BRIEFING WITH BRIGADIER GENERAL DONALD ALSTON (USAF), DIRECTOR, STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS, MULTINATIONAL FORCE IRAQ
BRIEFING WITH BRIGADIER GENERAL DONALD ALSTON (USAF), DIRECTOR, STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS, MULTINATIONAL FORCE IRAQ LOCATION: COMBINED PRESS INFORMATION CENTER, BAGHDAD, IRAQ TIME: 8:00 A.M. EST DATE: THURSDAY, JANUARY 12, 2006
GEN. ALSTON: Today I'd like to talk to you about the recent spike in violence, ongoing operations, some of the progress that we've seen this past year due to coalition and Iraqi Security Force Operations and a brief look at how the citizens of Iraq pay tribute to the men and women of their security forces.
As the newly elected government of Iraq comes together, those committed to seeing democracy fail will see this time of transition as an opportunity to attack the innocent people of Iraq and attempt to discredit and derail the progress of the Iraqi people. The horrific attacks last week and this past Monday, including those against a funeral procession in Miqdadiyah, the police recruits in Ramadi, the tragic attack in Karbala as well as the attack outside the MOI facility on Police Day do have a common aim -- to incite fear and create doubt in the people of Iraq in an attempt to suffocate progress toward a better future for Iraq.
As we all saw, many innocent Iraqis were undeniably targeted by the terrorists. The increase in attacks across Iraq this past week clearly indicates that al Qaeda and other terrorists still have the capability to surge. As democracy advances in the form of election results and government formation and the military pressure continues; and the pressures generated by political progress increases, we expect more violence across Iraq.
This is a good opportunity revisit what the enemies of Iraq have failed to do. They have failed to slow, let alone derail, the political process. Over the past year, the process has gone forward through three nationwide votes. In each, Iraqi participating has increased with the election in December turning out perhaps 70 percent in as many 11 million Iraqis choosing freedom and democracy through their vote. And violence on those special days decreased with each successive vote.
They have failed to stop the growth of the Iraqi Security Forces. Those forces who have sworn to protect the people of Iraq have now grown to more than 23,000 and have not only gotten bigger, but better as well and the terrorists have failed to hold terrain as our operations have clearly sent them on the run time and time again. As Minister of Defense Dulaimi noted last week, there's no safe place in this country for terrorists.
Can I have the next chart, please?
To set the stage for this, I'd like to discuss V-BIDS and suicide V-BIDS -- suicide attacks, broadly, from last year. We had seen those attacks before April of last year, but we certainly saw a commitment by the terrorists -- and particularly Zarqawi -- to use that weapon system more regularly because of the spectacular effects that are caused by that weapon system.
We saw those attacks spike -- that attack spikes coincide with the formation of the transitional government. We saw the intensity of those attacks in May, we saw that in June. And since that time, we have seen a marked decrease in the number of car bomb attacks and suicide car bomb attacks -- if you will. I'd like to outline some of the reasons why we have had the success that we've had against that particular weapons system.
It's obviously attractive to Zarqawi because of its precision capability. It's attractive because you can load it with such explosives as to cause the spectacular mass casualties that are generated by that. You can choose places with densely populated areas -- marketplaces, funerals. We've seen them all. You can recite them as well as I can. And then you just need to have that -- in most cases -- in nine out of 10 cases -- a foreign fighter to take that weapon system to its target.
Pick a high profile area. Pick an area like Baghdad where the population is dense, pick an area like that where the media is as well and achieve the effects that you try to achieve. We saw, as the government formed and they began to take on this urgent problem, Operation Lightning came out of that, which was a dedicated effort to attack this particular weapon system. To do that, Iraqi planners, coalition planners looked at the anatomy of a suicide attack -- look at the facilitators, look at the leadership for al Qaeda, look at the weapon system itself -- the car, the ammunition, the skilled bomb maker who's required in order to put that together -- look at the sustain that this required to bring that individual in from out of the country, sustain them into, let's say Baghdad, and what it takes to make that happen.
And as you look at that and focus on the problems, you see opportunities to begin to defeat this particular type of attack and you kill or capture al Qaeda leadership; you kill or capture bomb makers; you find weapons caches and deny the ammunition required in order to build that car bomb; and then you find ways to interdict the foreign fighters. So from Operation Lightning came Operation Thunder, another Baghdad centric operation; Veterans Forward in the Northwest; Operation Matador was in early May and then we've culminated with Operation Sayyid as we worked our way throughout the Euphrates River Valley to Husaybah to the Syrian border. And we have had success decomposing that operation, attacking parts of that operation and decreasing, as a consequence, the ability of al Qaeda to sustain generating those types of mass casualty events.
These are not simple operations. There are several people and many cells were dedicated to this effort because of the value of these spectacular attacks. But as I walk through some of the statistics that are evident on this chart, I think it will help us summarize some of the successes that we had. We -- kill or capture the people used to conduct these horrific attacks. We've said before that 90 percent of all suicide attacks conducted in Iraq are by foreign fighters. Operations in the West to secure Iraq's borders as well as targeted operations against the flow of foreign fighters throughout Iraq led to an increased number of foreign fighters captured, and thus decreased the number of foreign fighters in the country ready and able to conduct suicide attacks.
We killed or captured the people with the know-how and skill to enable these attacks. Removing the individuals who have the expertise, leaving a gap the enemy has to fill results in less sophisticated, less effective, and we believe lesser amounts of bombs being produced. We find and destroy munitions used in the building of IEDs. With fewer ammunitions, fewer bomb makers and fewer people to conduct attacks, it gets hard and harder for the enemy to sustain this capability.
The final bar graph on this chart represents the tips received across the nation be it by phone, on the national hotline or in person. The people of Iraq are increasingly saying, enough is enough, and are going up to coalition -- and increasingly Iraqi Security Forces -- in their villages and towns and pointing out weapons caches and insurgent safe houses. This is particularly true with the persistent presence of Iraqi Security Forces that have been left behind throughout the Euphrates River Valley. Just this week, an anonymous tip was received by an Iraqi citizen that led police and the army to a wheat factory in Baghdad where it was reported an ambulance had dropped off an unknown number of missiles. A thorough search of the area resulted in 11 rockets being found hidden in a pile of rubbish in a waste area just behind the wheat factory. A further search of the area led Iraqi forces to find 26 additional rockets and fuses inside a derelict house in the same vicinity. Next chart, please.
I'd like to address a few operations -- recent operations that have taken place. Operation Red Bull, which began on December 24th and ended the 1st of January consisted of more than 700 coalition and 400 Iraqi Security Forces aimed as sustaining counter insurgency operations near Hadithah. This operation resulted in 72 weapons caches consisting of rockets, mortar rounds, RPG launchers and explosive material being found and 18 insurgents detained.
Operation Bull Dog -- a six day operation -- consisted of 600 coalition forces and more than 1,200 Iraqi Security Forces conducting searches and cache sweeps along the waterfronts near Ramadi. The operation which began in December 28th resulted in the detention of 17 insurgents and the discovery of several weapons caches.
First photo, please.
The third operation resulted in coalition forces discovering more than 10 metric tons of munitions hidden at 72 cache sites approximately 40 kilometers south of Fallujah during the week long operation, Green Trident. The operation began last week near the village of Al Latifiyah, to search suspected locations for hidden weapon caches. More than 1,000 artillery and mortar rounds were unearthed along with scores of rocket propelled grenades and hand grenades. Most of the caches were shallowly buried along the banks of the Euphrates River and surrounding area.
In addition to these three, Operation Karenton (sp) continues in Diyala and Salahuddin. While aiming to neutralize insurgent activity and establish a safe and secure environment, Iraqi Security Forces in the area are becoming increasingly independent and are conducting focused police and military offensive operations.
The increasing capabilities of Iraqi Security Forces have allowed for the consolidation of the Northwest and North-central Iraq operational areas under one command. Task Force Freedom relinquished command of Northwest Iraq in a ceremony on December 30th to Task Force Band of Brothers, led by the 101st Airborne Division. This consolidation will add the provinces of Nineveh and Dohuk to the Task Force Band of Brothers ongoing security operations in the areas of Diyala, Kirkuk, Salahuddin and (Sulimaniyah ?).
Coalition forces who have already partnered with Iraqi Army 4th and 5th Division in the North-central area of Iraq will now partner as well with the Iraqi 2nd and 3rd Divisions as provincial and local police to provide security and safety to the citizens of Northern Iraq.
Next chart, please.
Festivities were held around the country last week for the people of Iraq to honor and celebrate Iraq's professional security forces. Armed Forces Day on the 6th and Police Day on the 9th paid tribute to the dedication and persistence of the 223,000 men and women who currently makeup the Iraqi Security Forces and honored the sacrifices made by those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in this fight for freedom.
Great progress continues to be made toward a professional security force that is representative of all of the people of the nation and dedicated to the protection of democracy, freedom and the safety of all Iraqis.
Next chart, please.
At the beginning of the year, one division, eight brigades and 37 battalions now own battle space throughout Iraq. In addition, there are 128 Iraqi Army and Special Operations battalions conducting combat operations against the enemy, 54 of which are assessed as being in the lead in defending the great people of Iraq and protecting the process of democracy. As part of both anniversary ceremonies, members of the Iraqi Security Forces again took an oath of allegiance to the country of Iraq and swore to protect the men and women of the country.
On a personal note, that particular event at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, I think you would have found that same level of dignity, of solemnity and a feeling, I think, universally felt by all military. I found it to be an inspiring moment myself up there and it was terrific.
With that, I'd be happy to take your questions. Yes, sir?
Q (Off mike) -- three short questions, if I may, two on statistics. Do you have statistics for the number of car bombs and the number of suicide bombs for the year 2005? That's the first question. The second one, you've got a number of foreign nationals captured by month. I take it this is captured by U.S. forces, coalition forces and Iraqi forces?
GEN. ALSTON: Yes, that would be total. Q Total. And what would be a total of people captured -- so that we can sort or work out what the proportion is of captured foreign nationals compared to overall?
GEN. ALSTON: I don't have that --
Q And the fourth --
GEN. ALSTON: -- particular denominator -- but we'll have --
Q And the third question, yeah. You also said that 90 percent of the suicide bombers were foreigners. How do you know that? There's not much left of them.
GEN. ALSTON: Your point's well taken. I'll start with the last one. There is -- in some cases, there is identification. In some cases there is sufficient ability to determine what the nationality is. In some cases, it is witnesses at the scene who have, you know, seen the individual, seen the vehicle as it was approaching the target and had a view of that. We're very confident in that assessment -- that nine out of 10 suicide bombers are, in fact, foreigners.
Now, with regard to the car bombs, let me see if I have -- I can give you broad statistics on where we started and where we finished. I don't have the additional statistics that you would look for in terms of numerators and denominators. Bear with me just a moment here.
Well, I'll give it to you after this. And I'll also work your other statistics with regard to the foreigners that have been captures. Of course, that doesn't include the foreigners that have been killed, it's just the captured amount that we have. And those numbers, we of course, would have great confidence in, obviously. And that too figures into our ability to assess that.
It's not just a function of the individual who kills himself and all those others on the scene. It's a function of the intelligence that we generate, those that we do capture. It helps us estimate lots of things to include the number of foreigners that would be involved and whether or not a foreigner was involved in that particular attack, when we can bring that all together in some cases.
Next question. Yes, ma'am?
Q Thank you. I'm Elizabeth Plummer (sp) from CBS News. I do have several questions. I want to begin by asking you, to what extent do you think the foreign fighters and Zarqawi's fighters are collaborating with the rest of the insurgency? It would stand to reason that they -- having a similar objective -- might cooperate a great deal.
GEN. ALSTON: We have not seen sustained collaboration between Zarqawi's elements and other elements in Iraq. We have seen occasional marriages of convenience for limited objectives. Zarqawi has fewer and fewer friends in Iraq. His choice back in May as they scaled up their violence and as he said in May that it's okay to kill the human shields and his later pronouncements of declaring war on the Shi'a, we have seen the letters -- and you have heard of the letters. The Zawahiri letters and other al Qaeda leadership messages coming to Zarqawi discouraging this kind of what they would view nonproductive behavior as he turns the people of Iraq against his cause.
He has shown no political agenda. His -- it is not difficult to have him cast out with his aggressive pursuit of a Caliphate in Iraq. He's been very consistent, hasn't deviated from that track, hasn't modified his behavior to satisfy the al Qaeda leadership.
So he causes problems for the other aspects of the insurgency in Iraq as his position is more deadly and that, you know, killing innocents is such a part of his spectacular attack, mass casualty producing program.
Q There's a lot of anecdotal evidence that the number of political assassinations is on the rise and certainly in Baghdad. What do you know about this? And does it occur to you that maybe the insurgency's violence is abating -- or at least the foreign fighters is abating -- as intermeshing violence, if you like, really begins to escalate?
GEN. ALSTON: Well, I would first -- talking about the larger, spectacular attacks -- based on the discussion that I presented, I do believe that if they could generate and sustain mass casualty producing attacks, they would generate and sustain mass casualty producing attacks. So I find that looking at the statistics that they have been damaged in their ability to conduct these attacks on a regular basis. Their ability to surge is clear. They can husband these resources and they can choose a time to try to employ them to gain maximum effect. But we have found that that is not able -- so far we have found since October -- September, actually -- where you would see the attacks spike and then you would see them drop off and not resurface for a period of time.
With regard to the shift towards political assassination. We have not seen an increase in the tier one, two, three level leaders of Iraq when it comes to assassination. There is, certainly, a concern about assassination in Iraq, but I do not see a relationship between the inability -- or I should say, the lack of the ability to generate these mass casualty producing attacks, and therefore, a shift in tactics to take those same resources, those same people who otherwise would be performing this other kind of violence and then shifting it with large resource into this other attack methodology.
Q Last question. You probably have read the essay in the "Guardian" by Dr. Allie Fadul (sp), who's house was raided the other night, did you?
GEN. ALSTON: I didn't read his essay. I've read the Guardian article, I think. Q Okay, so clearly a mistake was made. He said that, in fact, the house had been checked twice before by U.S. forces and he's off to the states on a full scholarship next week. My question is, how could that kind of mistake happen and how many times does it happen?
GEN. ALSTON: It is a challenging environment that we are operating in. We are -- as we are trying to decrease the levels of violence, acting on actionable intelligence and doing -- taking these actions at this particular residence and at others -- I could just summarize it by just saying that in this challenging environment, it is unfortunate that we find ourselves searching several houses in order to try to achieve the results and to act on that intelligence in order to find the folks that are of interest to us. And the fact that it happened in this particular case to this individual and that it has likely happened to other individuals as well, there is -- this environment we're working in here does require, continues to require, aggressive action by coalition forces and Iraqi Security Forces.
This particular example has become a high profile example and as a consequence of the -- his particular case -- I don't know what else to say about that.
Q Maybe the question was more general, because you're right, it's a specific example. And it's getting a lot of attention because he has (revealed ?). The problem for you, though, is all the mistakes or all the other mistakes, because every time a mistake is made and people feel they've been trampled or disrespected or had their furniture smashed, it encourages the people who don't want you here and in fact, don't believe in the whole venture.
GEN. ALSTON: I disagree with you that there is such track record that you presume right there. I appreciate the challenges that we have. I appreciate that it is an easy target to take on the coalition or even the Iraqi Security Forces because of these interventions that have to occur. This is a conflict that we're engaged in that requires action similar to this in order to ultimately decrease the levels of violence in Iraq.
The fact that we have situations that get to be highly visible, that these discussions take place in the press, there's nothing wrong with that and it's important that these discussions do occur in the press. But I believe that we are extremely effective with the interventions that we've had. We have, in particular -- a raid on a particular house leading to further actionable intelligence and then leading to taking, you know, killers off the street is in the best interests of every Iraqi citizen and contributes to our success in Iraq.
We want to make more friends than enemies. It's important to us that we do not make more enemies as we perform these challenging tasks. And so we have our procedures, we refine our procedures. When mistakes are made, we refine those procedures and take a look and see what we can do to improve our effort the next day, but we keep the pressure on. We won't be deterred. We need to continue, with the Iraqi Security Forces, to fight this insurgency and these terrorists with all the vigor that's required in order to secure this country and secure this mission. And so we will continue to do that.
And as we can even further refine our intelligence and, you know, it's difficult to score 100 percent of the time, but it would be irresponsible not to act when we have important intelligence that we need to follow-up on. So our troops have that responsibility. They have a dangerous mission that they perform very well and in this particular case, they did their job. And we'll continue to take those actions as appropriate, but it is important to follow-up actionable intelligence and we did that in this particular case.
Q Hi, General, Ben Gilbert (sp) from Voice of America. This week a number of -- and last week -- a number of leading United Iraqi Alliance officials have criticized the coalition forces for restraining the Iraqi Security Forces too much. And I was wondering if you had any reply to that or if you thought that that was -- if you thought that was accurate?
GEN. ALSTON: Well, there was, unfortunately, several different high profile attacks last week. The government is in a period of transition and the government is totally engaged in this fight against those who are opposed to the democratic process. In this particular case, this -- the opinions of Iraqi leaders and ordinary citizens -- it's important in a democracy for people to express themselves and there have been several voices that have expressed themselves this week.
I would tell you that I do not see any additional procedures that have been employed -- or I should say additional restrictions or additional requirements that have been levied upon any of the Iraqi Security Forces that would tie their hands. We do have procedures that we coordinate operations with each other. We give visibility in advance to each other when we're conducting operations. Those things haven't changed and do not see any of the violence that we had last week as a consequence of a relationship with either the Ministry of the Interior or the Ministry of Defense.
We share a common passion for eradicating the levels of violence in Iraq. We share a common passion to aggressively attack the terrorists and the insurgency throughout the country. That hasn't diminished. And the partnership -- we continue to build on that partnership every day.
Q Are there new regulations for when Iraqi Ministry of the Interior Forces move that they need to notify the coalition forces beforehand? I've heard specifically that that's one of the main complaints. GEN. ALSTON: We have always had coordinating instructions with the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Defense. As situations change and as they grow in capability, those policies are reevaluated in order for us to, you know, to be as effective and for them to be as effective as they possibly can. So we do we have coordinating instructions between the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Defense.
Q Hi, General. Chris Krall (sp), LA Times.
Can I add onto my colleagues request -- can we get car bomb and suicide bomb totals for 2004 as well, to compare?
GEN. ALSTON: We'll try to do that.
Q My other question is, I was wondering if on these operations that have been recently completed, whether the military run across a so-called -- a car bomb factor? I was just curious as to what they look like and could you physically describe these laboratories or places where these things are -- these weapons systems, as you call them, are put together?
GEN. ALSTON: Sure. I would tell you that there's nothing that intriguing about a car bomb factor. You know, when you find a car in a garage or otherwise in a location that is trying to be hid from the public to enable you to load this vehicle up with explosives, we find them in various degrees of completion. And you know, it -- and we find often multiple car bombs in one particular location in various forms of production.
So that -- I don't know how else to describe it. You know, we don't find it to be anything that is more interesting than that. These are crude devices. They are -- but they do require a particular skill that we find that when you take a bomb maker out of a cell, that does have a negative impact on the ability of that cell to produce car bombs or to produce effective car bombs.
Q Are you finding that the bomb makers are also foreign fighters? Or is it -- are these the guys who actually do the deed dependent on a great big local network?
GEN. ALSTON: The foreign fighters are principally the drivers of the vehicles. They also play roles as facilitators for the foreigners coming into the country. This is an Iraqi insurgency. Iraqis are fighting this and trying to deny this future of democracy in this country. So Zarqawi's effort is supported by Iraqis. That is not an exclusively foreign enterprise.
But there has been leadership that has been foreign. There have been moves to have Iraqi leaders as well. So the leadership is a mix, but the people who actually carry out and consummate the suicide attack have been predominately foreigners.
Q Is there any particular place in the country where you've found a lot of these car bomb factories?
GEN. ALSTON: We've found them in several different places in the country, but what we find is that the factories are relatively close to where the bomb is intended to be exploded. In some cases, vehicles would come in from out of the country ready to go, but they would be the minority of weapons systems. Most of them would be constructed here in Iraq and relatively close to where they want to cause their attack.
They are vulnerable because of our tactics -- they are vulnerable at all times that we are going to interdict this particular cell, interdict this particular fabrication of this car bomb, interdict and take out the foreign fighter. So they're at risk throughout their entire process, but we do find that they bring this together relatively close -- relatively close to the target that they've got in mind and then try to carry out the attack as soon as possible after they marry the bomber to the weapons system.
Q I'm Nelson Anides (sp) with the Washington Post. In recent weeks, insurgents seem to have stepped up their campaign against Iraq's oil industry -- for instance, closing the Baiji refinery for about 10 days. I was wondering if coalition forces were doing anything special recently to secure the country's oil infrastructure?
GEN. ALSTON: Well, first I'd say that the -- both the energy -- I mean, the oil plus electricity -- the pressure that's on that infrastructure is -- there's a lot of different facets of the challenges associated with that part of the infrastructure besides decades of neglect that make it vulnerable and just not robust. And despite the investment and the progress that we're making with individual power plants other parts of the process from where the power's generated to deliver to a home, I'll just emphasize that that's one point is that we've got a fragile infrastructure that continues to get fortified, but there are challenges with that.
The interventions or the attacks that are taking place have a strong criminal element to this. When it comes to oil, the government's decision to reduce subsidies has cut the margins for the black marketeers. So they have greater pressure that they're trying to bring on the government to try to ultimately get back to profit margins that they were accustomed to. So there is a very distinct criminal element that is associated with several different parts of that oil production and delivery business. And there is an insurgency component to this as well. As much as the insurgency can deny the people of Iraq basic services and further try to delegitimize the Iraqi government and it's ability to provide those basic services, that's in the interests of the insurgency to try to do that. So the people of Iraq are the ones that are victimized by all of these different pressures. So it is complicated. There are lots of facets to it. It is not, by any means, an exclusive domain of the insurgency or Zarqawi. There is a very distinct criminal element to this.
Q Just a quick follow-up -- have you capture criminals who have been making or are committing these kinds of attacks or do you have intelligence that suggests that?
GEN. ALSTON: We have captured folks that are trying to bomb different aspects of the electrical system or have tried to target different aspects of the petroleum business as well. This is a very important Iraqi problem that's got to be solved. We are supporting the Iraqi government in every way that we can. It is not only continuing to map out and create robust infrastructure, but it is also designing the forces that are going to be able to better protect this infrastructure.
There are initiatives within the Ministry of Defense to support these aspects of the Iraqi economy. But there are also protective forces in many of the ministries that also contribute to this. So there is a very detailed examination of the oil infrastructure, of the electrical infrastructure trying to ensure that the repairs, the maintenance as well as the security of the overall system is fortified. And that's not only complicated, but it's going to take time in order to achieve consistent delivery of electricity and consistent delivery of oil for all the reasons that I just spoke to.
Another question? Yes, ma'am?
Q I just wondered as the insurgency changes tactics and you catch and kill more of them, whether their method of attack is changing? And I specifically want to know whether there are more deaths and injuries from insurgent snipers now than there were six months or a year ago?
GEN. ALSTON: I don't have statistics that would -- handy to be able to answer that with empirical evidence. There has always been a sniper component to this insurgency. Our forces have been injured by small arms fire attacks. We find these periodically in different parts of the country. And so I would say that our forces consistently face that threat. They are aggressive about taking that threat on. It's an important threat to neutralize. But I would not say right now that I have seen any significant trend that would invest more in that kind of enemy activity in any unique way compared to the other efforts throughout the country with regard to that tactic.
Thank you all very much. END.
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