The Iraqi men squatting shoulder to shoulder in the blasted, abandoned classroom couldn't tell at first that the American soldier addressing them was a man of real authority. He was slight, taut, with sandy hair and a thin beak of a nose. He didn't sound like a big shot; he didn't bark in a commanding voice. "How many of you are going to make it?" he asked, in sketchy Arabic. Several of the men Iraqi police recruits looked up, saw the four stars on General David Petraeus' cap and shifted nervously, unsure of what he meant. His interpreter had better success. A scattering of hands were timidly raised. "You're all going to make it!" Petraeus said, giving the Iraqis' response the most benign possible interpretation. "That's good. Are you ready to defend your country?" There was a grudging shout, the Iraqi equivalent of, "Yes, sir!"
It was midafternoon on a blistering June Saturday in Yusufia, just south of Baghdad. The abandoned school was stifling, though more tolerable than the dusty, sun-addled main street of town, which we'd just walked along the general on an arid grip-and-grin tour, offering Salaam aleikum, habibi! greetings to the few Iraqis willing to brave the midday heat. Now Petraeus moved from classroom to classroom, cloaked in heavy body armor, sweat trickling down the side of his face. Each room was packed with nonsmiling Iraqi men in deep squat 500 in all. Petraeus was exhilarated. They were different from the usual police recruits. These had been selected by local sheiks.
Some were former Sunni insurgents who had just switched sides part of a revolt against al-Qaeda that has been gathering force all spring. "This is cause for optimism," Petraeus told me as he watched the recruits being fingerprinted and getting retinal scans for their ID cards. "This is the wave of the future. You've got to work from the bottom up, get the local forces involved." The biometric scans were a major technological advance. The Iraqi police had a reputation for corruption and secret allegiance to the militias, but the allegiances of these men were not going to be secret. If any of those fingerprints turned up on a bomb, the culprit would be identified. "We're beginning to build a fairly significant database," Petraeus said.
This is one of his favorite themes how much more knowledgeable the U.S. military is about Iraq now than when he first came over with the Operation Iraqi Freedom invasion force in 2003. Earlier, I sat next to the general at a briefing staged by U.S. officers at Fire Base Yusufia, and he whispered little addendums for my benefit. "See, these guys really get it," he told me as a major explained the nuances of a map showing the various local tribal areas. When the briefer showed a map of joint U.S.-Iraqi patrol bases, Petraeus said, "See, you can't secure a population by commuting to the fight." Another Petraeus theme: in the past, the vast majority of American troops lived on massive forward operating bases. But the counterinsurgency doctrine that Petraeus has sought to apply since becoming the top U.S. commander in Iraq calls for moving units out of their bases and into civilian areas, where they can interact with locals. "You guys have been doing classical work," he told his briefers at the end of the presentation. "But this is the time for you to take risks ... We're inevitably going to reduce this surge. You have to be thinking about what you want to leave behind."
It is, indeed, a moment of truth in Iraq. "This is a decisive phase," a member of Petraeus' staff told me and began to laugh. "That's one of our favorite jokes. It's always a decisive phase. But this time, I guess you'd have to say, it actually is." Operation Phantom Thunder, the nationwide offensive launched by U.S. and Iraqi troops in mid-June, may well be the last major U.S-led offensive of the war. "We couldn't really call it what it is, Operation Last Chance," says a senior military official. There is widespread awareness among the military and diplomatic players in Baghdad that, with patience dwindling in Washington, they have only until September when Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker are due to give Congress a progress report to show significant gains in taming the jihadist insurgency and in arresting the country's descent into civil war. Phantom Thunder is an effort to dislodge al-Qaeda from its bases of operation in the suburban belts north and south of Baghdad, and using intelligence from al-Qaeda's former allies in the Sunni insurgency to prevent the terrorists from settling in elsewhere in the country. Petraeus says that the entire U.S.-led coalition force, which includes 160,000 American troops, is involved in the operation in one way or another. "We're not doubling down here," he told me. "We're all in."
Petraeus has been careful about claiming success, or even optimism, in the nearly five months since he returned to Baghdad. He has said a military victory isn't possible, that Iraq can be stabilized only through a political solution that honors all sides in the conflict Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds. But his own staff is skeptical that a political deal is still possible. "This is going to be the first Shi'ite-dominated Arab government. Period," a senior military official told me. "And the Shi'ites are not inclined to be generous toward the Sunnis." The fact is, most of the important decisions in Iraq are now beyond American control.
Petraeus is not your old-fashioned, gung-ho, blood-and-guts sort of commander. He's an intellectual, a West Point graduate with a Ph.D. in international relations from Princeton. His record in Iraq has been mixed. He succeeded, for a time, in applying his counterinsurgency tactics in Mosul during the first year of the war, but his highly publicized effort to train the new Iraqi army in 2004 can only be considered a failure. He has successfully led soldiers in combat. And he does have his macho moments, famously challenging his soldiers to push-up contests. But he made his reputation more as a communicator and motivator than as a warrior. "He is very much a seize-the-moment sort of general," says Lieut. General Graeme Lamb, the senior British military commander in Iraq, who served with Petraeus' predecessor, General George Casey. Lamb describes Casey as "more stoic," which is British for "less dynamic."