Petraeus: most trusted general since Vietnam

September 16, 2008 12:00 am

, BAGHDAD, September 16 – General David Petraeus, who rises on Tuesday from US military chief in Iraq to commander of all American forces in the Middle East, has emerged as Washington’s most successful and trusted general since Vietnam.

Regarded as "incredibly intelligent" by his admirers, but arrogant by detractors, the former parachutist commands widespread respect for both his military prowess and political savvy.

A keen athlete, Petraeus has twice escaped death, once when he was shot accidentally and then during a parachute jump which went wrong.

The architect of the troop surge strategy credited by the White House with improving security in violence-ravaged Iraq after the 2003 invasion, 55-year-old Petraeus has been promoted to run US Central Command.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates on Monday credited Petraeus’s "brilliant strategy" and its implementation by the US military for the success of the surge, as well as his partnership with US ambassador Ryan Crocker.

"I think he’s played a historic role. There is just no two ways about it," he said.

Petraeus’s promotion puts him in charge of the US military’s biggest challenges — Iraq, an expanding military effort in Afghanistan, an Al-Qaeda revival in Pakistan, and challenges from Iran on various fronts.

On top of his military victories, Petraeus has prided himself on new counter-insurgency guidelines that underscore the importance of winning citizens’ hearts and minds in the war in Iraq.

US President George W. Bush pinned his hopes on Petraeus to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, after the US mission in Iraq teetered on the brink of collapse with the risk of civil war before the surge.

So when Petraeus called for keeping at least 140,000 troops in place indefinitely while he assessed the situation, Bush said his most trusted general would have "all the time he needs."

Petraeus’s predecessor, Admiral William Fallon, abruptly resigned in March amid reports of differences with the White House over Iran.

Asked why he recommended Petraeus for the job, Gates said: "I recommended him to the president because I am absolutely confident he is the best man for the job."

The son of a Dutch sea captain, Petraeus has long been a star in the military. Competitive and ambitious, he has been nicknamed "King David" by some in the army.

The New York state native graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point in 1974, was the top of his 1983 class at the US Army Command and General Staff College, and went on to earn a PhD in international relations at Princeton University.

Petraeus commanded the 101st Airborne Division during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and quickly pacified the northern region around Mosul. After he left, it became an insurgent stronghold that the US military is still trying to uproot.

He later headed up the troubled US effort to train Iraqi security forces, and then returned to the United States to oversee the writing of a new manual for counter-insurgency warfare.

It was from that position that Bush tapped Petraeus to lead the faltering campaign in Iraq from February 2007, almost four years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

The media chronicled his rise. He was profiled in books about the invasion, and declared one of the 25 most influential Americans by US News and World Report in 2005.

His televised appearances before a restive Congress in September 2007 and again earlier this year to report on his progress in Iraq had the aura of a Roman festival.

No US general since William Westmoreland during the Vietnam War has been so dominant.

Remaining cautious, Petraeus told AFP in an interview last week he was leaving behind a "significantly improved" Iraq but one still vulnerable to lethal attack by Al-Qaeda and Shiite extremists.

"A resurgence of Al-Qaeda, return of special groups (Shiite militias cells) in some form and potential political discord turning into violence on the ground" could erase these gains, Petraeus said.

Assessing his 19-month tenure, Petraeus credited the surge strategy of "living with the Iraqis," the anti-Qaeda Sunni fighters and the crackdown on Shiite militias for the dramatic fall in violence to four-year lows.


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