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Presenter: Lt. Gen. Sir Robert Fry, Deputy Commander of Multi National Force-Iraq August 22, 2006 9:00 AM EDT

DoD News Briefing with Lt. Gen. Sir Robert Fry from Iraq


(NOTE: The general appears via video-teleconference from Baghdad.)

MODERATOR: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. It's a pleasure to have you today. Sir, it's a pleasure to have you. With have with us today Lieutenant General Robert Fry -- Sir Robert Fry, but he likes to be known as General Rob, just so you know. He is the deputy commander of the Multinational Forces-Iraq and the senior British representative in Iraq. He assumed command on March 6th and is coming to us from the Combined Press Information Center in Baghdad. He last briefed us in May and is here to provide us with an operational update.

The general does have an opening statement he'd like to provide, and then, he'll take your questions. And I would remind you again that, although he can hear you, he cannot see you, so please identify who you are when you ask your questions.

And with that, sir, I'll turn it over to you.

GEN. FRY: Well, that's very kind. This is an opening statement, and then, just a few observations. When I was coming over here today, I had a glance of the transcript of the last time that I'd spoke here, and it seemed to me, at the risk of boring you, that the subject that I brought up then still seemed to be relevant to me now.

The first thing I talked about was the role of the British in MND-Southeast, and that has changed slightly since May. It changed primarily because there are fewer troops now in MND-Southeast than there were at the time, but I take that very much as an index of success rather than anything else. The fact that we've been able to reduce the numbers of the Japanese contingent, some of the British, reflects the fact that we've been able to transfer one of the provinces to Iraqi provincial control. And that's a genuine move forward.

The second point I made was about the scale of the enterprise that we're involved in here in Iraq, and I think that still is at the very top of the list of what we're doing here. We're involved in trying to transfer -- transform a whole society, to take it from autocracy to liberal democracy, to take it from something which is entirely state controlled in economic terms to bring it to the disciplines of the market. And perhaps as importantly as anything now, we've got a free and sovereign and competent government to deal with. So I think that all those dimensions make life here complicated.

Beyond that, I think I mentioned previously the fact that I think we can only hold the ring here, and that's still the view that I hold. Military force will achieve no aims by itself. All it will do is provide space and provide time to allow a political process to take place, and that is under way.

I also mentioned working with the U.S. forces. That continues to be a pleasure, and I have learned a great deal in the time that I've spent in the job that I've just done.

Now, something I didn't mention last time but will mention this time is the rather contentious issue of civil war. With the valedictory message of the erstwhile British ambassador being leaked as he was leaving Baghdad, it seems to cause an awful lot of comments, both in London and also in Washington as well. And I'd just like to offer my views on where we are on that issue.

In my judgment, we are not in a situation of civil war, and I think that we collectively have a lot of experience in what civil war looks like. I know what a civil war looks like from experience in the Balkans and parts of Africa. I also know what sectarian violence looks like from all the time that I've spent in Northern Ireland, and it seems to me it's the second of these two conditions rather than the first that we confront here in Iraq at the present time. But if you want to pick me up on my assertion, I'd be delighted for you to do so.

I think that probably covers what I want to say. Over to you for questions.

MODERATOR: Sir, we appreciate that, and we will begin with Pam.

Q: Sir, this is Pam Hess with UPI. I do want to pick up on the civil war question. From a military perspective, what difference does it make, perhaps in tactics or procedures or, I don't know, just how you guys comport yourself, whether or not you call it -- can he not hear me?

MODERATOR: Sir, can you hear Pam?

GEN. FRY: Better now. Thank you.

Q: What difference does it make from a military perspective whether or not you call it civil war or sectarian violence? Does that change what you do? And is that difference -- does it even matter? Back here, when we look at the number of deaths and the level of violence, what difference does a label make?

GEN. FRY: Well, I think it makes a great deal of difference in this particular case. If you have a civil war, then typically and characteristically, you have the collapse of the central institutions of government. In an absence of government, there's the possibility of chaos. You also tend to lose the instruments of security, and if the army takes part on one side or the other, then, of course, that can have equally significant implications. So I don't think we're talking about labels or military semantics here. I think we're talking about qualitative differences.

There is a very intense sectarian conflict going on, but it is geographically defined. It is not resulting in the mass movement of population, which is characteristically what civil wars do. And it's still being conducted in an environment which has the central institutions of the state functioning. Now, that's the situation that I recognize at the present time. I do not see that as civil war, and neither do I draw glib differences between civil war and sectarian conflict. I think the differences are very substantial and still in existence in Iraq today.

MODERATOR: Bob?

Q: General, this is Bob Burns with AP. In your opening statement, you referred to some of the points you made in your previous appearance here in May. One of those things you said then was that once the Iraqi government was fully in place, you expected to see real change work its way through Iraqi society, and I'm wondering if you have seen any such change at this stage.

GEN. FRY: I'm sorry. I'm still having some trouble with this earpiece. But I think that your question was whether the Iraqi government now in place has made a substantial difference into the way -- the fabric of society and the way in which Iraq is being run. Could you just confirm that's what you meant?

Q: That's about right, yes.

GEN. FRY: Yeah, I think if that is the question, I think it's made a very significant change.

In the first instance, we've got something which is democratically elected by the Iraqi government. That is something without precedent in recent times in this country, and that's a huge step forward in creating the sort of mandate for freedom that we want to create here. It also means that we have Iraqi politicians dealing with Iraqi issues, and I think that the best example of that that I can think is the way in which Prime Minister Maliki has created a reconciliation policy, which is reaching out to all elements of Iraqi society, no matter what their sectarian background.

And I go back to what I said earlier on -- our function at this stage is to hold the ring, is to create a framework within which those political processes can take place. I think Prime Minister Maliki has taken this by the horns and is pushing it extremely hard.

So I think the answer to your question is a significant difference has resulted from the inception of this government, and it seems to be making genuine progress.

MODERATOR: Tom?

Q: General, Tom Bowman with National Public Radio. Several weeks ago President Bush met with Prime Minister Maliki, and the president talked about -- that the Iraqis need more mobility, firepower and protection. From your assessment, can you give us a sense of what additional equipment the Iraqi security forces need? And when do you think they'll get it?

GEN. FRY: Yeah. Again, if I can just confirm the question, you're defining the Iraqi security forces by mobility and protection, and the question is what changes have recently taken place. Could you just confirm that's you mean?

Q: Well, the -- President Bush several weeks ago said that they will get greater mobility, firepower and protection, more equipment. I'm just asking you, from your assessment, seeing the Iraqi security forces, what more equipment do they need? And when do you think they'll get it?

GEN. FRY: Yeah. I'm still having some trouble here. But let me try and answer the question as best I understand it.

The Iraqi security forces have been developed over a long period of time, and we didn't do this in a cavalier fashion. What we did was look at exactly what -- the requirements the Iraqi forces would need, first of all, to sustain a counterinsurgency campaign and then, in the longer run, migrate into an organization which could guarantee national sovereignty. And we came up with some very clear ideas about that.

President Maliki spoke to -- sorry -- Prime Minister Maliki spoke to President Bush expressing some views about the way in which we could improve those things. And we have been trying to make some changes recently in the numbers of troops available to the Iraqi security forces, to the higher command and control, and also, in some cases, to the equipment that they will be operating.

So I think that the point that Prime Minister Maliki made fell on receptive ears. And we're trying to do our best now to reconcile what his requirements are and the design that we already have in place.

Q: Julian Barnes of the LA Times. Is there anything from the British experience of the last eight weeks in trying to stop the sectarian violence in Basra that is being or could be applied to the Baghdad security plan?

GEN. FRY: There may be, but I think that the applicability of techniques is more appropriate from Baghdad down to Basra. I think that what we've seen in Baghdad over the last four or five weeks has been an extremely well conceived operation that tries to combine military effect with political engagement and then, on top of that, the restoration of the public utilities and services that people depend upon. And I think that's being done in a highly systematic and a highly effective way.

I think that Basra, as time goes on, will try and adapt those techniques for the same purposes.

As far as Basra itself is concerned, I think we've had an intervention of central government into local government. And I'm sure you're aware that Prime Minister Maliki intervened in terms of the local security architecture, to make sure that a committee answerable directly to him would be put in place and make sure that he could have the most intimate control over what was going on in Basra. And it seems to me there may be a lesson there.

But if I'm to draw comparisons overall, it seems to me that Basra has more to learn from Baghdad than the other way round.

Q: General, Gordon Lubold from Army Times. Two quick things. Could you just detail what the changes are you said at the outset were from May to June? Have British forces gone home? Where did they go? What are the numbers now?

And to what degree is the pay of ISF and of the police in the local area still a problem there?

GEN. FRY: The major reductions over the last few months have not been in British forces. The main reduction has been in the withdrawal of the Japanese contingent and job was done. So there's every reason why they should withdraw at that stage.

What we now have in Muthanna is essentially visiting rights, much more complex than that and part of a well-worked memorandum of understanding between the Muthanna governor and the Multi National Force and also the government of Iraq, but it sets up a structure which defines the means by which we will continue to intervene in Muthanna if the need requires. And I don't think the need will arise, and the main reason for that is that there are competent Iraqi police and army forces now in Muthanna who are completely capable of discharging the responsibilities that go with that.

Now, I think that answers the first part of your question. Could you just repeat the second again, please?

Q: I'm just curious how much a problem still is pay -- paying the police and paying the army in terms of their functions and their ability to function in the area in which you operate.

GEN. FRY: Okay, I'm sorry. I'm not getting that clearly. But what I think you said is, are there still problems in the Iraqi army? Is that the essence of your question?

MODERATOR: He asked you if there was any problem still with paying with Iraqi security forces, either the police or the military.

GEN. FRY: I'm sorry. I've got you. No, I think there was, and I think that's something that we saw as an absolutely red line as far as efficiency of security forces was concerned. And we were able to persuade the Finance Ministry in Baghdad to expedite the payment of both police and army units, and that has been done. I would be very surprised if there were any cases still in existence today, particularly as the previous commander of the Iraqi ground forces command is now the minister of defense. He took a very close interest in that issue when he was in his previous job, and he takes an equally close issue now. He will be onto this, and I doubt that it'll recur again.

Q: General, Auto Kreisher of Copley News Service. You said that there were competent security forces in the Basra area, but you know, we keep getting reports of militias having more control than the national or regional security forces. What's the situation there?

GEN. FRY: I think I made a particular reference to Muthanna rather than Basra. Basra is an entirely separate province, and indeed the situation is different there. I think we've got a complex situation in Basra quite different from the situation in Baghdad and quite different from the one that we see, for example, in Anbar province.

The situation in Basra is about the competition for wealth and power, but within one confessional community, in this case, the Shi'a community, and I think we have what are essentially a political contest in particular between various factions. Now, to some extent, those factions have infiltrated not so much the Iraqi army, but some elements of the Iraqi police service. We recognize that, and we're going to great lengths to make sure that those people who have been successful at infiltrating themselves are turfed out. And we've done a series of detention operations recently in order to bring about exactly that.

Now, again, I mentioned earlier on the fact that Prime Minister Maliki has intervened personally in Basra, and it was precisely to ensure that this happened, that he made that intervention. So I think that we do face problems, but we recognize precisely what those problems are, and we're taking remedial measures to make sure that they're properly addressed.

Q: Nick Simeone at Fox News. General, I'm trying to understand why you still think this is not a civil war based on the way you define it. I can think of many examples. Central America during the 1980s comes to mind, where you had functioning central governments, yet you had citizens of the same country fighting against each other. That's one issue.

Secondly, why do you think it is so difficult to tamp down the sectarian violence? What can be done that hasn't been done?

GEN. FRY: Okay. I'll take your first question first.

I think what we've got -- if you look at the whole of Iraq at the present time is sectarian conflict, which is highly specifically defined in geographical terms. This is essentially defined by the area between metropolitan Baghdad and somewhere like Baqubah, which is about 30 to 40 miles away from Baghdad.

Now, within that area, there is a sectarian conflict going on. But I think that if you're talking in terms of civil war, you would have to look to the rest of the country. Fourteen out of 18 provinces in this country are almost free of violence at the present time. We have a government which is legislating every day, or will be legislating when they come back from the process of recess, and certainly is governing every day. We have instruments -- the security instruments are entirely answerable to central government, and are vigorously being employed on the streets of Baghdad at the present time. So what I think we have is something which is at the very best civil war in miniature, at the very best. But I don't think it actually even meets that definition. I think we have something which is localized, relatively difficult to deal with, but we're now beginning to take measures which are genuinely eating into the sectarian violence which has been operating up until now.

The numbers of sectarian killings which have taken place in Baghdad over the last few weeks are dramatically reduced, and the reason for that is that a highly effective security operation is taking place on the streets of Baghdad. So to answer the first part of your question, I do not see a condition of civil war, and I think that I've laid down the criteria by which I would judge that and how I would assess it in a reasonably clear manner.

I also think that even addressing the situation that we do confront at the present time, that we're making significant inroads into the levels of violence that existed.

I’m sorry -- remind me of the second part of your question.

Q: In your view, what has not yet been done that could be done to tamp down the sectarian violence?

GEN. FRY: Political reconciliation, plain and simple. We can continue to conduct military operations in order to separate the two sides of the sectarian conflict, and we will do that. But that in itself does not bring about a solution. What brings about a solution is a process of reconciliation, which only Iraqis can conduct, and they are in the process of conducting that now.

I've already mentioned the prime minister's reconciliation initiative -- not just the prime minister -- the whole of -- the presidential council is entirely in support of this, and we see evidence of it around the country at the present time. The way this will be fixed is by Iraqis recognizing their differences and reconciling them through a political process.

Q: General, Jim Mannion from Agence France-Presse. Can you comment on the role of Iran in the sectarian violence, whether, you know -- as to how they are connected to it -- how the Iranians are connected to it?

GEN. FRY: I think we've got some pretty clear evidence of the way in which the Iranians are involved in sectarian violence, and certainly we know that some of the arms coming into this country and being used in attacks against the security forces are provided by Iran. Certainly we believe that there is money and maybe even some training being involved for those involved in the use of violence inside Iraq. And on top of that, of course, you have a sustained Iranian rhetoric, both within the region as a whole but also making its views on the situation inside Iraq known very, very clearly.

So I think at one remove, if I can put it in those terms, I think that we can see a very clear Iranian role in stoking up violence inside Iraq.

Q: Sir, this is Kristin Roberts with Reuters. On Iran, can you tell us what's being done to remove the Iranian influence?

GEN. FRY: I think it's happening at several levels. The first thing is, we conduct military operations to try and make sure that the flow of weapons, the flow of techniques and the flow of trained individuals across the border is prevented as far as we possibly can.

But we must also remember that Iraq is now run by a sovereign government, and I've been very encouraged recently by the statements that Prime Minister Maliki has made, particularly about Iranian incursions in the north of this country. He's been very vigorous in his denunciation and, I think, gives the lie to the inference that some people make that the prime minister and some of his colleagues are influenced by Iran. The evidence that I see at the present time is quite to the contrary.

MODERATOR: Pam?

Q: Sir, it's Pam Hess again, with United Press International. You said that you've seen a significant number of -- sectarian killings are dramatically reduced. Could you give us those numbers?

And would you address a philosophical question? Is there a danger, besides, in your view, being inaccurate, of calling what's going on in Iraq "civil war" versus "sectarian violence"? Is there -- because the labels seem to matter a great deal to people, and I'm trying to figure out why.

GEN. FRY: Okay. No, I can't give you the figures, but I'm sure that the Pentagon press office can. If I brought all the figures here in anticipation of the questions I would get, I'd have a very large pile of paper in front of me. But I'm sure those figures will be made available to you.

In the second issue, I think it's very important that we talk -- we don't talk about civil war, because of itself it is -- it's inflammatory language. It is implying that the situation is worse than it is. It therefore encourages, amongst other things, adventurous media reporting. It could encourage a certain degree of despondency in the political constituencies of both of our countries.

But above all, I simply don't think it is an accurate statement of the situation that we're currently involved in. And I'm sorry to sound as though I'm being sort of rather didactic in a military way, but I think it's important that we use the proper language to define the situations that we find ourselves in.

MODERATOR: Luis?

Q: Luis Martinez with ABC. Sir, in your earlier reference to comparison -- comparing the situation with Northern Ireland and the level of sectarian violence, you say that political reconciliation is the answer. And yet that conflict, political reconciliation dragged on for decades, or it didn't occur for decades. How long do you foresee this process dragging on?

GEN. FRY: (Off mike) -- could you just say it again?

Q: Given that political reconciliation dragged on for decades in Northern Ireland, how long do you foresee a lack of reconciliation affecting the situation in Iraq today?

GEN. FRY: I don't see it dragging on for decades. I think that the situation in Northern Ireland is comparable in some senses but profoundly incomparable in others.

What I think we have here is a situation which is moving much more quickly. And in fact if you look at the trends that have developed, let's say, over the last six months, they've covered an awful lot more ground in political terms and also in terms of the application of violence than was almost ever the case in Northern Ireland. So I think this campaign will be characterized by far greater brevity.

I think two things -- three things, probably, overall, will determine the length of time that this takes.

First of all is the confidence with which the Iraqis conduct their own governance. And that's growing all the time. We see evidence of that every day.

The second thing is the competence of the Iraqi security forces. And in exactly the same way, that improves every day.

And the third thing that will bring this about is the process of reconciliation.

Now, unless I'm sounding like a stuck record, let me just try and take this a little bit further. I think that what we have here is two communities, at its most basic, but a whole society, at its slightly more complex, which needs to find an accommodation in the way in which they live together.

Clearly, after decades of a situation where one community has been systematically discriminated against, there will need to be a certain process of settlement, as people find their level in political terms and in economic terms, and indeed, in terms of just the social and the cultural accommodation of living together. I think that process is happening now, and I think that, as I've already said, the government is making every attempt that it possibly can to accelerate that process. And I think our function is here to provide the framework to permit that to happen.

I'm not going to give you a set of dates, but I will confidently assert that this will be a much shorter and much briefer campaign altogether than was the case in Northern Ireland.

MODERATOR: I'm going to make this the last question.

Q: Tony Capaccio with Bloomberg News, sir. I have a question about another trend, IED explosions and detections. The MNF-I released statistics last week for the year so far that showed a dramatic increase from January through June -- last month in explosions and detections. Can you give us a sense of how -- why is that significant, what significance we should glean from that -- from those statistics?

GEN. FRY: I think that the statistics -- you've seen the statistics. I also think there's been some reporting in the United States on precisely this issue. IEDs will always be the favored weapon of the terrorists. It's possible for a terrorist to inflict violence upon a security force without ever being implicated in the act. He can do it from miles away; he can do it remotely; he can do it with a very high chance of his own survival. And because it guarantees him all of those things and because, essentially, this is a cowardly way of warfare, then he will employ those techniques as far as he possibly can. And I think that we've seen terrorists observe the utility of attacks by IEDs, and that's what they've applied their energies to throughout this year.

But actually, the detection rate for these devices is anything as high as 50 percent and in some areas is even higher than that. Now, I have had some experience in dealing with IED threats elsewhere in the world. I have never come across the level of detection which American forces are currently achieving in this theater, and I think that is a tribute to the tactics and the techniques that they have developed whilst they were here. So what we actually have is about half of the total of terrorist violence -- attempted terrorist violence turning out to be entirely nugatory because of the excellence of the tactical procedures which are applied against them.

But I think that the terrorists will still attack us in this way because it is an archetypical form of terrorist attack and maximizes their chances of survival.

Q: (Off mike) -- explosions, according to statistics, went up from 834 to 1666 last month. Is that not a fair barometer for saying that the insurgency remains very strong?

GEN. FRY: Yes, I think it probably is, but I also think that if you were to take the figures right up to date, you'd begin to see that trends have turned around, particularly in Baghdad. For example, over the last month, there have been something like 10 vehicle IEDs in Baghdad compared to a six-monthly average of about 39.

So I think that, yes, you can see that overall there is this steady drum beat as far as the terrorist attacks are concerned, and I've given you the reasons why that's the case. But I think in the areas where we find ourselves most directly challenged by either the insurgency or by trying to separate the two -- the warring factions and sectarian violence -- that's Baghdad and that's out in Anbar -- the levels of success in either prevention or detection are extremely high.

Q: (Off mike.) (Cross talk.)

MODERATOR: Sir, there was a slight -- did you catch that follow-up, last one?

GEN. FRY: (Off mike.) Could you just say it again?

Q: (Off mike) -- collect those statistics or provide them for us, if you can.

GEN. FRY: I'm sorry.

MODERATOR: Statistics that you --

MODERATOR: Okay. Sir -- I will pass that along that last question, so there's no doubt with MNF-I what's needed.

We appreciate you being us this morning, sir. It's been very informative. And as always, we appreciate your efforts and contributions to helping us understand the situation in Iraq. We wish you the best of luck in the future, sir.

Do you have any closing comments?

GEN. FRY: Yes, very briefly.

I think we're in a situation which is extremely dynamic, extremely fluid. No outcome here is inevitable. But I think there's a fixity of purpose, which President Bush and Prime Minister Blair have given on a number of occasions, is what is required now. What we need to do is to continue to give this our very best military shot in order to create the conditions which will allow the Iraqis to determine their own future, and I'm very glad that I've had the chance to play a small part in that.

Thank you.

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