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Press briefing with Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, spokesman, Multi-National Force - Iraq, and Daniel Speckhard, charge d'affaires, U.S. Embassy, Baghdad, June 27, 2007

Multi-National Force-Iraq


GEN. BERGNER: "As-salaam aleikum," and good afternoon, everyone. We are really pleased today to have Ambassador Dan Speckhard join us for his -- actually, it will be his final press conference as the deputy chief of mission here in Iraq. Dan has served here for almost two years, in a couple of capacities, and so we're honored to have him participate. And we are also pleased to have the capability to provide you not only the operational update that I usually provide but also a political and economic update as well.

I'd like to start my remarks by joining Prime Minister Maliki and the Iraqi people in condemning Monday's attack at the al-Mansour Hotel that killed 13 Iraqis and wounded 17 others. This attack on Iraqis who sought peace and reconciliation is an affront to all people and further proof of the barbaric nature of al Qaeda.

There is no basis of evidence to support some of the earlier speculation that this was other than an al Qaeda attack. In fact, they have since publicly claimed responsibility for the attack.

On the operational front, the surge of forces has become a surge of operations. We are on day 12 of Operation Phantom Thunder, the Multinational Corps offensive to simultaneously increase pressure both in and around Baghdad. This has been and will continue to be a tough fight. We are in the early stages of that fight.

Lieutenant General Odierno provided a detailed update last Friday on the overall operation, and Major General Rick Lynch provided -- recently spoke on the operations south of Baghdad, in his sector. Monday, Brigadier General Bednarek provided an update on the operations north of Baghdad. As they all pointed out, progress will not come overnight. It will not be like turning on a light switch. It will be more gradual, and it will occasionally come with setbacks.

Today, though, I'd like to highlight a couple of areas of progress that we've observed to date.

Two senior al Qaeda leaders were killed by coalition forces on June 23rd south of Hawija in the Al Tamin province. Mahmed Yilmaz (sp), also known as Khalid al-Turki (sp), was a known terrorist and senior leader in al Qaeda who operated a cell that facilitated the movement of foreign fighters into Iraq for al Qaeda operations. I should point out also that he had fought in Afghanistan in 2001.

Killed with Mahmed Yilmaz (sp) was Mahmed Recit-Icik (sp), also known as Khalid al-Turki (sp), a courier for the same al Qaeda cell and a close associate of other senior leaders within al Qaeda.

On Monday in Baqubah, Iraqi security forces and coalition forces discovered a house used for executions and an illegal prison. It was found in the same area that days earlier, we had uncovered a torture chamber and an illegal courthouse linked to al Qaeda. We had since discovered a medical clinic that was set up to care for terrorists, which indicates their intent to make Baqubah a significant al Qaeda stronghold.

Nearby, our forces found a large stockpile of rocket-propelled grenades and other munitions in what we believe was an al Qaeda weapons cache. Parked out front was a vehicle fully wired to serve as a car bomb.

This array of facilities is an example of how the enemy seeks to consolidate and create an operating base from which they can conduct attacks on the local population and launch spectacular attacks into Baghdad. It is further evidence of the importance of applying pressure simultaneously in and around Baghdad to remove extremist safe havens and operating bases.

Also this week in Mosul, Iraqi and coalition forces were led by local citizens to a large bomb factory. They found four truck bombs and two car bombs being prepared in an assembly line manner, along with a significant stockpile of homemade explosives and munitions. In conjunction with this discovery, Iraqi and coalition forces detained 32 terrorists -- another example of what can be achieved by working and living in the neighborhoods with the people we seek to secure and operating in partnership with the Iraqi police and army forces.

In Anbar province, coalition and Iraqi security forces collaborated to find an IED production facility that had 66 speed bump-type IEDs, a 10-foot by 20-foot room filled with homemade explosives and other weapons and bombmaking components. These operations are all examples of the pressure being made by coalition and Iraqi security forces in the belts around Baghdad designed to deny safe havens, operating bases and explosive production capability to al Qaeda and other extremist groups.

As I have said, Iraqi forces are very much in the fight. They are increasingly the first line of defense while taking casualties at rates of two to three times that of the coalition, and they are not deterred in their mission. This week, Iraqi special forces detained a terrorist in Sadr City who was part of a kidnapping, murder and IED cell. The Iraqi forces subsequently determined he was also involved in providing false identification, uniforms and vehicles that were supporting terrorist operations.

I also had a chance in the last week to visit with Iraqi police and army forces here in Baghdad at Joint Security Station Suleikh in the Adhamiya area.

And I saw first hand the cooperation, the integration and the courage of those forces. They sit astride a very tense area in the Adhamiya neighborhood, but they're helping restore security to this area. I was accompanied on the trip by members of the Council of Representatives from the security committee of the Council of Representatives, who were eager to speak to their Iraqi forces and personally assess the situation on the ground. All of us left there with an appreciation for the courage and the confidence of the Iraqi forces that we met with, both police and army.

The Ministry of Defense is also simultaneously training and adding forces to hold ground gained by our collective security operations. They know, just as our commanders point out, that Iraqi forces are the long-term key to success. In the next two weeks, some 10,000 new soldiers will join their Iraqi brothers in the ranks of Iraq's army, and the prime minister is also looking at options to further expand the size of the Iraqi security forces to meet the requirements both today and into the future. The government of Iraq is also looking at local solutions to improve security at the local level. We see this in Diyala, where the provincial director of police, General Qureshy, stated Sunday that the confidence and trust between the tribes and the security forces resulted in the seizure of multiple weapons stockpiles as well as approximately 100 al Qaeda killed or detained.

Ultimately, the progress of the Iraqi people is our progress. We are humbled by their courage and reminded every day of their sacrifice. We are working hard to help them move forward, but this will remain a tough fight that is likely to get harder before it gets easier.

With that, I'd like to wrap up my operational update and introduce Ambassador Speckhard, who will provide an economic and a political update. And before he does it, though, I want to just also emphasize that I've known Ambassador Speckhard in two capacities -- when I served in Mosul in 2005, he was the director of the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office; in the interim, he since assumed responsibilities as the deputy chief of mission here at the mission. He's a man who has devoted a significant part of his left to helping the Iraqi people move forward, and he's a man who has accepted great personal risk and brought great energy to his responsibilities.

And so we wish him well, we appreciate his service, and it has been a pleasure to serve with you. Dan?

MR. SPECKHARD: Thank you, General Bergner. Those are very kind words. My heart truly is here in Iraq. I wanted to take a few moments just to highlight what is happening on the civilian side to reinforce the security operation and the combined effort to promote security, stability and a return to prosperity in Iraq.

As you may recall, the administration's review of Iraq's policy at the beginning of the year outlined a new way forward.

And an emphasis in that new way forward was on a couple of key elements, including strengthening our efforts beyond the international zone, focusing on building moderates and supporting moderates at the local levels, improving the security enough so that we could buy some space for the political and reconciliation process to occur and emphasizing the importance of employment generation opportunities, to help bring young people in particular off the unemployed rolls and to give them opportunities to work and to keep them from moving in directions of terrorism or insurgency that were risking the future of Iraq.

And what I've seen over the past few months is significant progress in each of these areas, not without challenges, not without problems but really significant progress. We have gone from 10 PRTs to 20, essentially doubling our presence in the field in terms of the number of these PRTs. They are very much integrated now with the coalition forces and part and most of them are now essentially embedded in those structures, so they're working hand-in-glove. They're working on programs of engaging not just on reconstruction projects but much more on helping local communities build their own future, so engaging the local community leaders and citizens in identifying their problems and trying to solve those problems, and also working through some of the political issues that they need to do on the local level.

We have also worked very hard on helping to build the political space here at the national level for progress on the political front. And while I know you watch that closely and there are oftentimes disappointments and challenges that it's not moving faster, there are some important achievements that they've made, including moving forward on the higher electoral commission, which is not an easy process, of appointing the nine commissioners there, which have to come from all ethnic and sectorial backgrounds. That's something they did fairly rapidly. That group is now stood up and working on preparing for the next elections, which are going to be important in this country in particular at the provincial level, again, emphasis on what's happening in the local communities and provinces.

They have moved well in terms of developing a draft hydrocarbon legislation. It now needs to move on to the council of representatives but this spring, they did a lot of work in that area. They have made progress on the constitutional review committee and outlining changes to the constitution. While there's more work to be done there, again, they have taken important committee work in developing a draft that addresses issues like the independence of the judiciary, the issues of federalism and financing as it relates to that, and they -- the upper house, so to speak, for regional representation and provincial representation here in the national government.

That has also had an impact not just at these national levels, but the security situation has also prompted some further progress on reconciliation in terms of at the local level. If you look at the province of Anbar and seen the political changes that have occurred there, you see many of the tribes coming together, rejecting al Qaeda and terrorism and violence and have made significant strides in changing the political dynamic locally. And that in turn has had a significant effect on the economic situation in Anbar, in terms of opening up again businesses and opportunities and employment opportunities there.

So, while a long way to go, you have seen that the security effort that's been produced by the surge and by the cooperation with the Iraqi security forces and support for them has produced some results that are initial but promising.

And last, on the employment creation side, I wanted to highlight there that we have in our program created more than 50,000 employment opportunities since the beginning of this year and that we have passed the 100 million mark on microfinance loans in terms of the loans that have been made through those programs.

When I say this, it's kind of in a two-dimensional way. It's really much more complicated than that because when you see it on the ground, what you see is a very integrated effort, with the coalition forces and the civilian side working hand in glove to both support security in the neighborhood, put in place programs and opportunities by going to local business leaders and asking them what they need, small shop owners to get their businesses back up and going, then to provide opportunities to actually provide those services through microfinance, to work with the national government and the different ministries to bring in some services to get things going again.

I know many of the journalists here get out there, they see the frustration. I'm very aware of that frustration. But I also can show you the many letters that we get of all the people that are thankful for the support we've been giving as a result of this. And I myself have gone out and, for instance, just was in Anbar with the deputy secretary of State, and we went around what they used to call the raceway. And it was called the raceway because this was the center of the city where you used to race through it because it was so dangerous if you were on a patrol.

And now what you have there is local development activities occurring, cleaning up the neighborhood, starting new shops, and a completely different security environment that's creating new political opportunity in Anbar as well as economic opportunities. And the job creation effort that we had there went from virtually none in April to more than 9,000 here in June, and that's because of what we talked about, which is the security situation can be an enabler for this economic and political activity.

I want to close by just saying that while I'm describing the things we're doing, it really is Iraqis that are in the lead in this process, at the local level, in particular, when you see what's going on out there. We are supporting them, we're enablers, but it's the local provincial councils, the governors, the community leaders, the tribal sheikhs and others who are making a change in their communities and trying to respond to the challenges they face from terror and insurgencies.

The two years I've been here I have been inspired constantly, day in, day out, by what the Iraqis are doing, whether it's the judge in Salahuddin who was kidnapped for two weeks, and when he was returned and released, was back on the bench, going back to work; or whether it's the tribal sheikhs who gave their life at the Mansour Hotel recently in the interest of reconciliation and a change for the future of their communities; or whether it's the ministers who've lost untold family members to the tragedy of terrorism. Every day I see these people going back to work and commitment to the country, a commitment to the people of Iraq, and it's inspired me.

And the reason that -- and sort of my closing remarks here, in terms of my last opportunity to sit in front of you, the press -- is that particularly I want Americans to know that these Iraqis are so committed to this effort.

Sometimes our community -- the Americans -- is kind of far away from the day-to-day opportunities to meet Iraqis at the local community level, but I want my American colleagues to know that this is a slow and painful transition with challenges and steps forward and steps back. We've seen that in more peaceful places when you transition from authoritarian regimes and (statist ?) systems to open societies and democratic systems. So we shouldn't be surprised if it's even more hard here.

But the important part for the Americans to know is the Iraqis are committed to this and they're sacrificing every day for their own future, and I'm proud to be one of the few of my colleagues here that have committed to helping Iraq in their goal.

GEN. BERGNER: We'll give you a "hoo-ah," Ambassador.

Okay, let me get this thing in my ear so I can hear questions. Yes, sir?

Q (Through interpreter.) General, do you have any evidence, some clear evidence or enough evidence that Iran is involved in destabilizing Iraq? The second question is for Ambassador Daniel Speckhard. Where has the negotiating reached with the Iranian side? And will there be another session of negotiations with the Iranian side?

GEN. BERGNER: Well, the answer to your first question is there's absolutely evidence of Iranian operatives moving weapons, training fighters, providing resources, helping plan operations, resourcing secret cells, that is destabilizing Iraq. It's putting coalition forces at risk and it's putting the Iraqi people at risk. We have been very clear about that. You'll know that we have taken actions against those operatives when we have found them in Iraq. And it is an area that Ambassador Crocker has directly discussed with his counterpart and one where we would like very much to see some action on their part to reduce the level of effort and to help contribute to Iraq's security. We have not seen it yet.

MR. SPECKARD: And in terms of your other question, we do not yet have another meeting scheduled for that dialogue with Iraq and Iran. I think what we had seen during the first meeting is from our perspective a sense that while the Iranian side had stated some essentially common desires and goals for Iraq in terms of stability, peace, democracy and so forth, that their actions were out of line with their stated goals and objectives. So I think as we move forward, if we move forward in this particular direction, there will be great interest on our side in seeing those actions come in line with their stated objectives.

GEN. BERGNER: Yes, sir?

Q (Through interpreter.) Ali Nassar (sp), the chief of the Iraqi martyr journalism. This is a question for the general. There are a lot of attacks that target the journalists in Iraq and even the Western media, whether in satellite channel TV. Is there a plan to protect the journalists by the Multinational Forces in Iraq?

GEN. BERGNER: Well, first I would say something that I mentioned in my very first press conference with you, which is that we have great respect for the courage and the sacrifice that journalists not only from Iraq but from many places show in covering this story and trying to explain events in Iraq to countries throughout the world.

The effort that we have under way to improve population security, whether it be in Mosul or Baghdad or Baqubah, all of those places, we seek to improve the circumstance, so that Iraqi security forces, the people in these cities and their government can create an environment where families, journalists, members of all professions have the safety and the security to fulfill their purpose here in Iraq.

And so it is something we take very seriously. We know how important journalists are in conveying events and facts to people here and everywhere else. And so we have great respect, we have great sympathy for those who have sacrificed their lives in covering this story, and they deserve a great deal of respect.

Yes, sir?

Q (Off mike.)

GEN. BERGNER: There you go. Unfortunately, people other places won't hear you otherwise.

Q Okay. All right. Richard Beeston from the Times. I'd like to ask you, General, if you could confirm reports in the press that Iranian forces actually crossed the Iraqi border recently in MND Southeast, I think -- apparently Revolutionary Guards -- actually, conventional forces crossing -- infringing the border.

And Ambassador, if I could ask you, would you expect, between now and the Iraqi parliament going into recess in August, that they will actually reach a conclusion on the hydrocarbon law or any other laws that people in Washington seem keenly to want resolved? Thank you.

GEN. BERGNER: I've seen the same reports. I think they're still be assessed and studied. It's an issue that's very serious for the government of Iraq and for the Iraqi security forces. And so it's one that we will get back to you on specifically what we find.

But the whole idea of the respect of Iraq's security, their borders and their sovereignty is one that is really larger than that issue, that question. It's one that the government of Iraq, its neighbors have all called together to respect Iraq's security and sovereignty, and so we hope that the government of Iran would take purposeful steps in that regard.

MR. SPECKHARD: We have a clear expectation that they will move forward on a number of pieces of legislation between now and September. And that comes not only from our expectation but it's an expectation that I've heard echoed in many of the political leaders in Iraq. That's not recognizing that this is going to be very challenging. When you're talking about hydrocarbons legislation, which is complex, important and hugely significant for this country, the notion that there will be broad interest in the parliament on this won't be surprising -- same thing for de-Ba'athification, which is a politically charged issue, as well as the constitutional review or elections. We don't expect that they will be able to achieve all of these different areas at the same time, but we do expect that there's going to be significant progress in some of these key points and believe that they -- if they have the political will, they can make that progress.

GEN. BERGNER: Yes, sir.

Q A question to the ambassador -- the American administration has a very good influence in the political process in Iraq and knows that the Iraqi government faces many challenges. So what is the kind of support that you're giving to the Iraqi government so that the political process in Iraq or political operation could succeed? Thank you.

MR. SPECKHARD: Well, what we have tried to do is facilitate the process. It really needs to be an Iraqi-led process, and that's what it has been. But I think the important message that we have brought to that process is a couple. One, that Iraqi political leaders need to rise above their own political parties to move in the interest of the national good in this country, and to think in terms of all Iraqis and not in terms of the party that they represent. And second, that no part of Iraq can be left out of the future of Iraq. All Iraqis have to benefit from the new direction in this country, and as a result, the political process has to reflect that.

And I think, to the extent that the political leadership follows those principles, they will be successful, and where you find problems is that it's fairly easy for the terrorists and insurgents to disrupt that process. You will see progress, where they're moving along fairly well on reconciliation or on legislation or on other elements, and a terrorist incident like a Samarra bombing or an attack on a party or group or individuals upsets that process.

What I have been impressed is, given the violence in this country over the last year, the fact that you have been able in Iraq to sustain a political process and that the government has been able to weather through this, as difficult as it's been and as weakened as it has been by a lot of that violence -- that's a pretty impressive feat that many other democracies suffer, even with fewer consequences, in terms of their ability to move on key legislation or remain focused on the major issues ahead of them.

GEN. BERGNER: Yes, sir.

Q Thank you. (Name off mike) -- with the Christian Science Monitor. A couple of questions for you, General, first, and then a question for you, Ambassador. General, we had a couple of the Sunni sheikhs say that it wasn't al Qaeda that actually targeted the hotel; it might have been rogue Shi'ite militias that were quite concerned about the assertiveness and the confidence that the tribes were gaining, particularly in Anbar. And today we've received reports that some of the tribesmen have actually taken to the highway between Ramadi and the Syrian border and have actually dragged some passengers out of their vehicles and executed them because they were Shi'ites in retaliation to the attack at the Mansour. That's one.

And then second, you said that you found evidence that al Qaeda was building up Baqubah as its base of operations, but one senior Sunni cleric that we spoke to close to the insurgency said that basically the insurgents and al Qaeda have left Diyala a long time ago and that their motto now is "Never again another Fallujah." They will not stand and defend a piece of land; they will just hit and run. That's their modus operandi now. And we've heard a similar assessment from senior U.S. military officers. What's your take on that? So perhaps I'll let you answer that, and then I'll get to my question to the ambassador.

Thanks. GEN. BERGNER: Well, let me start with the first part of your concern. Now, I said in my opening remarks that, despite earlier speculation to the contrary, there was no indication that this was other than an al Qaeda attack at the Al Mansour Hotel. Since then, the Iraqi government has instituted an investigation. We will assist them with technical, forensics kinds of capability that will help specifically identify the nature of the attack. And as I mentioned also, since then, al Qaeda in Iraq has actually come forward and publicly claimed responsibility for that attack.

This is a time that will be very challenging; it is very challenging for the people of Iraq. And the prime minister has been very, very swift and very courageous in stepping forward and condemning the attack. He has called on Iraqis to exercise restraint and not to rise to these kinds of attacks, and he has been joined by other political leaders, he's been joined by religious leaders in encouraging resistance against that kind of -- any kind of reciprocity. And so we stand with the prime minister and with the people of Iraq in encouraging everyone to resist any kind of reciprocal action on the heels of those kinds of attacks.

In regard to Baqubah, my comments to you today were describing how al Qaeda in Iraq had established an operating base and was seeking to use that operating base not only to control the area around Baqubah, but to launch spectacular attacks that could come into Baghdad or other places. And so the things that we're finding as we go in and conduct the operations that are part of Arrowhead Ripper in that area are consistent with a place that al Qaeda had been using to operate from and seek sanctuary in. And so that's why it's so important for us to continue to pressure and continue operating on -- in areas not only in Baghdad but in the belts around Baghdad because they're related to each other, and the belts outside Baghdad are being used for the purposes that I described.

Q Just a final question to you, Ambassador. You said you expect the parliament to pass key legislation by September, but with all due respect, we just had one of the senior deputies, Hamum Hammoudi, tell one of the Arab papers that they've actually made absolutely no progress on anything yet.

And then, second of all, you have two major forces that are absent, two major blocs that are not in parliament at the moment -- the Sadrists and the National Accord Front. And the Dulaimi of the Accord Front warned yesterday that there should not be any discussion of any legislation while they're out of the parliament. And then there's this whole controversy about the speaker. I mean, it's complete shambles and disarray, and you're telling us that by September you expect them to pass legislation.

Thank you.

MR. SPECKHARD: Yeah, well, we are definitely in a very significant period of political turmoil and that includes in the parliament that you described with the speaker. But at the same time, I wouldn't diminish some of the work that's been done in those committees, it's been very significant, particularly in the Constitutional Review Committee, and we can give you more information off-line on that if you'd like. In addition, the work that's been done on the hydrocarbon framework law was actually done with the major blocs in terms of the political leadership that's represented in the parliament. So there's already been a lot of work done on that; that doesn't need to be repeated in depth in the parliament itself. So how this plays over -- out in the coming months will be interesting to watch. But as you know, in Iraqi politics, what's news today is change tomorrow in that context, so we do expect the Iraqis to work through these issues. They have been meeting every day on the issue of the speaker of the parliament. The prime minister has talked about the importance of keeping the parliament in session to get work done, and the Iraqi leaders I talked to know how important it is that they do make progress in these areas. So I have sensed an understanding on their side that they're on the hook to produce something and a growing sense among the Iraqi community that they expect their government to act, and I think that pressure is building, that they're feeling it's not sustainable to continue the way they're continuing in terms of not achieving progress as a government for the people.

So I'm still -- I said my expectations are still that they are going to have to and will rise to the challenge of producing some key legislation by September.

GEN. BERGNER: Yes, ma'am.

Q Hi. I'm Molly with the LA Times. Sir, the reports that we've been getting out about the Baghdad belts operations, it seems like there's a new found emphasis on the insurgent deaths, on sort of the body count of insurgents. And I wondered, is that true? Is there sort of an emphasis on that? And also, is that what you're using to sort of gauge the success of the operations or how much progress you're making?

GEN. BERGNER: The most important measure of progress here is the Iraqi progress. It's the progress of the Iraqi security forces working with neighborhoods that they're operating in and teaming, partnering with coalition forces and conducting these operations. And what you see come from that is, you see more confidence on the part of the people in those neighborhoods to work with their Iraqi forces; you see more courage on the part of citizens to come forward; you see more commitment on the part of both civilians and security forces to work together. And so that ultimately leads you to a better result in terms of establishing population security.

Part of that involves finding these operating bases and denying those. Part of it involves finding the IED factories and removing those; part of it involves capturing or killing those who are part of the insurgency. And so all of those factors are part of assessing the way ahead. I don't think there is a significant change in terms of how we view that, and I wouldn't suggest that it's more prominent now or less prominent.

Yes, ma'am.

Q (Through interpreter.) General, you mentioned at the end of your speech that the fight will be tough. And you know that -- and you've said that the Phantom Thunder -- and you talk about your fight against terrorism.

And the second question, to the ambassador, for two months Christians in Dura are being displaced. And within last month, President Bush has told the pope that he's going to protect the questions. But the displacement of Christians are still on. So what are your procedures considering this?

GEN. BERGNER: Can I just ask for a little clarification on the first question?

Q I didn't understand the question myself.

Q Sir, the first question was, are you saying that it's going to be a tough war against al Qaeda or against -- is the Fard al-Qanun operation and all the operations around Baghdad -- are they failing? Or what you meant is, against al Qaeda is going to be a tough war?

GEN. BERGNER: Yeah, well, and I'm not sure how this translates, so let me try to give you both an answer and some context. When I say this is a tough fight, what I'm specifically centered on is, we're going into places where al Qaeda and other extremists have not been challenged or contested at the level that we now are pursuing them. That means that they have had an opportunity to establish the kind of operating bases that I described in my remarks. And so when you have an enemy who is perhaps more established, who has created weapons caches and medical facilities, those kinds of capabilities, you're -- it's going to be a tough fight, and that's the nature of my remarks.

Now the level of progress that our forces, the Iraqi forces are collectively achieving suggests that they are doing the right things in the right places with the right forces to take that on. And so while I say this is a tough fight, I don't want you suggest -- I don't want you to infer from that that somehow or other it's not going the way we want. It is.

The commanders on the ground are pleased with the progress that they're making, but I simply want to caution everybody that this is, as I said, not like flipping a light switch where, all of a sudden, things will change. Change will not come overnight. Change will come after a steady, concerted effort to reduce these safe havens, reduce these operating bases and restore population security so that the security forces, the population of these neighborhoods and their government can work together.

MR. SPECKHARD: And that's a similar strategy for what we're doing in trying to deal with groups or populations inside Baghdad that are under a particular threat.

From our perspective, Iraqis are equal, and our concern extends equally to all Iraqis who are facing the threat of displacement or attack or violence. But we do follow individual neighborhoods and we follow individual challenges that individual groups are facing, and that's partly why we have these Provincial Reconstruction Teams and now have embedded them in brigades at the community level so that we have a much better sense of what's going on in Dura, so that the community leaders have somebody to go to and talk to and engage with. And our goal is to build back the security for those groups so they do not have to be displaced or they can return to their home and with support -- by supporting, in fact, the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi government in this aspect, and us serving in our overwatch capacity to make sure that this works.

So in this particular case, our goal is to ensure that there's sufficient protection for that community, that they get pushed out, that they know where they can go to for help and improving their security situation, and that the government of Iraq, not the U.S. government, takes responsibility for its citizens and their security.

GEN. BERGNER: Yes, sir.

Q (Through interpreter.) A question for -- (inaudible). A question to the general.

One of the Western media said that there -- one of the Iraqi National Accord -- that the American forces have held the minister of Culture to move outside Iraq after there was a warrant to capture him, accused of terrorism -- he was accused of terrorism.

And a second question to General -- to the ambassador. The minister of Foreign Affairs said that there is -- could you describe the relationship between Prime Minister Maliki and Ambassador Crocker, what kind of relationship is there between both sides?

GEN. BERGNER: The issue that you mentioned is one that -- a government of Iraq issue. It's one that's part of their judicial process. And my friend, Dr. Ali al-Dabbagh, has spoken to it and explained the circumstances from an Iraqi perspective. We respect that situation, and this is up to the government of Iraq and their own judicial system to address the concerns there. MR. SPECKHARD: Can you repeat your second question because we lost a little bit of it in translation?

Q (Through interpreter.) The foreign minister, Mr. Zebari, said that -- in a statement that there is some kind of a -- sort of bad relationship between Prime Minister Maliki and Ambassador Crocker. Could you describe the kind of relationship that is now between both sides?

MR. SPECKHARD: Well, I don't think that's correct and probably mistaken or misquoted because Ambassador Crocker and the prime minister actually have a very good relationship. I've sat in many, many meetings where the two of them were working together. I would describe it as very constructive, cordial, respectful and productive. From our side, I think Ambassador Crocker has great respect for the prime minister and his integrity and his desire to help the country move forward. And Ambassador Crocker, on his side, has a great wealth of experience in this region as one of our most senior diplomats and most experienced diplomat and so generally is understood to be a very good interlocutor.

GEN. BERGNER: Yes, ma'am, Alissa (sp).

Q Alissa -- (last name off-mike) -- New York Times. Can you clarify what happened yesterday in Diwaniyah? There were reports of fighting that killed seven people, there was 70 Mahdi militia, and it was a little unclear if the fighting was between Iraqi police and Mahdi militia, American military or some combination or also Iraqi forces. There were several conflicting reports. And how many people, do you think, died, and what were the circumstances?

GEN. BERGNER: Alissa (sp), we're still looking at the circumstances there. The one thing I would tell you is that the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police in Diwaniyah have had a problem with illegal armed groups confronting their authority, and they have continued to stand up to that and deal with it.

And so that's a challenge focused more on these illegal armed groups and their actions against the legitimate authority of the government of Iraq that both Iraqi security forces, with the necessary assistance from the coalition force, are helping them deal with. And I'll follow up with you and give you the specifics of what we know that came out of that.

Yes, sir?

Q (Off mike.)

GEN. BERGNER: Can we get the mike to him? There you go.

MR. SPECKHARD: Somebody in the back there, too, next time is too short for you to see. (Chuckles.)


Q Yeah. My question is for the ambassador. What is the U.S.'s position at this point on the referendum regarding Kirkuk? And do you see that as something that could be an impediment to the hydrocarbons law that you were discussing earlier?

MR. SPECKHARD: My sense is that the Kirkuk issue is one that is separate from the hydrocarbon one. I think there's been a general understanding, in moving forward on framework law, that that would be handled separately. So I don't see that as holding up the hydrocarbon laws and the process of moving it forward. There is a process outlined in the constitution. They're also looking at the constitutional review process. That's all part of that discussion that's going on. And our sense is that the important thing is that the resolution to the Kirkuk issue needs to be based on consensus and on the political dialogue and discussion that's going to go into place and a respect for all the communities there. So I don't see that as a major obstacle to the hydrocarbon legislation.

GEN. BERGNER: You had somebody in the back. Let's see --

MR. SPECKHARD: Yeah, that poor lady had the microphone.

Q Just one more. Hi. I'm Margaret Besheer, Voice of America Radio. Today Turkey's military chief asked the government for political guidelines for an incursion into northern Iraq. Is the United States concerned that Turkey will cross the border -- this summer, perhaps? And if so, will the coalition forces protect civilians living in Kurdish areas?

MR. SPECKHARD: Is that mine? (Chuckles.)

Q (Off mike.)

MR. SPECKHARD: Well, on the political side, we have been encouraging the government of Iraq and the government of Turkey to work directly to engage in political dialogue and the importance of also engaging the Kurdistan regional government in that discussion, through the government of Iraq, to ensure that the government of Iraq is doing all it can to address the challenges posed by the PKK as a terrorist organization, and any actions or operations they may be taking in Turkey. And so we have been pushing the government of Iraq very hard to try to address that issue as best as it can, given its limited resources.

And from the other side, we obviously are -- been working with the government of Turkey to be a constructive partner here in Iraq in helping us to stabilize the situation and encourage them to do all they can to actually promote that stability.

GEN. BERGNER: I think the ambassador said it best. This is a bilateral concern between the government of Turkey and the government of Iraq that's best addressed at the political level to figure out how they can cooperate and deal with what is a very real security problem for Turkey and one where these two governments have got to find some ways to deal with that.

And so I think the efforts that are under way are centered on that and the mutual respect that they both bring to that.

Q But General, if they did cross the border, would you -- would coalition forces have any obligation to protect civilians in northern Iraq?

GEN. BERGNER: That's an interesting question that's so hypothetical that I really can't even go there. There are so many permutations of that that could present themselves. So our focus is on helping the political parties deal with the political issue, or the governments deal with the political issue that needs to be addressed here, that would help them better cooperate in dealing with the terrorist threat that is causing the government of Turkey such a problem.

Yes, sir?

Q (Through interpreter.) Could we know some details about Phantom Thunder, some details about that Operation Phantom Thunder, like who is doing that operation and is it continuous to operations in Baghdad, like Fard al-Qanun?

GEN. BERGNER: Operation Phantom Thunder is a collective offensive operation that unifies the units under the Multinational Corps in Iraq to simultaneously apply pressure both in Baghdad and in the belts surrounding Baghdad that are so important to the security of the city. It links the operations that you have seen going on in Baqubah, which are intended to remove sanctuaries and reestablish security in Diyala province, with operations that have been going on in Anbar province that are important to control the flow of -- the flow into the west part of Baghdad; and it links with operations in Babil province south of Baghdad that are intended to go into areas there and likewise remove sanctuaries that have been established and position Iraqi security forces to reestablish security. All of those things collectively with the operations as part of Fard al-Qanun in Baghdad are what make up Operation Phantom Thunder. Shukran.

We've got time for two more questions. Yes, sir?

Q (Through interpreter.) To the general. This operation of Phantom Thunder, will you back some armed groups, some armed groups like tribes? Does the Iraqi government have some objections on this? And the second question to the ambassador. You have talked about providing employment, chances for employment, but the economical situation now is deteriorating now in Iraq, and we have even now shops are being closed, and now militias are controlling so many areas and markets, and this is due to -- so how would you face this?

GEN. BERGNER: One of the things the Iraqi people taught me when I served here in 2005 was the importance and the centrality of local solutions to local problems, and so the local people are best positioned to help contribute to improving security at the local level. Prime Minister Maliki has come out very clearly in saying that he will work with the governors and the tribal sheikhs to help encourage those kinds of local solutions.

You have seen some of the result of that in Anbar province, and so we're working with the prime minister, with the government of Iraq and with the people at the local level, to include tribal leaders, to help bring that all together in such a way that those who want to turn against the extremists, whether they be al Qaeda or otherwise, are encouraged to do so. And when it involves helping them fight, they are quickly organized into formations that can be brought into the Iraqi police or the Iraqi army and placed under the legitimate authority of the government of Iraq, and that involves vetting, it involves an accountability process, it involves training to ensure they can truly accomplish the purpose that those forces need to serve. And so that's how this is coming together, with Prime Minister Maliki's leadership, with the support of the coalition forces and most importantly with the people at the local level in the center of that effort.


MR. SPECKHARD: And for your other question, I do very much understand the difficult economic situation that's facing Iraqis right now. And by describing some of the programs, I do not want to cover over the challenges out there and how bad the situation is for many in the community, particularly in Baghdad. I think when you get outside of Baghdad and if you're not in Diyala or a few of the hot spots, the situation is much better. But for those in Baghdad, you are facing a very challenging situation.

The way to address that is essentially twofold. In terms of the economic opportunities, you need both some sort of national efforts as well as the local community efforts.

On the national efforts, you need to work on the issue of electricity and fuels, because without electricity, you can't get the services going into the businesses so they can do their business and hire people to create those employment opportunities. And what we've been doing there is working with the national government on the issue of fuel supplies, getting fuels to electrical generators and addressing an electrical generation system both on the national grid but also in some community solutions to try to get local neighborhood generators or smaller generators going as part of business development activities so that you don't have to rely always on the national grid. And that's a big challenge, but the government of Iraq has a lot to do there as well in terms of getting those fuel supplies, and I hope that we'll see some progress on that soon.

At the local level, that's where we work together with the local brigade commanders, because what we're finding is what we tried last year -- that didn't work, which is the security forces come through the neighborhood, they clear, and then the civilians are supposed to come through with their development programs, but when the security went on to the next neighborhood, we found that we could not sustain that. So now what's happening is that they are married up -- the brigade commanders have their own civilians in there who have access to loan money, who have development expertise, who have -- know where the training programs are to help people get training. And what you see happening in those areas where that's working is that putting all those pieces together, you can get some economic development and growth.

It's neighborhood by neighborhood. It's a constant battle to keep it in the face of what you've described as a militia pushback or terrorist, al Qaeda pushback.

But what I see is an amazing resilience in the Iraqi community, so you'll have a bomb go off twice in a market in the last two years and the businesses come back. So I'm actually hopeful and, over the medium term, optimistic for the Iraqis, that they'll be able to get a handle on this economic side. And we're just going to keep supporting you until you get there.

GEN. BERGNER: I guess I would just close by saying "shukran jazilan masalama." Thank you all very much and good afternoon.



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