Video: Exclusive interview with Gen. David Petraeus

By Brian Williams Anchor & “Nightly News” managing editor
NBC News
updated 3/9/2007 7:30:50 PM ET 2007-03-10T00:30:50

This week we got an up-close look at the U.S.military operation in Iraq.On Thursday, the American in charge, 4-star Gen. David Petraeus, held his first news conference in his new job. Before we left Baghdad, Gen. Petreus sat down with us for his first interview since taking command.

What follows is the transcript of that exclusive conversation.

Brian Williams: First of all, it sounded like you wanted to tell me something about your day so far. Did you have a meeting or a gathering that spoke to progress thus far?

Gen. David Petraeus: Well, we do. We just finished a 90 minute laydown for operation Fardh al Qanoon in order to secure the Baghdad situation. We do this once a week and we gather all of the commanders and staff who are involved in this. Interestingly, it's not just the operators and the intel types and the commanders. It's also those who are involved in activities like economics, government, the non-kinetic as well as the kinetic, in the informational side which is very, very important to communicate to the Iraqi people, as well as certainly to our own audiences back home.

Williams: Speaking of that audience back home, general, help me out with something. We wanted badly to come over here, and I'm always glad when I do, it's worth every bit of the trip. We come over here, we go to places like Ramadi, we wouldn't have been able to stand there 5 days ago. And we go to other places where the battle's being won block-by-block, hearts and minds and militarily. Then we go on the air from here and a hundred pilgrims killed and another 'bloody day in Iraq'. People say, "What were you talking about? Those victories earlier, what do those company commanders mean?" It's a mess over there and many people back in Washington are yelling, "We ought to get out of that godforsaken place and end this war." What's the viewer's guide to the conflict over here, how should we present the notion of progress in Iraq?

Petraeus: Well, it's interesting that you give that perspective because I've actually had feedback when I was in the states from people who do your work in response to my e-mails, saying, it sounds like the place is on fire. And they respond that it never looks as bad on the ground as it does back in the states, frankly on whatever network, you want to fill in the blank.

And -- so you have situations that are horrific, the suicide vest attacks on the pilgrims yesterday, but the fact is there are 7 million pilgrims converging on the holy cities - Karbala in particular, over the coming days. Sadly, there's no way you can protect that number of pilgrims from people who are willing to die, who are willing to wear a suicide vest, perhaps even to masquerade as a woman to avoid some of the checks. I don't want to say that this is something that is part of the environment, but you cannot stop that level, some of that level of violence. What we are focused on is getting the level of sectarian - direct, sectarian violence - down, particularly in the city of Baghdad, over time to get the overall level of violence down and thereby to enable the Iraqi government and permanent Iraqi leaders to resolve these really tough issues with which they have to grapple.

All of this against a backdrop of very substantial sectarian violence, that in spite of the wake of the Samarra bombing last year, and continued throughout the latter half of last year. When I came back to Iraq this time, the landscape, I found, was different. Driving around Baghdad, there are areas that are - that have been really depopulated by sectarian displacement, by these sectarian murders, these so called ex-judicial killings. That is a very, very tough dynamic. It is one that we, with our Iraqi partners, the Iraqi army, the Iraqi police, the Iraqi leaders, have got to try to protect from happening. And in fact there has been a reduction in those types of attacks. Literally in just the first few weeks of Operation Fardh Al, and it may bounce back up once they realize this is not just a two or three week operation, that we're not leaving the neighborhoods, that this really is hold, and hold and hold, and hold and build.

So there will be a degree of determination, or resoluteness, connected with this that is hugely important. In fact, our commanders tell us that there is a phenomenon once we've been in a neighborhood for a certain period of time, maybe five to seven days, where all of a sudden the information deficit about that area turns into an information overload. Because the neighborhood now realizes they are here to stay with their Iraqi partners, and all of a sudden they start coming out the woodwork and start providing information. That's very, very important for what we're doing, particularly in Baghdad, because it is in many respects a fault line in this sectarian violence, and also in some of the other areas outside Baghdad, where it is called the Baghdad belt.

We will get into those belts as the forces build. Keep in mind that we're only three weeks or so into operation Fardh Al, so these are the very early days. We're just putting the second of the five army surge brigades into Baghdad. We'll get one more each month with all the forces being on the ground by early June. Seven of the nine Iraqi battalions have entered Baghdad, one of the next ones is going in today, and the next will go in over the course of the next week.

This is, of course, the Anbar province, where we'll be flowing in over the course of the next month. But then we'll have to maintain this and again, the determination and the degree of protecting the population in this case will have to be substantial, particularly in the neighborhoods that really have been the most threatened.

Now, some other early indicators. We do see some families already coming home. That's something we'll be watching very, very carefully in the weeks and months ahead. Months, not weeks or days, and that's the kind of time frame that we have to be prepared for in this operation.

Williams: But then again, it could blow up.

Petraeus: Well, I think in fact al-Qaida in Iraq, and some of the other extremist elements connected with them, are looking for another Samarra bombing and they are trying to ignite or to re-ignite sectarian violence, as they were able to do in the wake of that bombing. I don't mean to imply that everything was just swimmingly until the Samarra mosque bombing, but the violence was connected largely with these extremist organizations -- the Saddamists, the insurgents, etc, of which we were familiar for the first couple of years of operation Iraqi freedom. And what transpired in the wake of that was something that was, in fact, different.

Williams: If the president calls on that hotline on your desk, as he is wont to do, or on your video conference setup here, says, 'I have to give a speech. I have to talk to a group in Congress. Are we winning this thing?' and he sounds like he's in a hurry so an answer will have to be brief and terse, what's that answer?

Petraeus: Well, we had a video teleconference with him last week. We laid out where we were making progress. We laid out where we need to make more progress. He acknowledged that there had been some setbacks. This is a bit of a roller coaster ride and what you're trying to do is do what's necessary to keep the roller coaster generally going up, despite all the ups and downs and the bumps.

Williams: Where are we right now?

Petraeus(gestures a plateau with his hand): We're doing a bit of this right now. And so, the short answer would be that we are making progress and that we will make more progress as more forces and more resources arrive to do that.

You know, the job of a commander is to understand his mission, the mission of the organization that he's privileged to lead and then make sure that he's requested the resources necessary to do that. And then he gets those resources and does the best that he can. And that's what we're doing and again, I think we're at (gestures with flat plateau hand) this stage in this.

There are some encouraging indicators with the Iraqi leaders. You have to remember that this is the fourth Iraqi government in 3.5 years. How they could possibly have capacity and capability, I think is beyond me -- especially given every institution in this state collapsed at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. And that many of those that were in leadership positions, of course, were invited to leave as well.

There are some, again, that there is traction in that very important area because again, as many on Capitol Hill have rightly pointed out, there is no military solution to Iraq. The military effort is necessary, vitally necessary, but it is not sufficient. The sufficient condition is political progress. It is a government that can convince those who right now don't think they are represented or don't think they're even cared about, that they are in fact part of the new Iraq. And those efforts are ongoing.

The ambassador and I met yesterday with the senior Shia political leader in Iraq and he pledged support for some of these initiatives and the reconciliation arena. The Iraqi government and the council of ministers agreed on the oil law. This is hugely important because this announces for all Iraq that all Iraqis will share in the oil wealth -- not just those who live in that area where the oil is pumped.

There's progress in a whole host of these areas and then there's progress again (hand gesture) again, slow. And it's fits and starts and every time you think something's really coming along here, there's some kind of really a discouraging event. And, of course, you have some really horrific events like the bombings that took place against the pilgrims yesterday.

Very, very significant is what you saw in Ramadi. Anbar Province, a place that has been so difficult since the beginning in Iraq, where for the first time really serious citizens of Anbar, of those local areas, of those tribes, have taken a stand against al-Qaida in Iraq. Sheiks are volunteering their young men to be in the police forces and just one tribe after another in the area of Ramadi, the same in Hit, the same in Al Qaim and the same, previously to a large degree, in Fallujah as well.

So, that's very important and if that emerges eventually some kind of Sunni Arab identity -- something that has generally been lacking along the way -- that again gives the government something to engage, it gives the government something again to reach out to and we're hopeful we see signs of that in the days ahead as well.

Williams: Just outside the blast wall on this base, there is a neighborhood where I can't travel without armor. It is not safe. And that could be because they have an hour of pwer every day and raw sewage in their homes and neighborhoods. Isn't that it?


Petraeus: It's a huge piece of it. Again, that's the basic service component. There's obviously a security component, there is sort of a social component -- they're part of Iraq, that people care about them. There is an economic component, ah...commerce; there is a jobs component, the opportunity component. So you have all of these factors and it is in fact why there is a campaign plan that the multinational force Iraq and the embassy developed with the Iraqi government that has what we call multiple lines of operation. It is not just security, although there can be times when it is, indeed, all about security. And I'd argue in some neighborhoods in Baghdad it is all about security.

But once you get that - and I do think we can improve the security with the additional forces with our Iraqi partners - then it does become about raw sewage, about hours of electricity, about gasoline and the gas stations, about decent governments that it is not corrupted or biased or sectarian-based. It's about the opportunity for kids to go to decent schools and, of course, to get there without getting kidnapped. It's about the head of the household being able to have a job that allows him to sustain his family and have some optimism that life can get better if he works hard.

So, it is about all of these factors and you have to address all of them and you cannot address only one. That's what I mentioned earlier, and that is what many in Capitol Hill have rightly pointed out that this is not going to be solved by military action. It takes all of these initiatives, endeavors, to bring this across the finish line.

Williams: But it's been the crux of the anger problem for a long time in ways the people haven't realized. they go from, a lot of these people had pwer and water before the U.S. entered, and it's been four years. They have very little of both now. When is the cavalry coming? Is that fair to ask?

Petraeus: It is fair to ask. Actually, the cavalry has come and has come repeatedly. Unfortunately this is yet another area in which al-Qaida Iraq has sought to do anything it can to derail the new Iraq. If you look, we actually have slides in our morning update that track the status of the electrical structure and it will show you where they have attacked the wires. Our corps of engineers, Iraqi engineers, all kinds of individuals, contractors, have been engaged in this and again, tragically, there are some pretty savvy terrorists out there. And again we have to protect everywhere and they can strike anywhere. That's very, very challenging and it can be a very, very frustrating endeavor.

Williams: I asked you last time you and I sat down for an interview, is it still a policy of "we broke it we'll fix it?" And at that point you said yes. Is it still now?

Petraeus: I think, actually, responsibility for some of the fixing and I think we are actually for those who are into developmental economics, if you will. There is a transition ongoing for reconstruction, for purely reconstruction to developing. That is more than philosophical; it's actually an approach. And I think that that shift is ongoing. This country is different from an awful lot of other countries that we ended up trying to help do some nation building. This country has enormous resources. It is not Afghanistan in this regard, it is not the Balkans. Bringing in $30-plus billion in oil revenues a year. So it is not without resources. And actually one of the keys is one of the people -- it is their lead to develop capacity so they can, in fact, use those resources for the Iraqi people.

Sadly, Iraq last year only got a government late May, and as I mentioned, very few of the individuals here have experience in large governing. But sadly, Iraq did not spend between $10 and $12 [billion] dollars of its budgets. And that is $10 billion  that was not used for the Iraqi people. Now, they do have it for this year and they are going to spend it. In fact, there is a government budget execution conference that will be held tomorrow and there will be monthly updates after that.

They've already released 10 percent of their capital budget to the ministries. There is very little tracking going on.

Williams: The first money is going to Ramadi.

Petraeus: The first big deal because, then again, the citizens of Ramadi in the past thought no one cares about them and no one was doing anything for them. And I think in the days ahead you'll see some further overtures by some seniors in Iraq.

Williams: How about our stance? How about the American footprint in Iraq? It struck me last night that, in preparing, in knowing that we were going to speak, you didn't have a role in the preparation of the so-called surge, or the new security plan for Baghdad did you prior to getting the job of running it all?

Petraeus: I did actually. I was consulted the day after the Secretary of Defense took off upon his return him and the chairman asked just for views actually from someone who was in Iraq before not presuming any kind of nomination or anything like. And then over the next month or so there was again further consultation, and of course, prior to the announcement there was a bit more significant communication back and forth. So, I had at least three conversations with the Secretary himself and a number of others, with Gen. Pace and others.

Williams: But just looking at (couldn't hear name), that was late in the game. The president's notion was already sailing. It's difficult to enforce? Maybe you don't agree with all or part of it. And are there any things you would tinker with now?

Petraeus: We will certainly do tinkering where we think tinkering is necessary but generally, again, I think actually, the process was fairly compressed and again, my recollection of the timeline -- and I was at least asked views as part of the overall process that they were pursuing of asking different views of different people within the military, within the government and even outside the government.

Petraeus: This is actually the approach that I thought made sense. If you are going to secure the population, clearly you are going to have to have additional forces, and you're going to have to deploy those forces in the neighborhoods where those populations live and that will continue and we're going to employ more and more and more if you will, population security measures over time.

As I mentioned, we're just putting the second of the five brigades into Baghdad and there's months to go just to get the footprint set and then to get out to these belts where the vehicle bomb factories are located as well -- two of which we found, by the way, in the last three weeks.

Williams: Question about the Iraqi army and the police. Speak to, if you could, overall quality. Again, could you blame an audience back home for looking at them and thinking are they ever going to be there? Are they ever going to match the quality of what seems to be the American fighting force?

Petraeus: Well, I don't want to sound too American but I don't think there are too many forces out there in the world that match the quality of the American fighting force, have the quality of soldier -- you know what your colleague Tom Brokaw has the called the "new greatest generation."

Certainly, the equipment that has been purchased for them, continues to evolve and just get better over time and so forth so I'm not sure that's the metric. What they need to be is good enough to contribute meaningfully in their own country so probably measuring them against other forces in the region or what have you.

The fact though is there is a mix in Iraq of these forces and sadly, during the periods of substantial sectarian violence, some of these got infected by that. Truthfully, that isn't surprising.

If you live in a neighborhood, particularly if you are police and there are extremists intimidating that neighborhood, after a while that's going to affect you and affect your family. And you're going to try to figure out "how do I survive this?"

So, in some cases, we actually have to go back with the Iraqis and clean out some of these forces. And that process has actually begun with the so-called regluing of some of the national police units that were implicated in some of these activities.

Prime Minister Maliki is dedicated to bringing to account a number of the leaders that were party to some of the excesses. In fact, the Iraqis detained an individual that we had in fact, said we would be willing to detain just a week or so ago. So, that is ongoing and in fact, militia members -- extremist members of the al-Mahdi, sadr's militia, there are some 700 of those in various detention facilities right now.

That process is going to take time as well. Some of the facility protection security forces, particularly, those within the ministry of health and other key ministries, certainly have shown significant sectarian biases and they have to be dealt with as well. So, there's going to be effort required in this area. Now, having said that, there are a significant number of very fine Iraqi units and there's a significant number of very fine Iraqi leaders. Yesterday, in my office over in the embassy, we had for example, the governor of Nineva province and the police chief of Nineva province. Now, the governor's lost his brother, I believe a son and several different cousins and other relatives and he is undeterred. He is absolutely determined. He has weathered the very tough times in Mosul and they have brought it back from those tough times.

The police chief is a very hearty individual and again, he is hanging in there and you know they threw a vehicle bomb at some of his police stations this week and they rebuilt them the next day. That's the kind of leadership that you're looking for. That's the kind of leadership Iraq needs and of course, that's what we're trying to support.

Williams: General, I was out in Ramadi twp days ago. We waved at the children. Gunnery Sergeant, working gunnery sergeant -- children turned their backs rather than wave back. We're downtown and a man manning a 50-caliber as part of the protection for an American general, has a full face black mask like a terrorist. Uh, because he doesn't want to be seen and recognized by those on the other side --fellow Iraqis.

It would seem as an observer, if you don't get around that, that fear, that peer pressure, the deadly pressure that you're fighting out there, you're never going to even climb the next rung of the ladder in this fight.

Petraeus: Well, actually, that's huge progress because if you'd gone to Ramadi three/six months ago, you'd have had to fight your way downtown with a strictly U.S. unit if you could get down at all and there certainly would be no Iraqi Security Forces in there protecting Iraqi or U.S. officials.

So, Ramadi has been a city in big transition. I mean it was a city that had been an al-Qaida haven for the better part of a couple of years. It now does have an Iraqi police force.

I don't know if you met Sheik Satar out there -- very courageous, charismatic sheik whose father -- the head of his tribe -- was killed by al-Qaida and he vowed "no more." And now he has started this whole movement of Iraqis out in Ramadi, joining the police and actually fighting to expel al-Qaida from their city. It's not done yet though. And you won't see (gestures with wave) kids happily waving until they're comfortable that there isn't someone standing somewhere watching them who will then take retribution against them and their family.

Williams: It must be difficult for you because the progress is incremental. It's only to those who make it to the 10th graph of the New York times story. It's not those who watch a little snippet here and there. You see the headlines on MSNBC or NBC Nightly News because those headlines are those same smoldering car, so how does David Petraeus wake up every morning and do with four stars proudly on your chest and har earned to say, "I'm in this to win it." We're turning the corner, it's a good fight, it's a noble effort and I'll se you on the other side victorious." How do you do that?

Petraeus: I think you have to have a degree of resonance and determination. It can't be chest beating stuff. It's not go out and shout it from the mountain top, it's just get up in the morning, get up in a cup of coffee.

Williams: What brand do you drink, because that must be a heck of a cup of cofee.

Petraeus: Whatever it is, we drink a lot of it.

Williams: But you see what I mean?

Petraeus: I absolutely see what you mean, but the fact is there are way over 100,000 great young Americans who give you energy and inspiration and encouragement everyday and darn near every hour of the week. And it's a privilege to soldier with them in this endeavor. This is my fourth year, a longer deployment since 2001, so my family knows what sacrifice is about and I wouldn't do it if I didn't have the feelings that you've expressed yourself actually. This is worth doing, it's hugely important for our country, for Iraq, for the region and really for the entire world. we're going to give it everything we have.

Williams: Just in the days I've been over here I've had families and friends say I get that you're showing us these victories, able to walk around Ramadi where you couldn't a couple of weeks ago, but understand everyday folks back home are saying it's time to get out of this.

Petraeus: Well, again, military folks just have a mission and it's a fairly consuming mission. We're actually not sitting watching the TV all day long or anything like that. We do certainly try and get the news clips that are pulled out. We're focused on the mission and again, doing everything that we can to try and bring success and the accomplishments of that mission. And that's what America wants it's military to do, I think. I know, that's our job and that's what we have to do and we are doing it.

Williams: Have you been forced into or do you see yourself having to tell your men and women "look, if it comes to this, at the end of your tour you must visit a place lie Walter Reed, everything's going to be OK." With four stars on your chest, do you have some responsibility to call home to make sure everything is going to be OK at Wlater Reed and all these VA hospitals because this has come up since you've been here?

Petraeus: In fact, they've reassured us. The Vice Chief of Staff and the Chief of Staff in fact, they've preempted that question literally and have communicated to us that they are absolutely committed to ensuring the best care of soldiers who end up in places back home like Walter Reed and really the entire medical system out there. I've been to Walter Reed on a number of occasions. I've walked through the wards, I've visited wives and soldiers and so forth. They're the true heroes, they're the ones who in many cases have suffered the absolute most, they and their families. The care that I saw there was first class, it was phenomenal. It starts at the point of injury right here and again, moves through these hospitals and again it makes it's way back there and if we're not doing all that we can there with the outpatient as well as the inpatient then we absolutely must and again that's what the Chief of Staff and the Vice Chief of Staff communicated to us.

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