defines victory as "one Iraq, with a government that is responsive to the populace, representative of that whole populace -- a country that can secure itself and is not certainly a sanctuary for terrorists."
But he stoppped short of naming a date for troop withdrawal.
"I think that what's appropriate right now is for us to focus on doing all that we can with the forces that we have, and those additional forces that will be on the ground by mid-June when the combat forces of the surge are all in place and operational," he said, "and then doing all that we and the Iraqi forces can do and to help the Iraqi political leadership do before we make this assessment in early September."
Petraeus noted that coalition forces have to promote reconciliation between the factions in Iraq.
"You have to bring some of these people in from the cold," he said.
Petraeus acknowledged that his deputy commander, British Lt. Gen. Graeme Lambe has been leading this effort. He pointed out that other nations, such as Britain, have overcome some of these seemingly fatal incongruities.
"The Brits went through Northern Ireland, and they sat across the table from people who were, you know, 10 years earlier swinging a pipe against one of their lads," he said.
"And there's a degree of both intellectual comfort with that and experience that has actually been very instructive to us, to the American contingent," he continued. "And it is something that we are certainly pursuing and we see results from already."
Petraeus noted that bringing some of the marginal groups into the fold involves a dialogue with groups the United States has labeled insurgents. This has most notably occurred in al Anbar Province, where Sunni sheikhs and tribes -- Arabs who may have "turned a blind eye toward al Qaeda" -- are now supporting coalition efforts against al Qaeda.
"If there are insurgents out there that want to fight against al Qaeda and want to join coalition forces and, even more importantly, be part of legitimate Iraqi security forces to do that, because that's how it is done, then I think that that's a positive development and one that we should support and encourage," he said.
Petraeus noted those who have harmed coalition forces, however, do not fit into that equation.
Petraeus said, "al Qaeda has taken on everyone in Iraq," regardless of religious or ethnic group, and that it's not clear what goal the terrorist group is pursuing anymore.
"I think what has happened is that these acts and their ideology just don't resonate with those in Iraq at this point in time, and that adds to a sense already -- and particularly from Sunni Arabs -- that they made a mistake by not participating in the earlier stages of the development of the new Iraq."
That train of thought has allowed the coalition forces to bring in some of the "reconciliables," or groups that "could be part of the solution instead of part of the problem."
But part of Petraeus' charge is to restore confidence in the goals of the forces in Iraq -- and he's adamant that he can do that by being forthright in his reports from the ground.
"I share the frustration and disappointment at where we are in Iraq, " he said. "When I was asked to provide a submission to the Senate Armed Services Committee, for example, prior to my confirmation hearing, I provided pages of issues that we didn't get right, things that we should have done better, and things that we clearly did wrong."
Petraeus insisted he has "worked very, very hard to try to be forthright again in everything that I have provided, as I mentioned, to the Iraqi people and to my bosses. And that's certainly something that I've pledged to continue to do."
But fear of diminishing support of the war at home is, as always, a concern.
"I think, again, in the greater environment, as I've discussed these different clocks, certainly is something that we're keenly aware of," he said. "I mean, we can hear it ticking in our ear."
Petraeus noted, "To some degree, there's not much you can do about some of that other than the best you can out there in the hope that, again, that can perhaps put some time back on one of these clocks."