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News Transcript

Presenter: Gen. John Abizaid, commander, Central Command
Friday, April 30, 2004 9:05 a.m. EDT

Gen. Abizaid Central Command Operations Update Briefing

GEN. ABIZAID: First of all, good afternoon from Qatar. Good morning to those of you that are in Washington, D.C. And I would like to say I'm just back from a trip to Afghanistan, and recently, last week, back from a trip that I took to Iraq, where, of course, I went to Fallujah and other places. So I have reasonably current information that I'd like to share with you.

But first I'd like to take about 10 minutes worth of your time and go over where we have been conducting operations for the past month. So I know the Pentagon press corps does not like military briefings, but I'm going to give you a quick one anyway. And then we'll go to questions.

So if I can have the first slide, please.

As all of you know, the U.S. Central Command area of operations is one of the most active in the world with regard to terrorist activities and counterterrorist operations by friendly forces that operate in the area. And when I say friendly forces, I don't only mean the friendly forces of the United States of America but of our many partner nations that continue to conduct actions to destroy terrorists that they find in their area.

And as you look at this map, and you see the various activities that have happened since January, you can see that there are not only a lot of incidents and counterterrorist operations going on, but what you can't see here is the web of money, recruits, information operations campaigns and other connecting activity that links these activities one to the other, nation to nation, in a borderless war against not only the United States of America, but more importantly, against each and every one of the nations in the region.

And if we were to look at a broader world map, we would see the same sort of activity in places certainly as far distant as Spain. And if we were to extend our time frame, we certainly know that the people who are operating here in the Middle East and conducting operations here are also conducting them against us in our country, as we know from September 11th. This extremist ideology, that is led by people like Osama bin Laden, Zawahiri, Zarqawi, showing up in groups like al Qaeda, Ansar al-Islam, et cetera, they desire to not only overthrow the legitimate governments of the region but also to cause multiple casualties on innocent people. And if you look at these attacks, the one thing that immediately should strike everybody is that the attacks have been merciless against civilian targets. And as you see, the targets in Muslim countries give a clear lie to the idea that their only target is the United States of America and Western interests.

Next slide.

I know that over the past month, we have talked an awful lot about operations primarily in Iraq, and for good reason, because the fighting in Iraq this month has been more intense than at any time since the major combat operations of March and April of last year. But we also have to remember that we're conducting operations in Afghanistan, and very successfully so. We have Combined Forces Command Afghanistan that's headquartered in Kabul. It's commanded by Lieutenant General Dave Barno. The primary formation that is under his command is the 25th Infantry Division. That's stationed in Bagram Air Field, to the north. You also have the International Security and Assistance Force, which is a NATO formation commanded by Canadian Lieutenant General Hillier.

And you see here the number of forces of the United States in Afghanistan is up to 20,000. That's higher than normal because of the offensive operations we're conducting up along the border area, and it's also higher than normal because we're in the middle of a rotation between units of the 25th Infantry Division and the 10th Mountain Division. You've got a lot of Marines there. The 22nd MEU is operating in and around the Kandahar area. And you've got the 6th Marine Regiment that is providing command and control for operations out in the Gardez area. And of course there's a large number of special operations forces, most notably the 5th Special Operations Group, but we have even more specialized troops that are operating in the region.

The coalition contribution to the United States Operation Enduring Freedom there is 2,000. The two biggest formations that fight with us happen to be a Romanian infantry battalion and a French special operations battalion that do great work in the conduct of these operations.

The blue arrows here show you the primary focus of our operations, primarily in the Kandahar area, to defeat the remnants of the Taliban; and in and around the Gardez area, on the Pakistani border area, primarily to prevent the escape of al Qaeda forces that are being pushed out of Pakistan as a result of Pakistani operations; and also to defeat those elements of the Taliban and other anti-coalition forces that are working with al Qaeda in that area in Afghanistan.

Military operations in Afghanistan throughout the past several months have been successful. Despite many reports whenever you see some notion of attacks in Kandahar, Kabul or elsewhere, the situation is indeed under the control of coalition military forces. And President Karzai extends the influence of his government on a daily basis.

If you go to the next slide, it really shows you where the strategy of bringing stability to Afghanistan will actually pay off the most. It won't be in the military operations. Military operations are necessary to set the conditions for the return of the Afghan national government throughout the country, but in doing so there are a series of provincial reconstruction teams and the building of the Afghan national army, which will speed reconstruction efforts and allow the government of Afghanistan to get Afghan military units into the interior and exercise greater control.

You can see here on the map a large number of different nations. I know it's probably busy; it's probably difficult for people to see on their television screens. But I imagine the Pentagon press corps there in Washington can notice that up in Kunduz, for example, we have a German PRT, and in Mazar-e Sharif we have a British one. It's our hope that, over time, NATO will take over more and more of the northern PRTs in an effort to extend NATO command and control into the northern regions and work in conjunction with the International Security and Assistance Force, which is also with NATO.

So if I were to say strategically what are we trying to do in Afghanistan, I would summarize it by saying American forces will conduct robust combat operations on the border area with Afghanistan and Pakistan, primarily to defeat al Qaeda; to destroy the remnants of the Taliban and also to increase Afghan military capacity out there; to increase reconstruction efforts through provincial reconstruction teams throughout the country; and to internationalize that provincial reconstruction team effort to a greater and greater degree; and then, finally, to increase the capacity of the Afghan central government to control the security situation throughout the country.

I believe the strategy is on track. I believe that President Karzai is pleased with the efforts that he has achieved to date.

Certainly there is much, much work to be done in Afghanistan. Certainly the central government does not control all of the country. There's a drug problem. There's a problem that also has to be dealt with, with certain individuals in the country that may believe that they have the right to maintain individual armies. But over time, this strategy to bring Afghanistan back into the responsible community of nations, where they do not support terrorism, is one that I think is working.

I'd also like to say that while I was in Afghanistan yesterday I had the opportunity to talk to 1st Lieutenant Dave Hutman (sp) of the 1st Ranger Battalion, of the Ranger battalion -- maybe I've got the wrong Ranger battalion that he was with. He was the platoon leader of Pat Tillman.

I asked him yesterday how operations were going. I asked him about Pat Tillman. He said, "Pat Tillman was a great Ranger and a great soldier, and what more can I say about him?" And I'd say that about every one of those young men and women that are fighting, not only in Afghanistan but in Iraq.

I also probably bear some understanding that -- that lieutenant I was talking to happened to be a former first captain of corps of cadets at West Point, and when he was talking to me, he was still nursing a large number of wounds that he sustained in that firefight where Pat Tillman lost his life.

These soldiers are fighting hard. They're fighting well. They're fighting courageously. And the only thing that the lieutenant could say to me is that he needed to get back in the field to his troops.

Let's turn to Iraq. Next slide.

In Iraq, I just want to go over the situation with regard to the positioning of coalition forces at the present time, because there have been a lot of changes, and it bears some repetition here, so we know who's operating where.

First of all, you have General Rick Sanchez in charge of military operations in Baghdad. And within a month or so, we will transition his command of Multinational Force Iraq, and eventually we look to make that command a four-star multinational command. And we look forward to that being able to provide greater command and control capacity, not only for coalition forces but also for Iraqi forces over time.

Up in the Kirkuk area, the 1st Infantry Division, the famous "Big Red One," is operating up there. Task Force Olympia is the Stryker brigade, along with associated units from the Fort Lewis, Washington, area and elsewhere. They're doing a great job in the Mosul area.

The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, led by three-star General Conway, Jim Conway, is fighting in the west, and indeed it's in the west where we've had the most of our fighting. And we can talk about that in -- to some degree.

In the central south section, you have the Polish division, Polish division having three primary brigades, a Polish, a Spanish and a Ukrainian brigade. And of course I think we all know that the Spanish brigade is in the immediate operation of withdrawing their forces, pulling them out of patrol duties and moving them into cantonment areas, eventually for their rapid redeployment to Spain.

You see here, south of Baghdad, the 1st Armored Division. The 1st Armored Division, until recently under the command of Marty Dempsey, and still under the command of Marty Dempsey was in charge of operations in the Baghdad city area. That's now under the command of Pete Chiarelli and the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad.

As you know, the 1st Armored Division, along with the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, was scheduled to go home during this time period. But as the security situation started to deteriorate, with two major challenges to the stability of Iraq, it became obvious that it was necessary to leave that formation in country in order to be able to operate against insurgent forces and to ensure that the lines of communication to all the forces would remain open and also to assist the Multinational Division Center South down in the south.

At the current time, the 1st Armored Division has forces primarily south of Baghdad. And of course we know that the United Kingdom maintains a very robust presence down in the south. They have a Ukrainian -- a U.K. brigade, an Italian brigade, a Netherlands battle group, coalition forces -- around 25,000 U.S. forces, about 180- -- 138,000 in Iraq -- coalition forces and U.S. forces doing a good job there.

Next slide.

Now, I think that this slide will probably be difficult for you to see. It shows a lot of boxes, and these military boxes represent a lot of military units that are battalion-strength Iraqi Civil Defense Corps units and Iraqi National Army Brigade Headquarters units. What's important for you to realize here is that in the security operations that took place during the month of April, a number of the units of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, a number of police units, and to a certain extent some Iraqi National Army units were unable to perform their missions. And you see the units in gray as being those units that are having to be reconstituted, retrained, and to a certain extent, reequipped.

I think the most important lesson that we've learned from this is we must have reliable Iraqi leadership all the way from the national level down to the level of the lowest private in these organizations. And when I say "reliable," I mean reliable and loyal to the Iraqi government and to the Iraqi people. It's so important that they have a sense of fighting for their own country, and it is so important that we give them the opportunity to be trained and ready to stand up to the inevitable pressures that they will come under as Iraq moves back to full independence and sovereignty.

This having been said, the reconstitution effort is going on. Major General Dave Petraeus, former commander of the 101st Airborne Division that was up in Mosul, has been given the mission to reorganize the forces, to retrain them. And certainly it's very, very important that new leadership be found for the units that failed in their mission, and that the entire force be looked over with an eye to making it more reliable, tougher, and loyal to the new Iraqi sovereign authority.

The most important thing I'd probably like to mention, however, is that if we look to the period since September all the way up until present, there have been more Iraqi police, ICDC and army personnel killed in the line of duty fighting for a new Iraq than there have been Americans. And this is something that should not be lost on any of us. And while it is difficult for them to stand up to some of the challenges and the intimidation of former regime elements, it is, nevertheless, important for all of us to understand that ultimately the battle for Iraq will be won by Iraqis.

Now if we could go to the next slide.

This slide shows in the two shaded areas the two primary crises security-wise that we had to deal with in the month of April and that we will have to deal with to a certain extent in the month of May as well. You look in the area of Baghdad, Fallujah, Ar Ramadi, to a certain extent up north into Samarra and Tikrit. This was primarily the area where former regime elements, especially in the Fallujah area, conducted operations against coalition security forces; and where terrorist activities, led by Zarqawi; and where extremist organizations, led by some of the most extreme religious elements of the country, decided to fight against coalition forces.

Down in the south, the forces of the militia of Muqtada Sadr conducted operations that were aimed at unhinging coalition forces and essentially taking over the Shi'a south. I'll talk about how things have evolved, first with the next slide. I think it's not properly understood that there was a necessity to move an awful lot of American forces and other coalition forces to deal with these threats as they started to develop. Forces were fighting in Baghdad against Sadr's forces in Sadr City. We had to move forces to the vicinity of Karbala and Najaf, yet at the same time always understanding that we respected the holy shrines in those areas.

One of the elements of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment made a long move in 24 hours to restore order in Kut. Forces fought in the vicinity of the outskirts of An Najaf from the 1st Armored Division recently, and they've also fought in the vicinity of southern Baghdad as well. British forces fought in Basra, up in al-Amarah. Italian forces fought in Nasiriyah. And Ukrainian forces fought in Kut. The El Salvadorans in particular fought a very sharp action in Najaf that was quite successful. Polish forces, under the very capable command of the Polish divisional commander in center-south, performed admirably as well.

This was a very challenging movement against the security forces of the coalition. Within a series of about two weeks of military movements and very sharp action, over 500 of the militia were destroyed and they are pretty much relegated to areas in Karbala and Najaf that we do not at this time choose to enter, but can at the time and place of our choosing.

With regard to the next slide and the 1st MEF operations, by far the toughest and most difficult fighting occurred in an area from Baghdad out to al Qaim, with most of it being centered in the Ar Ramadi-Fallujah area. This fighting was primarily against former regime elements. It included foreign fighters, terrorists, and most certainly extremists -- Iraqi extremists as well. Large movements of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force were necessary. Areas that had previously been their responsibility were given to other units from the 1st Armored Division to allow the Marines to concentrate in the area of the highest fighting. Elements of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division that have been stationed in that area working with the Marines fought as well. And so a Marine/Army/Air Force/Marine air/Army air battle took place, with the Marines, of course, fighting the brunt of the battle, particularly in the Fallujah area, and performing extremely successful.

No doubt that the casualties suffered in April have been the most severe casualties that we've suffered in Iraq to date. Our hearts go out to the families of those that have lost soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in all of our fighting throughout Iraq. That having been said, security forces today stand in a good position. They're prepared to deal with any threats that they may encounter. And while the security situation as we move forward in the political process will undoubtedly remain violent, we have the forces, the troops and the courage to deal with the situation in a security sense, however it may develop.

Finally, I'd like to mention in closing the fact that there are also about 1,200 of our troops serving in the Horn of Africa, where they've performed duties stationed in Djibouti, but working throughout the Horn of Africa to help regional nations increase their counterterrorist capacity, to share intelligence with them, to gain intelligence on terrorist operations out there. And indeed, I think of many of our operations in the world -- the work that's been done out there by Brigadier General Mastin Robeson of the U.S. Marine Corps is the model for the way we're going to have to fight the war on terrorism in the years ahead.

So in summary, a lot of work to be done in the CENTCOM area of operations. Our strategy is fairly simple: We will stabilize Afghanistan; we will stabilize Iraq; we will conduct robust counterterrorist operations wherever we find the terrorists; we will conduct counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and in Afghanistan; we will move our forces where we need to, give them the weapons and troops that they need to fight and win; and at the same time, understand fully that we must move ahead on the political process, and indeed, achieve the most important things that we will do from a security capacity, and that is building indigenous Iraqi and Afghan security capabilities in the months ahead so that they will ultimately triumph in achieving stability in their nations.

Our troops have fought bravely; they've fought hard. They are courageous. They are the finest people that I have ever served with. I can only tell you that when I ask them if what they think they are doing out there matters, they say they'd rather be fighting the enemy where they're fighting them today than at home.

And with that, I am open to your questions.

Q General, can you please explain in as much detail as possible what the situation is in Fallujah; what arrangements have been made or have not been made, who's going to be responsible for security there, where the Marines are going to be going and what their responsibilities are going to be, and what Iraqi forces may be involved in there.

GEN. ABIZAID: I will not explain in as full as detail as you will get from the folks in Baghdad. I believe that you will ultimately be talking with General Sanchez and General Conway, and they'll give you the details, probably along with the political leadership there in Baghdad.

I think we all need to take a look at some of the reports that are coming out of embedded Marine units, units in the field, and understand that what we have there is an opportunity and not necessarily an agreement. The opportunity is to build an Iraqi security force from former elements of the army that will work under the command of coalition forces, that will be mentored and worked next to by coalition forces. And I think that we should be very careful in thinking that this effort to build this Iraqi capacity will necessarily calm down the situation in Fallujah tonight or over the next several days. It's a step-by-step effort that will have to include a clear understanding of the security situation.

Clearly, there are certain things that we will not tolerate in Fallujah. We will not tolerate the presence of foreign fighters. We insist that the heavy weapons come off the streets. We want the Marines to have freedom of maneuver in Fallujah, along with Iraqi security forces and Iraqi police.

And the most important thing I can say is that the Marines are working very, very hard with the people of Fallujah who desire an end to the activity that's gone on there militarily and want to get their live back to normal. The Marines have been extremely forthcoming in holding their fire, in choosing their targets, in trying to achieve a solution that's good for the good people of Fallujah and yet at the same time will take out the common enemies that we share, which are the foreign fighters, the terrorists and others that wish to destroy the peace process and the move to sovereignty in Iraq.

Clearly, all of us know that for a long time Zarqawi has used Fallujah as a base of operations. I can't tell you that he's there now, but I can tell you that he has personally been responsible for the killing of thousands of innocent Iraqi citizens. He's worked not only against the Shi'a but also against the Sunni. You know, this idea that there will be a safe haven for him is absolutely unacceptable. Nor will we or our Iraqi partners allow foreign fighters to freely roam the country and attack indiscriminately and use Iraqi civilians as shields from which to conduct military operations.

So yes, there is room for optimism. And I'm sorry to take so much time on this question. But the details of how we will build an Iraqi security capacity there will take some time. We need to have some patience. I think it's a possible breakthrough. But certainly the conditions that must be met are foremost in our minds, and that has to do with the restoring of law and order into Fallujah.

Next question.

Q General Abizaid, this is Bob Burns from Associated Press. I'd like to follow that up. Can you confirm that the Iraqi who is going to be developing or leading this force is named Saleh, Jassim Mohammed Saleh? And can you tell us about his background?

GEN. ABIZAID: Well, I have seen several reports from the Marines and from General Sanchez. I think that I would defer the question to personalities and to their background to the people in the field because I don't know the person and I can't say for certain that the person that you have named will be a commander, a staff officer, a liaison officer.

But clearly -- you know, give me another question that doesn't have to do with the details of Fallujah, because I think you need to go to Baghdad for the details. If you could ask me broader questions, I'd appreciate that. Why don't you give me another question, Bob.

Q Well, some of the details, General, are obviously central to this whole episode that's been going on for weeks, one of which is whether you will get the perpetrators of the murders of the American contractors in Fallujah. And what arrangements have been made for that?

GEN. ABIZAID: Well, certainly one of our objectives, and it's a non-negotiable objective, is to get the murderers that killed the contractors in Fallujah. Now, I think it would be a stretch for you to say that they are in Fallujah. I can't tell you that, nor can anybody else. So, yes, we will get the murderers of the contractors and we will find them, but we may not necessarily find them in Fallujah.

Q Thank you.

Q General, just looking ahead to the turnover in July, what are your immediate military tasks for the next 60 days to prepare for that turnover?

GEN. ABIZAID: The immediate military tasks are first and foremost the rebuilding of Iraqi security capacity. I think we've made it clear that we really never expected the Iraqi security capacity to be robust enough to defend against any major challenges into the September-December time period. Unfortunately, I think the way that some of the units were handled and some of the retraining and reequipping that will have to be done, and reorganizing, will probably move that target date back; I would say probably November to February or so before we could say that they'll be ready. So we will commit a tremendous amount of our time and energy and effort in restoring the confidence of those units.

And I think probably the most promising thing that I can say is that we have an Iraqi minister of defense, an Iraqi minister of interior. The Brahimi plan will move forward for -- at least I believe it will -- to name other Iraqi senior leaders, or some plan will. And as that Iraqi leadership emerges, I think you'll see the armed forces -- the ICDC and the police forces -- start to jell into pretty capable organizations.

Of course, the second task I would say in priority order will be counterterrorist operations. And while we've got an awful lot of conventional forces tied up conducting patrols and maintaining the normal day-to-day security environment which actually does prevail in the vast majority of the country, counterterrorist operations will be necessary to keep the pressure on al Qaeda, Zarqawi, Ansar al-Islam and the other various groups, some of these various hostage groups that have -- hostage-taking groups that have surfaced as well. And we'll keep up the very, very robust effort in that regard.

To that point also I think it's important to note that the first elements of the Iraqi national counterterrorist force recently graduated from their training and will shortly be able to conduct some operations, and we look forward to them getting into the field.

Certainly we have to continue to conduct counterinsurgency operations, and we'll have to do that through a considerable portion of the country. We have to ensure that the militias, that are not authorized by the Iraqi sovereign authority, will be completely disarmed. And most importantly, I think, in many ways, we'll be conducting civil-military operations. As you know -- I think most of you have been to Iraq -- the actions that are taken by our troops to work the civil-military operations that bring construction and rebuilding to the country are quite important. So I think that probably outlines it.

Next question.

Q General Abizaid, Bret Baier from Fox News Channel. I wanted to ask you -- obviously, there have been a lot of critics out there saying that you need more troops on the ground. Whenever we ask somebody here in the Pentagon or throughout the administration, they say if General Abizaid asks for it, he's going to get it. Do you have enough troops in Iraq? Why haven't you asked for more beyond the extension? And are you pleased with the number currently?

GEN. ABIZAID: Do I have enough troops in Iraq for the current circumstances? Clearly, I asked for more troops. The 1st Armored Division and the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment were on their way home, and I asked that we up the number of forces in the country so that we could have a mobile reserve to deal with the conditions that were developing in the Fallujah area and down in the Najaf-Karbala area.

And the situation with the Spanish brigade leaving, along with the Dominican and -- I think there's one other battalion that will also be leaving in addition to the Dominican battalion, perhaps from Nicaragua -- from Honduras, I'm sorry. So the Honduran, the Dominican and the Spanish withdrawal certainly put a hole in the line at a place that we had to put troops, and those troops are troops that would otherwise be going home.

So asking the question about do we need more capacity in Iraq, we need more Iraqi security capacity and we need more international security capacity. I think many of you have heard me say on a number of occasions that I do not favor large increased numbers of American troops unless they have to deal with an immediate security problem, which is what we currently have.

I do favor the inclusion of more international troops, especially more Muslim troops. For example, Morocco, Pakistan, Tunisia, they all have very capable and very professional forces that could be added to the stability equation once we move into this new level of political future that develops after negotiations in the U.N., or wherever they may take place.

I would also favor the inclusion of other international forces to fill in where we've had the Spanish withdrawal. I believe, and I think Iraqis will second me on this, this needs to be less of an American occupation and more of an international military activity that includes Iraqis, international forces and Americans. So, to the extent that more international forces are able to join the team after a U.N. resolution, we would very much welcome them.

Am I comfortable with where we are now? Militarily, yes. If the situation were to move into less secure circumstances than are currently visible in the country, I would go to the secretary and ask for more forces, and General Sanchez agrees with me on that. But I don't see a need to do that now.

STAFF: Last question.

Q If I could just follow up real quick. Just one follow-up. There is also stories out there about your psyche, your attitude towards the situation in Iraq -- that you are somehow down about what you're seeing on the ground. Some unnamed commanders quoted as saying it was slipping away. Is the situation in Iraq slipping away, and are you down about it?


One more question.

Q General Abizaid, it's Jeannie Ohm with NBC. If I could go back to Fallujah. You said this is an opportunity, a possible breakthrough, and the details will take time. Does that mean for now the military option of an all-out offensive is off the table?

GEN. ABIZAID: All military options with regard to Fallujah are on the table. And I say they're on the table because I can't tell you what the enemy will do. There is an enemy in Fallujah that has something to do with Zarqawi; it has something to do with foreign fighters. And I can assure you that that enemy will not be controlled by even the best people in Iraq. And so we will have to eliminate that enemy in a way that does not allow that force to challenge us throughout Iraq and other places at other times. No doubt some of them will "exfiltrate" out, and no doubt some of them will find other means to escape, like any insurgent, or blend in with the population. But it may still be necessary to conduct very robust military operations in Fallujah. We hope we don't have to do that. We look for a solution that allows Iraqis and Americans, together in a spirit of cooperation, to regain control for the good people of Fallujah so they can get on with their lives. But if the foreign terrorists and the foreign fighters and those extremists that are Iraqis, those people from the Iraqi intelligence Service or the Special Republican Guard that refuse to take part in the political process, refuse to lay down their arms, it may be absolutely necessary to have a strong fight in there. And we're prepared to do that at a time and a place of our choosing.

So I think we all need to be careful. We're hopeful that we have an Iraqi-American solution that will allow us to move together in the spirit of partnership, and let's just be hopeful about that.

In closing, let me thank you, first of all, for giving me the opportunity to talk to you. But the hardest thing and the hardest job that any person ever does is to fight for their nation. And our young people that are out there, that are fighting for our nation, are confident, they're competent, and they're courageous.

We all need to have the patience to understand that these missions in Afghanistan and Iraq are hard. They're difficult. They'll take time. But we are not in any military danger of losing control of the situation, either in Iraq or in Afghanistan.

But ultimately, we will need Iraqis and Afghanis to come forward, to work with us, to move their country from where it is today to the sovereign, independent and respectable nations that they will become tomorrow.

Thanks very much.

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