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U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)
News Transcript

Presenter: Joint Staff, Deputy Director for Regional Operations Maj. Gen. Michael Barbero March 30, 2007 12:00 PM EST

DoD News Briefing with Maj. Gen. Barbero from the Pentagon

GEN. BARBERO: Good morning, everyone. Today, I'd like to briefly update you on the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then, gladly, take your questions.

Our top priority in Iraq continues to be our support for the Baghdad security plan, Fard al-Qanun, designed to provide security and reduce violence to levels that will allow the Iraqi leadership to make political progress. As I mentioned last week, this plan will require a sustained commitment over time, and while it is still too early to identify trends, we continue to see some early positive indicators, and I would like to share a few of those with you.

Operation Fard al-Qanun has been ongoing for approximately six weeks. In comparison to the six-week period immediately preceding the start of this operation, over all across Iraq sectarian violence remains at reduced levels. Attacks against civilians are down by about 20 percent, and civilian deaths are down by about 30 percent. Specifically in Baghdad, comparing the same six-week periods, attacks against civilians are down by 20 percent, with civilian deaths down by about 50 percent. Also, EFP or explosively formed projectile attacks nationwide are down from about 38 attacks in December to 22 in March. The average of daily attacks in Al Anbar province has also dropped over the past month.

However, recent data shows the enemy continues to adapt and remains lethal. Regrettably, attacks against -- attack levels against coalition forces have remained constant.

High-profile attacks, especially suicide vests and vehicle attacks, have increased by about 30 percent, but the effectiveness of these high-profile attacks continues to be below pre-Fard al-Qanun levels. We assess this decreased effectiveness of high-profile attacks to be the result of increased and more effective security.

The Iraqi government continues their firm commitment to unimpeded security operations. As an example of this, Iraqi and U.S. forces recently captured the al-Khazaali brothers, key leaders in a Shi'a extremist cell that has been responsible for sectarian violence in Baghdad, including terror attacks and reprisal killings, also referred to as extrajudicial killings. This cell is also directly linked to the kidnapping and murder of the four U.S. soldiers in Karbala on the 20th of January.

The Iraqi public also shows increasing signs of support. Last week, I mentioned that the number of tips to the coalition was increasing. Let me give you one example of the value of this information. On 24 March, a tip from inside Sadr City, and I think that's significant, led Iraqi and coalition forces to a cache in Sadr City of over 450 deadly anti-tank mines.

An atmospherics survey in Baghdad taken 16 to 22 March provides some positive insights. It has reported that citizens are hoping the security plan will last, and it's showing signs of improvement. They are expressing greater confidence in the security plan and in their security forces. And citizens are now complaining more about essential services, electricity and water, than they are about security.

I'd like to continue to follow up on some other topics I mentioned last week, providing you with more insight into the nature of the enemy we're fighting in Iraq. Most high-profile attacks are aimed at innocent Iraqis in markets and religious centers. In recent months, al Qaeda in Iraq, AQI, has resorted to attacking civilians with chlorine gas-laden VBIEDs.

Some examples since my last briefing -- on 23 March, Iraqi police in Ramadi alertly intercepted a suicide bomber driving a cargo truck filled with 5,000 gallons of chlorine and two tons of explosives. On 28 March, another two chlorine truck bombs were engaged and detonated outside the Fallujah military operations center, injuring 14 U.S. troops and 57 Iraqis.

I strongly believe this use of chlorine should not be dismissed merely as a new tactic or an emerging trend. Chlorine is a poison gas. It is a poison gas being used on the Iraqi people. Before these attacks, the last time poison gas was used on the Iraqi people was by Saddam Hussein. Al Qaeda in Iraq and other related Sunni extremists are employing this weapon against the Sunni population of Al Anbar province, so we have Sunni extremists attacking innocent Sunnis with a poison gas. We assess this escalation of AQI's murder and intimidation campaign as a reaction to the growing anti-AQI resistance that we see in Al Anbar province.

In reaction to these poison gas attacks, our commanders report that the Iraqi security forces have conducted their most aggressive operations to date and continue to apply effective pressure against AQI in Al Anbar. The use of poison gas on innocent Iraqi civilians discredits all of the Sunni extremist propaganda of being, quote, "an honorable resistance," focused on, quote, "driving out the infidels."

In addition to the increasing use of poison gas, we have also seen another example of children being used to facilitate insurgent attacks. You will recall that last week I briefed you and mentioned a suicide attack in Baghdad on 18 March in which two children were used to help move a vehicle-borne IED through checkpoints; an attack where the adults fled, detonating the bomb with both children inside.

Regrettably, this tactic continues. On 21 March, a three-vehicle Iraqi police convoy was pursuing a suspicious vehicle in Haditha. As they drove past a 12- to 14-year old Iraqi boy riding a bicycle, a bomb in the boy's backpack detonated killing him instantly. These acts, the use of poison gas and the use of children as weapons, are unacceptable in any civilized society and demonstrate the truly dishonorable nature of this enemy.

I would like now to turn to Afghanistan. Operation Nowruz or New Year began on 21 March. This theater-wide operation with ISAF and Afghan forces is designed to disrupt enemy operations, expand the influence of the Afghan government, and enable civic development.

There are several major operations currently being conducted nationwide in support of Operation Nowruz. In RC South, Regional Command South, the major tactical operation is Operation Achilles, designed in the short term to disrupt insurgents in and around Kandahar. But this is just the first step towards the long-term goal of enabling reconstruction and development in southern -- in the southern regions. And overall, there are about 14,000 reconstruction projects under way in Afghanistan.

In RC West and RC East, supporting operations are focused on interdicting Taliban forces and disrupting the enemy.

Last week I mentioned that we expected a spike in attacks on the Afghan New Year. Before the new year, Taliban leader Abdullah Lang promised, quote, "Thousands of suicide bombings." They never materialized. Instead the Afghan New Year passed in relative peace. Credit for this must be given to the Afghan army and police, who were in the lead, supported by ISAF, who seized the initiative and conducted nationwide security operations.

And in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, the enemy's actions again reveal their true nature. In 2006 the Taliban burned over 200 schools in Afghanistan. After a girls' school was bombed during classes in September in Nangarhar province, a local elder said, quote, "The Taliban don't want our girls to be educated."

In 2007 these attacks continue, with eight total attacks to date, seven against schools and one against a teacher. Recently, on 17 March, a girls' was destroyed in Obeh district of the Herat province.

In contrast to these attacks aimed at eliminating education, in 2006 coalition forces and Afghan partners conducted over 1,000 education projects designed to help the Afghan people -- everything from delivering school supplies to building schools. I was in Afghanistan about two years ago on a visit and went on a patrol delivering supplies to a girls' school in an isolated district, and the enthusiasm and gratitude of the Afghan people was genuine and impressive.

Despite Taliban activities to deny education to the children of Afghanistan, record numbers of Afghanistan's children have enrolled in the new school year. Afghan schools recently opened their doors on 24 March to more than 6 million pupils to start the new academic year, almost doubling the number of students from five years ago, with enrollment rates for girls in some areas approaching 50 percent. The Afghan government has allocated 4.3 percent of its national budget for education and has requested an additional 300 million (dollars) from donors.

So in summary, in Iraq and Afghanistan, we remain committed to our mission, and we're making progress. And I believe the contrast between the noble acts of our servicemembers on one hand and the barbaric acts of their enemies could not be more dramatic. With that, I'll be glad to take your questions.

Q General, a Persian Gulf question.


Q What independent information does the U.S. have about where the British sailors and marines were when they were taken by the Iranians?

GEN. BARBERO: Well, as you understand, this is a very delicate situation at a critical stage, so I'm going to be careful and limit what I have to say about that.

First of all, we agree with the British that the Iranian claims are not credible. And I think, as you have seen and reported, the British have made a pretty compelling case about the location of the ship. I think you've all seen from the helicopter with a GPS directly on top of the ship. These illegally held Royal Navy personnel were executing duties authorized under and pursuant to a U.N. Security Council resolution, Resolution 1723.

So that's probably all I should say about that, and I would refer all your questions to the ministry of defense. Because as I said, this is a delicate situation at a critical stage.

Q The question goes to what information the U.S. was able to obtain at the time to be the basis for your statement, that you agree with the British. You agree with the British based on what? Did you have your own information about where they were?

GEN. BARBERO: Agree with the British based on what they've shown us, as far as location of the ship in question and location of their forces and where it was in relation to Iraqi territory waters.

Q Are you saying you can't tell us whether in fact there was independent U.S. information?

GEN. BARBERO: I'm telling you that based on where we are in this situation, I probably shouldn't say anything else.


Q When you measure the effectiveness that you talked about on VBIEDs, how do you figure that out? And also, could you put numbers on the 30 percent? And one more question: On the Hill, there's a lot of questions about the poll of Iraqi people that showed two-thirds still support attacks against the U.S. And how do you square that with the support that you say --


First question, effectiveness of these attacks -- very subjective -- our assessment of what the target was, did they deliver this weapon on target? Did they achieve the desired effects as far as casualties? And also, we're seeing an increased interdiction -- interception of these at our security checkpoints.

Q (Off mike.)

GEN. BARBERO: I do not have the metrics on that at the tactical level; no, I don't.

Q And do you have the numbers of the -- you say 30 percent increase from what to what?

GEN. BARBERO: I don't have those numbers -- tactical numbers here with me.

Q (Off mike) -- poll?

GEN. BARBERO: I was referring to a -- information I received from MNF-I. There are various polls here and over there, and we could quote different polls with different information. I'm reporting an official report from MNF-I.

Q General, you mentioned the chlorine gas attacks. Yesterday the commanding general of the Army Corps of Engineers, Gulf Region Division, said he was unaware of any additional security measures to keep chlorine supplies in Iraq secure. Why not?

GEN. BARBERO: I didn't hear what he said, and I'm not sure that is his responsibility to secure that. That would be the responsibility of the tactical commanders. And I am not sure -- I don't have the details on what they're doing to secure these additional sites other than the general statement I know they are taking actions. And next week when I do this I could probably give you some specifics on those actions, but I don't have them here at my hand now.

Q We're hearing different things on the severity of this threat. This morning a major general from Anbar province said that these weapons have more of a psychological effect than a lethal effect. So it seems like on the one hand, the Defense Department is downplaying these weapons, and on the other hand, as you mentioned, these are the first poison gas attacks since Saddam Hussein.

GEN. BARBERO: I agree with him on the effects. I'm not -- he's talking about the effects, I'm talking about this as a weapon and what it really means, being an attack with poison gas. So I think we're talking different things here.

Q I have another question on the Persian Gulf more broadly. Since the British sailors were taken hostage, or captive, how would you characterize the interplay between the United States Navy and the Iranian Navy, both the regular and the Iraqi -- excuse me, the Republican Guards -- (off mike)?

GEN. BARBERO: I've not seen any reports of any interplay, contacts or anything else between our Navy and any Iranian naval forces since this incident.

Q Does that tell you, then, that the Iranian navy has been pretty much backed off or it's a normal state of relations between our navy and theirs?

GEN. BARBERO: I'm not sure I'm make that -- I have not seen an assessment and I'm not prepared to make that at this time.


Q General, you mentioned the Karbala incident. And I wonder many weeks later now whether the assessment of that -- it appears to be an attempted kidnapping, and I wondered whether you see it in the context of the Iranians taking of the British sailors and whether you also assessed it as perhaps a response to the U.S. going after Iranian-backed networks in Iraq.

GEN. BARBERO: I know when I was in Iraq at the end of January, they said they were conducting a very detailed investigation of that incident. I've not seen the details of that investigation. However, I will ask for them. If I can discuss them next week, I will.

So before seeing that, I would not want to draw any conclusions as far as the linkages that you mentioned.


Q General, what I'm asking about Tall Afar and the lessons of what happened there, both in terms of the initial attack and these apparent revenge killings taken out by Iraqi police, the Iraqi police trained by the United States -- what more do we know about that? And what does that say about what's happened, even when you have the kind of progress you've cited today, once American forces, coalition forces pull out, you know?

GEN. BARBERO: Well, I know General Petraeus issued a statement, and I believe Rear Admiral Fox discussed this in his briefing to you on Wednesday. So if I say something here which contradicts them, then, obviously, I'll defer to them.

You know, this was initiated with a large VBIED attack in a primarily Shi'a market on 27th March, and Tall Afar is a predominantly Shi'a community. From that high-profile attack, I've seen numbers of 63 killed, 100 wounded. I think that tracks with what they're reporting in theater. And then I've seen unconfirmed reports of Shi'a police retaliation, and I know that's under investigation.

The governor, the police and the Iraqi army moved Iraqi army forces in there to provide security, established a curfew, and I think the government of Iraq has the lead on investigating this. But it does appear to be sectarian-motivated violence, the type that al Qaeda in Iraq are trying to foment. The response by the Iraqi government as far as moving forces, establishing a curfew and taking charge, I would term that self-correcting.

So this is a terrible incident, but I think if you look at the reaction of the Iraqi government and their forces to establish security, like I said, I'd term that self-correcting.

Every day you're going to have successes and disappointments as we move forward, and this is one such case. And we're going to have additional successes and additional disappointments as we move forward.

Q I guess I'm asking -- just to follow up. I mean, what does that say about how quickly gains -- I mean, Tall Afar is even cited by the president as one of the great success stories in Iraq --


Q -- about how quickly they can be erased once coalition forces move out of an area? And does that provide a cautionary note for what we're seeing in Baghdad?

GEN. BARBERO: I think it's too early to tell. I think we'll have to wait to take this isolated incident, do some analysis and then make some conclusions. But I think it's too early to tell or draw that conclusion.

Q I just wanted to clarify on the initial figures. Within the last six weeks there's been a 20 percent decrease in attacks on civilians, and a 30 percent decrease in civilian deaths. That's total nationwide.

GEN. BARBERO: That is.

Q Okay. Now, it's not just pertaining to any particular kind of violence.

GEN. BARBERO: Attacks against civilians are down 20 percent nationwide; civil deaths down approximately 30 percent nationwide.

Q Can you talk about -- because there has been this increase of other attacks, can you talk about regionally how that breaks down at all? Are you seeing more attacks outside of Baghdad? Is there a pattern turning in that direction?

GEN. BARBERO: I know in Al Anbar over -- as I mentioned, attacks have decreased slightly. Over the past week -- and I'm not sure about how that tracks with different regions as Diyala and other regions. I can't -- but we will get that and provide an answer to you as far as region by region what the indicators are for the past week.

Q General, do you have any information if the Khazali cell is linked to Muqtada al-Sadr or to the JAM or to Iran? As you know, one of the brothers -- of the Khazali brothers used to work as a spokesman for Muqtada al-Sadr.

GEN. BARBERO: Yeah, we assess that there are links between these brothers and Sadr's organization. As far as Iran, I don't -- I'm not sure what their links are with Iran, nor what their assessment is.

Q In terms of the commitment the Iraqis have made over the last month, do you see them continuing to keep those commitments in terms of keeping their forces in place and not sending them home for periods of time and letting them have all access to all areas and that kind of --

GEN. BARBERO: Yeah, we see no change. Continued commitment. As I've said, unimpeded operations, no interference. The Iraqi forces are standing their ground and fighting and conducting operations alongside of us. Their command-and-control structure they've put in place for this led by their Baghdad security plan and the lieutenant general who's running that -- all favorable reports. So you have -- all those indicators are continuing.

Q Okay. Just to follow up on the other, you are not seeing upticks in other areas outside of Baghdad. So Baghdad's going down --

GEN. BARBERO: No, I didn't say that. I'm not sure where the other regions are, and we'll try to get some information and pass that to you.

But I would like to take the opportunity -- there has been a report I saw this week about attacks in the Green Zone, and someone -- the conclusion drawn that -- you know, a comment made, "We cannot secure the Green Zone." And I'd just like to put attacks in the Green Zone in some sort of context.

Primarily indirect fire attacks. And yes, we've had a couple this week which have caused casualties. I'm not dismissing or acting uncaring about those casualties; they're all regrettable and we're saddened by them. However, as far as numbers, this past week we've had six indirect fire attacks in the Green Zone. Last week there were zero. The week prior, there were three. The week of 6 March there were zero. Week of 27 February there were two. And looking at the pre-Fard al-Qanun six weeks, this is about the same level we saw then.

So the notion that the Green Zone is unsecured or there's a security problem in the Green Zone, it's a challenge, but from indirect fire, it's remained pretty constant. And I think we should be cautious in taking a high-profile event like a rocket landing during a press conference and expanding that into a security challenge. This enemy is pretty savvy. And if we -- they know when there's a public event and they're going to take advantage of it and launch a rocket in at the right time. So I think it needs to be placed in context.

Q I'm still a little confused about the way you characterized the chlorine attack. You said it was the first since Saddam had used poison gas, but the general earlier talked about it as more along the lines of intimidation. You seem to be suggesting that it's in a totally different category than just a psychological intimidation technique, that it is something that the Sunnis are trying to do like they did under Saddam. Are you saying that you see signs that they want to restart that, that chlorine gas isn't their ultimate goal and that they are trying to acquire other weapons?

GEN. BARBERO: No, absolutely I did not mean to imply that. What I'm saying is the use of chlorine gas is not just -- should not be dismissed as just another tactic or an emerging TTP. It is a different type of weapon. And the fact that poison gas is being employed by Sunnis -- extremists against a Sunni population I think is significant. And the fact that this is the first time we've seen this used against Iraqis -- the last time it was used against the Iraqi people was by Saddam Hussein. I think that's significant also. So I'm not in contradiction with -- I hear the reporting but I don't think I'm contradicting that. I'm just telling you that in our view, this is significant.

Q I guess what I'm trying to draw you out on is you seem to say that it's much more dangerous than has been previously described --


Q -- by the military and perhaps portends that the Sunnis want to do something again like they did under Saddam, with a weapon more lethal.

GEN. BARBERO: No, I never made any implication of that.

Q But --

GEN. BARBERO: And -- but if I -- and -- but let me clarify. I did not say this is a much more dangerous -- or they're achieving greater effects with this. It is largely a psychological weapon. The injuries that we're experiencing from the chlorine gas are being treated, and so it's not significant as far as casualty-producing. It is significant as a new level of weapon that these extremists are resorting to against their own people.

And so I'm not saying that this is leading to their attempts to attempt other type weapons, either. I'm just saying, for this, it's a poison gas.

Q I understand. But how concerned are you that they do want to acquire the types of weapons that Saddam used again --

GEN. BARBERO: If they'll resort to this, they'll resort to anything.

Q General, can we go back just for a minute to the slight uptick in indirect fire attacks in the Green Zone? Can you talk a little bit about what's the plan for shrinking the Green Zone over the coming year and turning some of that back to Iraqi security? And how concerned are you that the international zone will become a more dangerous place for American contractors and American military to work? As -- (off mike) -- what's -- can you talk a little bit about that?

GEN. BARBERO: Well, first, the slight uptick -- six events this week, zero last week, three the week before, zero the week -- so we have a one-week indicator. I'm not -- and I would caution that that's not a trend, and let's see how it plays out.

The notion that the Green Zone is more dangerous -- I'm not sure I agree with that also.

And as far as plans to draw down the Green Zone, I'm just not familiar with those plans. And I can find out, and if we can talk about it, I'll talk about it next week.


Q I just wanted to make a request about these statistics. In the very early stages of the war, we used to get regular weekly updates on Iraqi security forces, on attack levels, on economic indicators. And one reason that perhaps we don't have that perspective on the Green Zone is that the facts just aren't made public.

GEN. BARBERO: Right. Right.

Q And so it's presented in a piecemeal fashion. And that would be very useful to us. The only comprehensive overview that we receive is the Iraq progress report, which a couple months away. And I'm just forwarding that as a request.


Q If we could have some kind of a regular statistical overview, as detailed as possible, it would be very helpful.

GEN. BARBERO: Right. Right. And we'll talk about that. As far as a comprehensive review of other areas, I deal in the operational lane, so I'd be way out of my lane to try that. But we'll talk about that, see if we can provide that.

Q You know, and just, you know, with all due respect --


Q -- you know, the statistics may or may not indicate a trend, but I remember having this discussion with a fairly senior official just a couple of days ago, about whether the Green Zone or the international zone was becoming more dangerous. And he, like you, suggested that that may not be the case.


Q But later that same day, we had two people killed in the Green Zone in an attack. And you know, it creates -- whether it's legitimate or not, it creates a perception that the threat is increasing.

GEN. BARBERO: Right. Right.

Q And we have seen forces there, both civilians and military, adopting a higher force protection posture because of these attacks.


Q So --

GEN. BARBERO: Which happens on a daily basis across Iraq. If there's a threat, you react to it. And as I said earlier, maybe before you got here, was that -- I acknowledged that we took some casualties this week, and I'm not dismissive or uncaring about those.

Q Right.

GEN. BARBERO: But we need to take a longer view of this.

And I am not in the Green Zone, and so I'm just reporting what I see from here and what -- the reports I see. So --

Q But the larger question, that the perception it creates is if the international zone is not secure, how -- what does that say about the overall Baghdad security plan?

GEN. BARBERO: Well, first of all, I disagree that -- with the assessment that the international zone is not secure. I disagree with that. And I would tell you that it's too early to tell in the Baghdad security plan, and one week uptick should not lead us to make any conclusions. That's all I'd say.

MR. WHITMAN: Okay. Time for one or two more is all.

Q Just to jump on that, if we got the statistics week to week, we would be able to make that assessment and be able to bat down that -- (inaudible) -- perception if in fact it's not there. But we can't just carry what you guys say as --

GEN. BARBERO: You mean we're not compelling enough to beat it down? My feelings are hurt.

Q (Chuckles.) Well --

GEN. BARBERO: But no, I understand what you're saying.

Q (Off mike) -- Defense brass --

GEN. BARBERO: I understand what you're saying, and you know, I can help -- hopefully address your questions.


Q Well, your use of the term "poison gas" is going to ricochet in the blogosphere in the next three or four hours among a lot of the supporters of going into Iraq, saying, "Oh, the Pentagon is now admitting poison gas, weapons of mass destruction; they had stockpiles." It's going to happen.

GEN. BARBERO: Chlorine gas is used in water purification and a lot of other industrial uses, everywhere around the world, in Iraq. And I made no mention or -- nor am I drawing any links to weapons of mass destruction or anything like that.

Q But wait a second --

GEN. BARBERO: I just said this weapon should not be reported just as another new tactic, and that's what I said.

Q Just a second, sir. You mentioned that Saddam's use of poison gas against -- (off mike) --

GEN. BARBERO: Okay, right.

Q -- weapon of mass destruction example given by this administration before the war began. So you seem to be insinuating or suggesting that there is a connection of an interest in acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

GEN. BARBERO: If I did, then I was mistaken.

Q Well, what is the connection between this and --

GEN. BARBERO: The connection is just what I said. The last time poison gas was used against the Iraqi people, but -- was by Saddam Hussein.


Q You mentioned a decline in EFP attacks. Can you talk about some of the reasons for that?

GEN. BARBERO: Broadly, it's a -- you know, any time we have an indicator like this, it's a result of several factors. One is attacking the network, determining who's supplying, who's paying for, who's building, what are the supply lines, and going after that.

The other one is better tactics, techniques and procedures, force protection steps by our forces, and focused intelligence in order to be able to take down these networks. So it's a combination of that. We've found some large caches of these in the last several weeks. So I think it's a combination of those things.

We have time for one more.

Q General?

GEN. BARBERO: Yes, right down here.

Q General, I appreciate the fact that over the last six weeks the numbers have gone down on attacks, but this past week was particularly bad --


Q -- in terms of deaths of civilians. Can you tell me first of all what you think has happened in the past week? And second, are you concerned at all? Are you seeing any signs that the Mahdi Army might begin to take a more active -- again a more active and aggressive stance?

GEN. BARBERO: I think what we're seeing is what we've been seeing all along. This enemy is adaptive and reacting to what we're doing. And it's a business of action, reaction and counteraction. And that's continuous every day in every place in Iraq and Afghanistan: what's the enemy doing, what's our action, what's his counteraction, and how are we going to defeat that.

So we're seeing an enemy who is trying to make a statement and reacting to our operation, which is just now, you know, about six weeks old. Only two of the brigades are on the ground, so we have a ways to go.

As far as the Jaish al-Mahdi, I think it's too early to tell. We have seen some indicators of some increased activity, but it's a very dynamic situation and I'd be reluctant to draw a conclusion this early.

Just one thing. I'd just like to make a few comments in closing.

I hope I've been able to highlight the barbaric and vicious nature of this enemy: poison gas, attacks using children, attacking education systems. And defeating an enemy like this requires time and commitment. And as I also said, every day in this fight we'll have successes mixed with disappointments. So we must take the long view on this. But the successes we're achieving are testimony to those superb young Americans serving in harm's way, and they deserve our continuous thanks and prayers.

Thank you very much.

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