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Press Briefing, May 4, 2007

Multi-National Force-Iraq

Friday, 04 May 2007

Australian media interview Rear Adm. Mark I. Fox, Communications Division chief for Strategic Effects, May 4, 2007.


Q Could we ask you first, at the start, Admiral Fox, about just giving us your overview of the security situation, as you see it, in Baghdad at this time?

ADM. FOX: Sure. Sure. What we're in the midst of right now is what's referred to as Fard al-Qanun, or the Arabic phrase for "Enforce the law." It's the plan that was implemented after General Petraeus took command, and it began in February of this year.

We are about 80 percent of the way in the implementation of the troops that are flowing in as reinforcements. So the overall posture of the reinforcing effort is about close to 30,000 troops, of which about 21,000 -- 20,500 or so are combat arms. Four of five combat brigades are here. The fourth just arrived within the last week. And then the fifth brigade will be here and operating by the middle part of June.

One of the big differences that you can point to -- you know, previous Baghdad security initiatives were built on the idea of clear, hold and build. And we'd clear, but we would never hold, and we didn't build.

And so one of the changes that's taken place has been the Iraqi security force has continued to mature as well. But using the forces, these additional combat forces here in Baghdad, we're actually living and working and operating now in and amongst the people in Baghdad -- so the concept of using these things called joint security stations or combat outposts, in which Iraqi army, Iraqi police and coalition force actually operate together in the respective districts in Baghdad, with a persistent presence of 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That's probably the most significant military change from before, whereas the posture before was, we would have these large forward-operating bases, with the idea that they're well-protected and they're good services. And then we would essentially commute to the war, if you will, and we would patrol, and we would do things and then come back to these large forward operating bases.

And so General Petraeus has directed the change in which now it's the classic counterinsurgency effort to -- what's the center of gravity in a conflict? It's the people. How do you get close to the people? You have to be in and amongst the people to both get their confidence and also to protect them.

So that's what's happened over the last couple of months now, since February.

When all of these reinforcements arrive by the middle of June and are operating, then General Petraeus has described it as, it's going to take him some time, months, not days or weeks, for him to actually see the results of this initiative. But even --

Q (Off mike) -- any difference in the streets of Baghdad from the so-called surge of troops as yet?

ADM. FOX: Yeah, we have. And I -- in fact, you've been here for quite some time, as I understand it. And -- pardon.

Q I've been out and back.

ADM. FOX: In and back, but I'd also appreciate your thoughts in terms of what your impressions are. But definitely, there are certain signs that are unquestionably in the right direction, in terms of the reduction of sectarian violence and the overall, in comparison to preoperations, the numbers of violent acts associated with murders, kidnappings and that sort of thing, in Baghdad proper. What we have seen, though, in response has been an increase in the number of car bomb attacks, suicide vests and so forth. And what you're seeing is an attempt to have these spectacular attacks, you know, on the council of representatives or taking down a bridge or something that grabs the headlines and in many ways, certainly in a lot of circles, will overshadow any of the less spectacular kind of progress that we may be making.

Q So does that mean that it's one step forward and sometimes two back, or --

ADM. FOX: Well, I think what it means is, there is a certain level of effectiveness that we're seeing and taking, you know, action on things that needed to. But it also means that we need to pay attention as well, which we are, by the way, in terms of the car bomb networks and the people who are now trying to create these high- visibility and spectacular kinds of attacks. In addition, the other things that are going on here is a conscious effort to harden or protect certain key areas so that a place where -- you know, markets or areas where there are large groups of people which make attractive targets for someone with a car bomb. So you know, in places where you can now create passive protection or different kinds of ways to prevent car bombs from getting into an area that's congested, those are the kinds of things that we're also seeing.

Q To what extent do you owe the fall in sectarian violence to the self-discipline of the Mahdi Army, to their decision to avoid conflict with your forces and perhaps to -- (off mike)?

ADM. FOX: Well, that's an interesting question, and I don't have an absolute answer to it.

Although my sense is -- and we don't view the Mahdi Army as a monolithic organization. And in fact, we feel like there's a great deal of variance and diversity that is represented within that organization, for example.

So our plan, really, is if there are young men who now have jobs that aren't hanging around the corners waiting to pick up an AK-47 or to go set a bomb, so much -- the other part of this effort now that we're conducting has political and an economic dimension to it, much more so than before, because we understand that, you know, we could win every battle, we could win every portion in a military sense; every time we're going to go toe to toe with somebody militarily, we're going to prevail. But that still -- we can win every battle, but we still can't win the peace with military efforts alone. And so what that means is you've got to have something to hope for, you've got to have a reason that there will be economic activity or political coherent activity that goes on that now says that I have a voice in an Iraq that doesn't require me to be in a violent way. And, you know, the clear stance from the prime minister has been that there's only one legitimate armed force here in Iraq and that's the Iraqi security force -- the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army and the coalition.

So, long answer to a short question, I think that there has been a certain amount of a standdown or take a break away from the activities. We've seen an enormous amount of resilience and restraint on the part of the Iraqi people in some of these car bomb and some of these attacks where there hasn't been the cycle of violence that's been fomented of -- you know, you'll see one spectacular car bomb and then a whole series of murders or something like that. So in one way that cycle has been broken somewhat, and now it's our task to take down the car bomb networks. And we've had some good success there, but it's -- you know, I'm from -- the anecdote that I would use or the example, it's kind of like draining a swamp; it's really hard to tell when you've gotten the water level down, and it's a painstaking process that requires detective kind of work. You know, you take down a cell, and then that leads you to another, and then that leads you to another.

So, you know, one of the benefits of having the opportunity to live and operate and be in and amidst -- amongst the people in Baghdad has been the increased level of contact has increased the confidence of the people in the security force and of the security force in the people. And so that increased level of contact has increased the confidence now that the security force is going to protect the people, and then the people, in turn, are now providing information that turns into actionable intelligence.

So the number of weapons caches and the weapons stockpiles that we're capturing is at an all-time high. Now in due course, you would expect that after you've been taking a lot of weapons off of the street and you've been, you know, eliminating some of these car bomb factories and so forth, that you'll see a commensurate result, and that's one of those things where we are now still draining the swamp at this point. And it's hard to have a direct correlation between, okay, we took down a car bomb factory, how many cars have already been outfitted with bombs beforehand? I mean, how long does it take for you to actually -- to truly have an effect on that?

Q (Off mike) -- can you describe the kind of the Baghdad that you're fighting for -- (off mike)?

ADM. FOX: Well, the Baghdad that we're aiming for is a Baghdad where an average Iraqi family can go to the market or they can go to the coffee shop on the corner and they can take their children to the park. It's the kind of city that all of us want to live in, quite frankly, and that's kind of the metric that we strive for in terms of a place that people are going to be able to lead normal lives, with a full understanding that we can never totally eliminate the violence here. I mean, this is a society that has been wrought with violence, recently certainly, and then a history of living under a dictator. So it's going to take a long time for this environment to finally reach the point where it's the level of normalcy that we would like to see.

That said, we can definitely take concrete steps and that we are doing to reduce the levels of violence and to be able to -- essentially, when I was describing the Mahdi Army -- but if you look at the entire spectrum of any of the armed groups here in Iraq, we view them in essentially trying to get to the point where we've got those who would be reconciled and want to be part of a future society that involves a political process; and then those people who are irreconcilable and who will not be dealt with in any other way than security forces.

So we're going to have to -- what our goal is is to reduce the number of those who are irreconcilable to the absolute, you know, minimum and then increase the number of people that we can deal with a reconcilable fashion and to be able to move forward in that regard.

So --

Q Why do Shi'a militia still in the south target coalition countries, like the Australians?

ADM. FOX: You know, I can't answer that specifically other than the fact that we also see down south that there's Shi'a-on-Shi'a violence, as well. That too is not a monolithic kind of environment, although in relative terms the overall security posture in the south is relatively stable. You know, 80 percent of all of the violence in Iraq is within a 30-mile radius of Baghdad, which is not to say that there are not dangerous places and that there aren't certain risks associated.

And I know that the Australian troops are down in the al- Nasiriyah-Tallil area there. And fortunately, I mean, the contribution that Australia's making right now is a key one, in particular in the training area, where there's a certain number, I think about 30 now and an additional 70 of trainers from Australia who have been identified, and that's precisely -- we're trying to reach the point where we're getting out of what we would refer to as the kinetic or the lethal fight and trying to get more into the training and the economic growth and the political and the governance increase, and the things that create a society that is actually stable and self- governing. And so --

Q You mentioned that the Shi'as in the south are not monolithic. Is that part of what we're seeing -- (off mike) -- for a long time, that Mahdi Army, for example, would want to -- (inaudible word) -- itself from the Badr organization, the Supreme Council, the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, that they would use attacks on coalition forces to say, "We're the real nationalists, we're the ones who really want the troops out." Is that part of what happens, in a sense?

ADM. FOX: Well, it's really difficult to put a very succinct bow around that kind of issue, to say -- you know, in an environment like this, where you have ethnic and political and, you know, you've got the whole Arab and Persian -- right down there in the south there with the Iranian border so close by, and so there are so many different influences and factors that are in this region, that I would hesitate to come up with a prescription to say, well, this is exactly why certain things are happening.

Q But why can't you do this without a relatively small number of Australians? ADM. FOX: Well, I think it's important for any people of good will and people who want to see a stable and normal part of this world in terms of -- this region is extremely important to the entire world. And so the relationship between the United States and Australia has always been incredibly good. I've been down to Australia and just have loved the opportunity to interact with Australians.

It's just -- I've flown Hornets with Australian aviators before, and so there's a unique American-Australian kind of kinship and bond that I've experienced. And I just think it's a -- so from a personal point of view, I think there's been a very positive interaction between the two countries from a military and that sort of thing.

The important part about the contribution here is, number one, as a member of the coalition contributing to, in this case, the training primarily -- that's exactly what's needed for this emergent, young Iraqi army to learn how to conduct themselves in a professional way. And so the young non-commissioned officers and warrants and field grade officers that are from the Australian military that are here to help this Iraqi military and Iraqi security force come into fruition is really an incredibly important part of our coalition. And --

Q Are you -- sorry. Are you saying also that you can really achieve your ultimate goals in Iraq without Australia's political support?

ADM. FOX: Well, I think that's important to note that nothing in a large, international kind of construct can be without a meeting of a lot of different minds, and that -- for us to all be able to agree that a stable, self-governing Iraq is something that's good for the region and it's good for the international community as well. And the ability to have a coalition of people who independently and in complete sovereignty make decisions to participate and to help this is -- I don't think you can overstate the importance of having strong partners in this effort.

And Australia is an extremely strong partner. And, you know, I -- all I can say, as the spokesman from the Multinational Force point of view, is we view the contribution of Australia as an indispensable part of our coalition, and we would be -- you know, we would be a much poorer coalition without that support and without that contribution.

Q Do you think that support's going forward in the long term, too, that it's -- I think you've indicated that -- you know, that a resolution isn't around the corner.

ADM. FOX: Well, I think that this is a long-term issue. And, you know, certainly -- I speak for my own country now when I talk about the lack of patience and the desire to get things done, and here we are in the Orient, essentially, that it takes a lot longer and is a lot more difficult than -- as you well know, this is an extremely challenging and extremely difficult security situation that cannot be solved in a simple snap of the fingers or a wave of the hand.

So I think it'll take a long time. It requires patience, which is not certainly an American virtue most of the time. We -- if we can't figure something out in the next election cycle, then we'll think of another way to sometimes tackle it. But I think it's important for all of us to remember that this is something that -- you know, it requires patience.

Q Sir, a lot of the debate in Australia isn't so much centered around impatience as there are troops serving here who served in East Timor twice, Tonga, the Solomon Islands, and now they're in Baghdad. There's quite a bit of debate in Australia today; there's an awful lot to do very, very close to home, where indeed it's part of our lives, we're expected to pull our weight.

ADM. FOX: Right.

Q So I guess some people are saying why on earth are we all the way over there when there is so much to do much closer? Couldn't you do without those 1,300 or so people in the Gulf?

ADM. FOX: It's closer to 1,500, I think. But I think that it's -- that contribution is key, and, you know, we would -- obviously, it's a decision that needs to be made by every nation. And there's not any compulsion or there's no -- you know, each country makes its own sovereign decisions about the levels of support and the levels of participation in these kinds of things.

But in the same breath, I go back to the long-time, long standing alliance that exists between our nations, and you know, going back to the Coral Sea in 1942, all the way to the present day, we've been very closely aligned on security issues, and we value and treasure, quite frankly, the alliance and the friendship of Australia.

Q How would it be to see in Iraq, do you think, if next year Australia were to say, "Right, we're out, we're leaving"?

ADM. FOX: I think that that's one of those hypotheticals. Certainly, I would allow the government of Iraq to make their own decision, and you know, we would cross that bridge when we came to it.

Q (Off mike) --

ADM. FOX: You'd have to ask them that, I think, in order to see exactly what their -- you know, what their activities would be. I can certainly say that that's one of the interesting debates that needs to be doing on in terms of what will happen if we decide to draw down or to pull away. It's -- that's a very interesting question, and I think that's one of the reasons that this level of political debate here is as high as it is.

Q (Off mike) -- if Australia was to do that -- (off mike) --

ADM. FOX: Well, my personal feeling is I think it would an unfortunate thing just in terms of -- I think that we in a coalition sense are strengthened in every way when the coalition partners, you know, continue to serve together. And so that would be a -- you know, I would feel like it would be an unfortunate thing from the coalition point of view, obviously, to not have a contributing partner. But in the same breath, each nation makes its own sovereign decisions, and we respect that as well.

Q (Off mike) -- just say, for example, about the American side, about a draw down of troops, but if we send the wrong message to the insurgency that they can mark a spot on the calendar and away they go.

ADM. FOX: Right. Right.

Q Are the Australians so irrelevant that you can't say the same thing about --

ADM. FOX: Oh, don't -- no, that's not it at all. The Australians are extremely relevant, and this is an overall -- obviously, you're watching and hearing the debate that's going on in the United States, and it's an overarching discussion, quite frankly, in the higher sense of, is this something that the international community should be doing?

And you know, we are doing it now. And to what extent is the -- you know, what is the right mixture of treasure and blood to be able to try to create a stable environment in the Middle East?

I mean, remember where we are and what the stakes are, in terms of, this is the first time in human history that there's been a representative form of government in the Middle East here. I don't think you can understate how dramatic that fact really is. Does it mean it's easy? No, and it doesn't take much imagination whatsoever to go, well, if things went the way that none of us would hope, it could be a really difficult environment, you know? And so this area is a crucial part of, you know, the world community, if you will, in terms of, the regional stability of the Middle East has an effect on a lot of parts of the world.

Q Thank you.

ADM. FOX: All right, thank you.


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