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News Transcript

Presenter: General John Abizaid, Commander, U.S. Central Command
Monday, April 12, 2004 10:55 a.m. EDT

Operational Update Briefing

(Special briefing via teleconference between Baghdad, Iraq and the Pentagon. Also participating was Lieutenant General Ricardo S. Sanchez, Commander, CJTC-7, and Mr. Bryan Whitman, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs))

Whitman: All right. Well, thank you for taking the time today to join the Pentagon press corps back here. And I know that you want to make a few comments before opening it up for some questions, so let's just go ahead and get started and I'll turn it right over to you.

Abizaid: Okay. Well, good morning, everybody. John Abizaid here in Baghdad with Rick Sanchez.

I've been here visiting General Sanchez and the troops in Iraq, and have had the opportunity to talk to a lot of the Iraqi leadership and also with Ambassador Bremer about the current security situation. Certainly it's been a tough week of fighting, and I think rather than make any lengthy statement General Sanchez and I are both primed and ready to take your questions.

Whitman: Just back here. Since they can't see, if you would identify yourself and your news organization, they'll know who they're talking to.

Go ahead, Barbara.

Q: General Abizaid, Barbara Starr from CNN. Could I ask you to address several points on your thinking about the current status of Iraqi security forces: their willingness, capability to fight, why one Iraqi army battalion did not turn up in Fallujah, what percentage of the force, essentially, they make up in fighting this insurgency? How much are Iraqi forces participating?

Abizaid: Barbara, I think I got most of your question. You're a bit broken up over the link here. But I think the gist of the question is, how are the Iraqi security forces doing? Well, the fact of the matter is that some of them did very well and some of them did not.

And in the south, a number of units, both in the police force and also in the ICDC [Iraqi Civil Defense Corps], did not stand up to the intimidators of the forces of Sadr's militia and that was a great disappointment to us.

In other places, such as in and around Fallujah, we've had good, strong performances by several units, and we're satisfied with that.

With regard to the new Iraqi army, I think we can look for better performance in the future once we get a well-established Iraqi chain of command.

The truth of the matter is that until we get well-formed Iraqi chains of command, all the way in the police service from the minister of interior to the lowest patrolman on the beat in whatever city it may be, and the same for the army, from private to minister of defense, that it's going to be tough to get them to perform at the level we want.

The good news is, we're working on those chains of command, and I'm confident that with work on our part and work on their part, we'll have better performance.

Sanchez: Sir, if I may add --

Abizaid: Please.

SANCHEZ: I think for some time now we have been stating that it was going to take us some time to stand up credible and capable Iraqi security forces that would be able to assume the internal and external security missions in the country. Clearly, what we faced here in the last week to 10 days is a challenge that we've got to confront directly. We're in the process of doing that, but it's still going to take us a significant amount of time to ensure that they are properly equipped, properly trained and credible and capable with their countrymen, to bring us security and stability.

Q: General Abizaid and General Sanchez, Martha Raddatz from ABC. Could you be more specific? You talk about the chain of command. Are you seeing problems with vetting, with equipment, with training, with loyalties? Could you be more specific? And also, General Abizaid, last November you estimated there were about 5,000 opposition fighters. Are there more today, fewer today?

Abizaid: I'll take your last question first. And with regard to the numbers, I think that you have to be careful about saying how many numbers of people are doing what at any particular time in Iraq. For example, with regard to Muqtada Sadr's militia, I mean, all of a sudden you have a spike, you get certain people that get enthusiastic and they join him for a short period of time, then they go away. So under the current circumstances, I'd say my estimate of about what it was back in November is not much different from what I'd say today. But it's a very imprecise thing when you deal with insurgency and counterinsurgency operations.

With regard to the armed forces, the ICDC, the police and the other security services, again, it's like General Sanchez said. There have been difficulties with the equipping, there have been some difficulties with getting as many people trained as quickly as we'd like to get them trained, but most importantly, it takes a long time to take security institutions from zero up to a level of about 200,000 and expect them to come together and gel the way that they should. We've got a pretty robust plan of putting special operating forces people with those units, and we think that will help them quite a bit.

Q: General Abizaid, General Sanchez, Bret Baier with Fox News Channel. General Abizaid, could you specifically say to us what you have asked for as far as capability with force strength, first of all? And secondly, can we straighten out exactly how many Americans are unaccounted for at this hour?

Abizaid: Well, Bret, in terms of capability, what I've asked for is essentially to have a strong mobile combat arms capability. That's about, probably, two brigades worth of combat power, if not more. We're working the details with the Joint Staff. As for as sourcing is concerned, I really don't have the precise answer as to who and how that will be filled right now.

Q: Yeah, the other part of that question was with respect to Americans being held.

Sanchez: Bret, if I may, we've got two American soldiers that are unaccounted for at this point and we also have seven KBR [Kellogg, Brown and Root] employees that are also unaccounted for.

WHITMAN: They would like clarification on a number -- seven or several, did you say?

Sanchez: No, I said seven.

Q: Generals Abizaid and Sanchez, Jim Miklaszewski with NBC. Back on this chain of command business a little bit, in terms of the cease-fire, or whatever you're calling it, in Fallujah, was that negotiated, forced upon the U.S. military by the [Iraqi] Governing Council? And what happens when the keys are turned over on June 30th and there's an interim government, and the interim government, even though the Iraqi troops would be under this unified command -- if the Iraqi interim government says, no, we don't want Iraqis fighting in that region. How do you resolve that situation?

And just one more question about the Iraqi forces over the last couple of weeks. Are there evidence of any defections from the Iraqi security forces to the insurgency or to the militias?

Abizaid: Well, with regard to defections of the Iraqi security forces, I mean, clearly we know that some of the police did not stay with their post and that in some cases, because we've seen films of policemen with Sadr's militia in particular, that there were some defections. I think that these numbers are not large, but they are troubling to us. And clearly, we've got to work on the Iraqi security forces.

But look, I think we all need to understand that the solution to Iraq's security problems does not lay with the United States armed forces. It's with the Iraqis themselves. And it's just so important to be patient, to be very, very innovative about the way that we build these institutions and to ultimately know that they must be led by Iraqis. There are many Iraqis that have paid the ultimate sacrifice in these fights, and we're extremely proud of the way that many of them have fought.

So we should not discount the Iraqi security services. They will become the bulwark against terrorism and anti-democratic forces of this country, because that's what people want them to be.

Sanchez: Jim, and the Governing Council role in that , on -- On the request of the Governing Council, we initiated a freeze to offensive operations. We suspended our offensive operations initially to allow some discussions to occur and for some humanitarian assistance provided by the Iraqi government to get into the city of Fallujah, to help the noncombatants. After an initial period of discussions, we then implemented a unilateral cease- fire, with coordination through those Governing Council members. And to this afternoon, that appears to be holding. It's tenuous, and we have over the course of the last two days -- have continued to take some attacks in there, but we have responded appropriately. Today it seems a little bit better.

Abizaid: Jim, to ask the question if we were forced to do this, the answer certainly is no.

Q: On the situation in Fallujah, General Abizaid -- this is Eric Westervelt with NPR News -- could you tell us what the key demand is? General Sanchez, you called the peace "tenuous" in Fallujah. What are key U.S. demands to continue that peace and make that a viable, lasting cease-fire?

Sanchez: I'm sorry. You're breaking up so much I didn't understand your question.

Q: Again, in Fallujah, you said it was a tenuous peace. Could you elaborate on that and talk about key U.S. and Iraqi Governing Council demands? What will make that into a lasting peace?

Sanchez: The part that is tenuous is that we are continuing to get attacks from the insurgents that are in the city. As I stated, we suspended our offensive operations to allow these discussions to go forward, and I must add that these are just initial discussions. We are not negotiating at this point until we achieve some confidence building and a period of stability; then we would consider going into significant negotiations to end this battle. But at this point, we have had continued attacks by the insurgents up until about eight to 12 hours ago.

Abizaid: I would like to add about the Fallujah situation -- I was just out there talking to the Marines a couple of days ago. The Marines have been doing a great job in conducting military operations. They've been very precise. They have attempted to protect civilians to the best of their ability. The Arab press, in particular Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyah, are portraying their actions as purposely targeting civilians. And we absolutely do not do that, and I think everybody knows that.

It is always interesting to me how Al-Jazeera manages to be at the scene of the crime whenever a hostage shows up or some other problem happens to be there. So they are -- they have not been truthful in their reporting, they haven't been accurate, and it is absolutely clear that American forces are doing their very best to protect civilians and at the same time get at the military targets there.

Q: General Abizaid, this is Lisa Burgess with Stars and Stripes. Can you offer any details about when you're planning to know which forces specifically you're asking for? And will you ask for them for a certain period of time, or will it be more open-ended?

Abizaid: Well, again, we apologize; there's a lot of breaking up on this link. But I think you're asking about the issue of what force is going to stay and for how long. I don't want to get into the issue of the specific unit. I think it's not useful for me to do that. I think all of us, especially those of you that are in Europe, understand that we've already committed forces outside of the 1st Armored Division's normal area, down into the south into the al Kut area, and it's logical to assume that there will be a delay in the arrival of some of those forces to home. As far as what comes next and how long, I don't want to get into that.

Q: General, Rick Whittle with the Dallas Morning News. I was wondering if you could give us a bit of an update, current situation, with Muqtada Sadr and his militia, and give us an idea of where things are going to go with them.

Sanchez: Sir, the situation down in the south, the area that was being terrorized by Muqtada al-Sadr over the course of the last few days, is now stabilized. We are clearly in control of al Kut, which, as you' know, had been controlled by his gang for some time, for about a day and a half before we maneuvered 1st Armored Division forces down there. That is now completely under our control, with Muqtada's elements gone. Nasiriyah, we have reestablished control down there, and we have great cooperation in both of those cities from the moderate Shi'a, and they were glad to get rid of that element that was terrorizing them. In the Hillah area, also that is now stabilized, and getting great cooperation from the people down there.

The area that still is under the control of Muqtada al-Sadr is Najaf, and some presence in Karbala. Najaf, as we all know, is a holy city with a holy shrine there, and we are respecting the fact that there is a religious celebration ongoing. We have maneuvered forces down into the vicinity of Najaf to ensure that we are prepared to conduct offensive operations to eliminate the final elements of Muqtada al-Sadr influence down there.

Abizaid: I'd just like to add, on the situation down in the south, that Muqtada Sadr is isolating himself. This was not by any stretch of the imagination a Shi'a uprising. And it's a combination of some military action on our part but, probably much more importantly, very, very important Shi'a political action that's isolating him and showing people out there that a person such as Muqtada Sadr, who is anti-democratic and attacks the people of Iraq and their institutions, won't be tolerated. And we've had a very good relationship with the Shi'a population in the south. We aim to continue that. But the Shi'a population down there is working very hard to isolate him.

Q: Hello, General. This is Gersende Rambourg from Agence France-Presse. Could you give us a little bit more detail about the disappearance of the seven KBR employees? Do we know if they disappeared following the same attack near the airport, Baghdad airport? And do we know if they -- at this point if they have been kidnapped?

Abizaid: I'm sorry, if General Sanchez understood, he can answer. But I couldn't understand any of that. If you could try a different microphone or try again.

Whitman: Let me try it from this microphone. The question has to do with the seven KBR employees and if you can provide any more information on them, and whether or not you believe that they are being held captive.

Sanchez: No, at this time I couldn't provide you any more information than that.

Q: Martha Raddatz again. Could I just press a little further? Is this something very recent? Did it happen today? Did it happen yesterday? The seven KBR employees. And also, the two soldiers unaccounted for, was that from the convoy that was ambushed the other day?

Sanchez: Yes, that's a result of the convoy that was attacked a couple of days ago.

Q: KBR employees -- can you tell us whether that was in the last couple of days, what area in Iraq? Did they simply disappear and are unaccounted for?

Sanchez: It was as a result of the attack on the convoy in the Abu-Ghraib area two days ago.

Q: Generals, is it absolutely essential that Muqtada al-Sadr be captured or killed? Do you know exactly where he is? And is there any concern that he could escape and foment dissent and violence from some other location?

Abizaid: Was the question about Zarqawi?

Whitman: The question was about Sadr and whether or not he must be killed or captured, and whether or not there's concern about him fleeing the country and causing problems from outside the country.

Abizaid: Well clearly, it is the intent of the Governing Council to bring Sadr to justice. How they go about doing that I think will probably end up being a uniquely Iraqi solution, but I believe that they're moving in that direction themselves. We're applying the military force necessary to assist in that regard, as you might imagine.

Q: Hi. Toby Zakaria with Reuters. Could you describe a little more about the tactics that the U.S. military has been using in Fallujah? How do you go about separating who is an insurgent from who is part of the general population? And is it a matter of you're sort of waiting for them to fire first, or are you going in and taking a more aggressive stance?

Sanchez: (To General Abizaid.) Want me to take that?

Abizaid: Yeah.

Sanchez: The tactics being used in Fallujah are fairly straightforward. We've been attacking to secure the city of Fallujah, and we're running into active resistance. It is very clear where we're taking fire from, and where we're taking fire from we're applying the appropriate, proportionate combat power to eliminate that resistance. We are being very deliberate and precise in the application of that combat power to prevent any wounding or injuring of noncombatants in the area.

Q: This is Bob Burns from Associated Press and I have a question for General Abizaid regarding the further development of Iraqi security forces. Is there anything you are presently doing or going to do to intensify the training, such as sending Iraqi recruits into other countries, to speed up this process? And also, has the recruiting effort suffered at all in recent weeks or days as a result of developments in Iraq? Thank you.

Abizaid: Well, I'll have to let General Sanchez answer the question about the recruiting effort.

But as to whether or not we're going to speed up, intensify or otherwise modify the program that we have with regard to Iraqi security forces, the answer is we're taking a very hard look at it and we are going to make some changes because we want to understand what we must do better. Clearly, there are things that we have do better with the police. Clearly, there are things that we've got to do better with some specific units. Some of it has to do with leadership. Some of it has to do with vetting. Some of it has to do with training. But most of it has to do with time and confidence, which is what we're going to have to work on the most.

Sanchez: What I'll add to that is that we had increased just recently, within the last 30 days, our effort at improving the facilities within the country to increase the throughput for both the new Iraqi army and the police forces, and that infrastructure was to be in place in about another 30 days.

We had also gone on an accelerated contracting effort to ensure that we had all of the equipment expedited that we had been having challenges in getting into the country. So that is all now in place as of this last week.

What we have had to do, obviously, because of the challenges that pose themselves now, is to go back and reassess some of the training strategies that we've been employing, clearly look at the leadership development and training that has been put into place. But more importantly, I think, we've got to make sure that we are mentoring and training these security forces after they have gone through their initial training and give them the mentorship and the supervision necessary for them to be credible and capable once they're fielded.

Q: General, this is Tony Capaccio with Bloomberg News. I want to follow up on that question. Is the adequate training and restoring credibility of the Iraqi security forces -- is that becoming a pacing factor now in terms of whether you'll be able to turn over authority on June 30th? Question one.

Question two: General Abizaid, could you put a sharper point on the numbers of troops you're going to be asking for? You talked about a strong mobile combat capability of about two brigades. Do you envision keeping the roughly 135,000 troops there for the foreseeable future? Thank you.

Abizaid: Well, the foreseeable future is pretty hard to predict, especially in a place like Iraq. So I wouldn't want to make any predictions about how long anybody or anything is going to stick around in Iraq, or how long we're going to need the additional capability.

As far as the Iraqi security forces are concerned, the ultimate point to which this country must move is Iraqi security by Iraqis. Everyone knows that. All day today General Sanchez and I have been talking with responsible members of the Iraqi Governing Council, members of various security organizations, and each and every one of them is absolutely committed to a better future for Iraq and for forces that are capable and will defend their newfound freedoms.

The insurgents and the anti-democratic groups that we're fighting against are ruthless. They are intimidators, and we simply have got to establish the facts around here that the culture of intimidation won't be stood for by coalition forces or by the emerging Iraqi security forces.

Sanchez: As far as the question on whether the challenges that we now face with Iraqi security forces and the impact on the transfer of authority -- no, that's not going to have an impact. I think my position, repeatedly stated over the past few months, is that beyond 1 July we would still have responsibility for continuing to train Iraqi security forces in this country, because they would not be able to conduct the business of providing internal or external security in this country. We have a challenge ahead of us, in terms of continuing to provide that capacity, and we've always known that. So, no that does not have an impact on the transfer of authority date.

Q: Could you --

Abizaid: It's also very clear that we've got to get more senior Iraqis involved, former military types involved in the security forces. And in the next couple of days you'll see a large number of senior officers being appointed to key positions in the Ministry of Defense and in Iraqi joint staff and in Iraqi field commands. And General Sanchez and I are very much involved in the vetting and placing of these officers, and I can tell you the competition for these positions have been fierce.

Q: I'd like to try the numbers question again. Roughly, how many numbers are you asking for? Two brigades, I think you mentioned, of a strong mobile combat capability?

Abizaid: Well, I really don't want to get into specific numbers. They're never helpful. I would say about a two-brigade combat capability that's strong and mobile. And other than that, that's about all I want to say. I'm very satisfied with our current posture right now.

Q: General Abizaid -- (inaudible due to brief technical problem). I wanted to ask you if you could clarify your answer to Jim Miklaszewski's question about Muqtada al-Sadr. It wasn't clear to me whether U.S. forces are trying to capture him or arrest him on behalf of the Iraqi Governing Council, or if you know where he is.

Sanchez: The mission of the U.S. forces is to kill or capture Muqtada al-Sadr. That's our mission. And as to our knowing where he is, it would be inappropriate for me to talk about the level of knowledge that we have on his whereabouts at this point.

Q: Generals, Bret Baier again at Fox News Channel. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said last week that Iran is meddling in the situation inside Iraq. General Abizaid, can you tell us how Iran is playing a factor in the current situation on the ground? And have you taken any action along the border that may have involved Iranians?

Abizaid: Well, we haven't taken any action recently on the border that had to do with any specific Iranian activity. But clearly, there are indications from intelligence folks that there are some Iranian activities going on that are unhelpful, as the secretary put it. He's absolutely right. And there's also unhelpful actions coming from Syria.

But on the other hand, with regard to the Iranians, there are elements within Iran that are urging patience and calm and trying to limit the influence of Sadr. So it's a complicated situation. But what we need is all of the nations around Iraq to participate in calming the situation and assisting with a sovereign and stable government emerging.

Sanchez: If I may add, Bret, as part of our ongoing operations, we had increased the capacity of the border police out in the Iranian sector, and we had also increased some of our patrolling along the southeast and up in the central part of the country to prevent some of the illegal movement that had been occurring from Iran. So, as part of our current operations over the course of the last 30 to 45 days, we had increased some of our ops in that area.

Abizaid: I would like to go back to a previous point on a different question, and just to clarify the situation somewhat. There is not a purely U.S. military solution to any of the particular problems that we're facing here in Iraq today. There may be combinations of Iraqi and American solutions to the Sadr problem, to the Fallujah problem. There may be purely Iraqi solutions that are arrived at. So it's a combination of military and political action, both on the Iraqi and the American side, and on the coalition side, that will ultimately work towards a more secure environment here.

Whitman: Generals, we want to be respectful of your time. If you could take two more. Perhaps somebody that hasn't had an opportunity to ask a question. There's one in the back over there.

Q: Vince Crawley with the Army Times newspapers. First question, were there any special operations or liaison personnel with the Iraqi units that refused to engage? And the second question is, could you clarify the rotation, troop rotations out of Iraq? Are there still units departing, or has there been a freeze on units leaving Iraq?

Abizaid: No, there are still units that are departing. And as I've said before, that certain capabilities have been asked for, and those capabilities we're looking very closely at.

With regard to whether or not Special Operations Forces were with the new Iraqi army units that were trying to move to the field, I think the answer to that is there were a couple of Special Forces A Teams that had that mission.

Whitman: We'll take one more from the back there.

Q: Yes, General Abizaid, this is Drew Brown with Knight Ridder Newspapers. Regarding the two brigades that you say that you want, are these forces that are going to be brought into theater from outside, say from the States or from Europe? Or are these forces that are already in theater, in Kuwait that are going to return?

Abizaid: I know everyone wants me to name the unit and where it's coming from and how it's coming, and I'm simply not going to answer that question because I don't know. I have made a request to the Secretary of Defense through the Joint Staff for capability, and when that decision is made you'll hear it from Washington.

Whitman: All right. With that, General Sanchez, General Abizaid, we appreciate you taking the time and hope that you can join us again soon. It's been very valuable for us back here to have this opportunity. Thank you.

Abizaid: Well, can I just say before we close that I really want to thank the young people of the armed forces of the United States for incredible sacrifice during a very tough period of fighting over the past week. They have not only brought honor and respect to the armed forces of the United States, but they've added immeasurably to making Iraq a better place for the future. Thanks.

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