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Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in the Middle East, comes to BYU

Published: Thursday, March 25 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

Barack Obama talks with Gen. David Petraeus, in July 2008 on a runway at Baghdad International Airport in Iraq.

Ssg Lorie Jewell, Associated Press

PROVO — As the commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus used to ask his soldiers a question before they did anything.

"Will this operation take more bad guys off the street than it creates by the way it is conducted?"

If the answer was no, it was time to re-evaluate.

Now a four-star general and leader of U.S. Central Command with its 20 countries and 4.6 million square miles of terrain, Petraeus is responsible for a lot more streets — and tracking down a lot more bad guys.

But his troops aren't just keeping peace on the streets; they're working to keep those streets in one piece.

Since blazing his way into Iraq in 2003 as the leader of the 101st Airborne Division, Petraeus has changed the way the United States fights.

His soldiers are still scouring the desert for insurgents, but they're also rebuilding schools, irrigation systems, oil refineries and youth soccer fields.

They're breaking down enemies while building up countries, brick by brick and ballot by ballot.

And with two successful elections completed and a decrease in violent attacks, it appears to be working in Iraq.

Some observers have already painted Petraeus as a Kevlar-clad hero who salvaged a failed attempt to find weapons of mass destruction and liberated a nation from a despotic ruler.

But others wonder if such praise is premature.

What happens when the last soldier leaves and the tanks roll out?

As the face of the war in Iraq, Petraeus can't go anywhere without being commended or criticized, whether it's to Congress or to Brigham Young University, where he is slated to speak tonight.

He plans to give an update of Central Command activities and the situations throughout the Middle East, but it's unlikely he'll use the word "victory."

Because no one, not even Petraeus, knows how long Iraq can stand on its own.

Push-ups and Ph.D.s

"Petraeus is an anomaly among Army generals," said Tom Ricks, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and contributing editor for Foreign Policy magazine. "Indeed, I would say he has three strikes against him: He likes journalists and politicians, he has a Ph.D. from Princeton, and he had a successful first tour of duty in Iraq. That sets him apart from almost all other Army generals."

But for some, it's the push-ups, not the Ph.D., that impress them.

"Most of us tend to believe that we're in good physical shape, and you have to be if you're a soldier," said Col. Bjarne Michael Iverson, former executive officer to Petraeus. "If you're not, you need to fix yourself or get out of the business."

But Petraeus, 57, is in such good shape that he has been reported to handily win races against younger soldiers and even answer the question of "How many push-ups can you do?" with "One more than you," and then prove it.

Petraeus, a marathoner with a fierce competitive drive, has survived a parachute crash that left him with a metal plate in his pelvis, as well as a training exercise where he was shot in the chest when a soldier carrying a loaded rifle tripped.

When the doctors were hesitant to sign Petraeus' discharge papers after surgery, he dropped and did 50 push-ups before they made him stop and then let him go.

Even a recent battle with prostate cancer couldn't slow him down, Iverson said.

Treatment was just another item for Petraeus' already packed calendar with its nonstop weeks of 17- to 18-hour days.

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