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

Presenter: Commander, U.S. Forces Division-North Maj. Gen. Anthony Cucolo January 13, 2010

DOD News Briefing with Maj. Gen. Cucolo From Iraq

(Note: Major General Cucolo appears via teleconference from Iraq.)

COL. DAVID LAPAN (USMC, director, Press Operations, Office of the Secretary of Defense): General Cucolo, Dave Lapan here at the Pentagon. How do you hear me?

GEN. CUCOLO: (Off mike) -- Dave. How are you doing, pal?

COL. LAPAN: (Off mike) -- in there. You -- I think I saw a smile. You probably heard some of the banter here about the sparse turnout because of interest in Haiti. But we do have some members of the media here to talk to you, so if you're ready, I'll go ahead and start.

GEN. CUCOLO: It's -- even if there's one there, we'll talk. It's all right, Dave.

COL. LAPAN: All right. Good morning. We're privileged to have with us today Major General Anthony Cucolo, commander of U.S. Forces- Division North. General Cucolo assumed his current duties in Iraq in November of 2009. This is his first brief to us in this format. He joins us today from Contingency Operating Base Speicher near Tikrit, in Iraq. General Cucolo has a few comments, and then he will be happy to take your questions.

General, again, thank you for joining us, and over to you, sir.

GEN. CUCOLO: Hey, thanks, Marine.

Good morning, everybody back in -- back in Washington, D.C. I wish I could see you. I'm sure I'd recognize a couple of faces.

I'm fortunate enough right now to command 21,000 of the finest Americans in Iraq. Right now I've got brigades from Fort Bliss, Texas; Fort Riley, Kansas; Fort Lewis, Washington; two brigades from Hawaii, an aviation brigade and an engineer brigade; and of course one brigade from my home state of Georgia and Fort Stewart and 3rd Infantry Division and my division headquarters is here. That makes up the 21,000 soldiers. It's an example of the modular Army at work; no question about that.

What we're doing right now in northern Iraq -- essentially, partnered full-spectrum operations.

That means all types of operations, from combat when necessary to stability operations: the full spectrum, partnered. We don't do anything unilateral. It's all with our Iraqi partners, in probably the most demographically complex battle space in Iraq.

We've got a little bit of everything here, and obviously the -- what we have here that does not exist in other parts of Iraq is the Kurd-Arab fault line, if you will. That's what I mean by the demographically complex area. It is about the size of the state of Georgia, about 250,000 square miles. And our current operations could be characterized as supporting the provincial reconstruction teams, moving to police primacy in the cities as best we can, and then, outside the city, establishing a capacity in our partner Iraqi Army forces that will allow them to assume our battle space completely as we continually draw down throughout this year.

Our focus of operations right now has been on, with our partners, tamping down the violent extremist networks. They still exist. They've been knocked back pretty hard lately, but still, because they're cellular in nature, still can pack a punch with a high-profile attack. And -- besides tamping down the violent extremist networks, keeping as good a lid as we can on Kurd-Arab tensions, and then also prepping for the elections.

And so that's a characterization of what we're doing here, and I would be happy to open it up to any questions. Back to you.

Q Good morning, general. This is Joe Tabet with Al Hurra.

I would like to ask you two questions, sir. First, if you could address, or if you could give us an update about the Arab-Kurd relations and how they are facing now the problems over the disputed areas. And second, if you'd also give us an update about the relation -- the relationship between the government of Baghdad and the peshmerga in the north.

GEN. CUCOLO: Sure. Those are -- those are great questions, and they're occupying a good bit of our time.

First, the status of Kurd-Arab relations. Everything right now is colored, if you will, by the upcoming elections. And so there is a natural tension that requires confidence-building measures in the areas where Kurds and Arabs exist together, or where peshmerga forces exist across the line from Iraqi army forces. Natural tension there. Political rhetoric does not help, as we move into the -- as we move into the -- as we move towards the elections. So we're watching that very carefully.

I have to admit, though, I am on the ground with the Iraqi army forces and the pesh forces; I talk to the commanders of each side. We are very fortunate to have rational actors on both sides of the line who will pause when something happens. Perhaps a bomb goes off in an area, and tensions rise, or if there's a troop movement that is unexplained or uncoordinated -- no one leaps to conclusions, no one mobilizes forces, no one goes to guns. These are rational actors. And we are -- we are, quite frankly, partnered with them and talking to them daily. And so that's the good news story. I believe we can -- we can -- we can keep the tensions down. We can avoid -- we can avoid fighting between the two forces.

Unfortunately, because the political rhetoric exists, the extremist groups want to capitalize and throw fuel on the fire of that tension, and so -- I'll give you an example. I have a -- an IED, an improvised explosive device, will go off in an area that has mutual interest, and one side might blame another. One side, the Kurdish population might say, "Look, see this? I need more pesh forces here." Perhaps a minority population might say -- might be concerned that a force would come in and deny them their rights.

So that exists, and we're trying to -- we're trying to keep the tensions down in that vein.

The -- also, you asked about Baghdad. Right now, there's -- I think you're aware there's significant move afoot in the KRG to combine the PUK and the KDP pesh. It's already happened at the minister-of-pesh level -- the equivalent of the minister of defense, if you will -- in the KRG. That's already happened at that level. And now the desire and the actual action and movement is to combine the PUK and the KDP pesh forces.

That is significant. It is a natural step in the evolution of the peshmerga being integrated into the Iraqi army at some point in the future. It has support from Baghdad. And I -- there's progress in that -- small steps, but there's progress in that.

Let me -- let me toss it back to you in case I didn't answer the question properly for you if -- or if you have a follow-on.

Q Just to follow up, could you give us -- do you have any figures, any numbers about the size of the peshmerga right now? And do you believe that the KRG would agree to have the peshmerga integrated within the Iraqi army?

GEN. CUCOLO: I can't give you the -- I can give you the size of units that I'm -- that I sit across from or deal with their commanders. And I can't shoot from the hip on it. I deal with brigade-sized units. And there are a handful of brigades.

And, if you'd like, we can try and get you actual peshmerga force numbers that we're aware of by e-mail, perhaps, or in a follow-up after this -- after this press conference.

But forgive me, what was the second part?

Q I mean, do you believe that the KRG will agree to have the peshmerga integrated in the Iraqi army?

GEN. CUCOLO: Yeah, I believe so. From what I'm seeing from the senior KRG leadership, yes. Everyone's attitude is, this is one Iraq. It's very positive. Since I've been here, I've been impressed by many things. I've been impressed by the quality of the Iraqi security forces, particularly the Iraqi army. And I can give you vignettes on that, if anyone's interested. But I'm very impressed with the quality, very impressed with the desire for unity. And that goes to the KRG. So I could tell you right now that the current KRG leadership sees on the horizon an integration of the pesh into the Iraqi army, yes.

Q General Cucolo, good to see you again. Peter Spiegel with the Wall Street Journal. Good to see you out there with a proper job for a change.

Let me ask you to look forward to the drawdown, spring and summer, because obviously we're going to see huge numbers of troops disappear. And your bit of the world, as you mentioned in your opening comments, is perhaps the most complex and most, I guess, on edge. When you look forward to, you know, the spring and summer, what are your two or three biggest risk factors, your biggest concerns that you're worried about as the drawdown begins in your region?

GEN. CUCOLO: Sure. I would say, Peter, it's good to hear your voice.

Peter, I'd say that the biggest concerns are the Kurd-Arab tension, and any desire to interrupt the seating of the government. And then, as we draw down, the ability of the Iraqi security forces to assume the battlespace with some of the niche capabilities that we provide right now.

We do a lot of route clearance. The Iraqi army has a route clearance -- and that is -- I'm sorry -- that's driving down a road with mine rollers and certain types of technology that helps you find improvised explosive device and mines and that sort of thing. We do route clearance right now. The Iraqi army has a route-clearance capability. It's nascent. It's growing. We want to see that grow further.

They are beginning to conduct intelligence-driven operations, and we'd like to see that continue and improve and expand. There are some -- there are just some niche capabilities that they need to -- that they need to acquire to properly assume the battlespace the way we'd like to leave them, with the -- with the greatest capability possible for what they have to do -- defend their nation, and to secure the population.

And then, the last part is the -- I'm sorry, it's a subset of the Iraqi security forces being ready to do that. That is, building -- you asked me what my concerns are. Adding to that concern would be building the institution that is the Iraqi army, and building the institution that is the Iraqi police.

Right now, I have Iraqi units that are capable of independent operations at low level -- at brigade and below. Some Iraqi divisions are capable of independent operations, but the institution that gets them spare parts, that gets them bullets, that gets them the things they need to sustain routine operations, that is still growing. All the right folks are working on it. It's happening. It's just not there yet.

And so those would be the concerns that I have, and I'd just add one more. The borders are getting a very significant focus right now, and that is most appropriate. Perhaps one of the last things, besides Kurd-Arab tensions, that we'll be focusing on as we draw down is the capability at the borders.

Right now, we could use some increased capability at the borders.

I'll pass it back. Go ahead.

Q Can I just follow up? You know, as you, you know, dialogue with General Odierno about what the lay-down's going to look like, you know, end of August, again, given that you are in probably the bit of the country that everyone's going to be focusing on given the Kurd area, the conflict, given sort of that -- the last home of some of these extremist groups, do you have -- have you made recommendations?

I know you can't share, probably, most of it, but do you anticipate that the north -- your bit of the world may be where some of the -- most of the residual forces may reside post-August? I mean, we have 50,000 we're allowed to keep in there. Do you -- are you discussing at all what bit of that might reside in your bit of the world? And could it be where some of the bulk of that residual force is -- remains?

GEN. CUCOLO: Absolutely -- we're absolutely having those discussions right now. Gosh, the -- weeks ago we had a significant planning effort and conference with Lieutenant General Jacoby and the force -- U.S. Forces Iraq folks on what we will look like over the months and where the forces should go, where is the medical capability, where are the helicopters, where are -- where are the ground forces -- at -- in excruciating detail.

And to answer your question, yes. When the dust settles and the number is 50,000, or it's conditions-based -- when the dust settles and the number's 50,000, I see because of the -- of the -- of the Kurd-Arab tensions in particular, and because of the complexity of the battle space in the north, and because of the fact that a lot of the provinces in the south have actually been on their own for a while now, I do see that when the dust settles on 50,000, perhaps more will be in the north, yes.

Q General, Leo Shane from Stars and Stripes. Last time you got a chance to talk to all of us back here in D.C., it was about the inclusion of pregnancy in general order number one.

I know that we've shifted to U.S. Forces-Iraq, and that's changed.

But I don't know what the fallout for you has been, if you've still gotten a chance to talk about those issues of personal responsibility with your troops and, you know, where things stand with the folks you're talking to.

GEN. CUCOLO: I understand exactly -- first of all, it's a good move. It's a good move to consolidate general order number one into just one single general order. That's a good thing.

My commanders and my sergeants major know exactly what the intent of my original GO-1 was. And we've fallen in on the new GO-1. And it's all about -- it's all about maintaining the team.

And I think -- I think if anything -- gosh, I feel like we missed an opportunity to talk about several things. We missed an opportunity to talk about the incredible value and role female soldiers have in a 21st century United States Army.

We failed to talk about what it's like for commanders now, with 12 to 18 months of dwell time to prepare for a 12-month deployment, what it's like to build teams and how -- all the things that go into building teams and keeping teams together. There's a lot of great stuff to talk about there. And we just missed the opportunity because we got caught up in other things.

But as far as my formation and the intent -- my intent being understood by the soldiers -- and I don't have any second -- I don't have any issues with it at all. I think we're okay.

Q General, Jim Garamone with American Forces Press Service. Going from that to a little more mundane thing, what's the situation in and around Mosul right now? And what specifically are your troops going to do on the election or for the election?

GEN. CUCOLO: Yeah. Great question. Your first question was about Mosul; your -- the second one was the election.

Mosul, we -- Mosul's got elements of two Iraqi divisions, Iraqi army divisions. Their -- we do not have police -- Iraqi police primacy in Mosul yet, because the Iraqi police strength is not sufficient to get out and do significant rule-of-law law-enforcement operations. So the Iraqi army, under the operational command of Nineveh Operations Command -- who has got a solid Iraqi two-star commanding it -- is basically knocking back the violent extremist groups in Mosul.

What is the situation in Mosul? What I see is -- in Mosul is a weakened AQI-ISI cellular structure trying their best to stay relevant -- weakened as in we've knocked back their financial capabilities; we've knocked back their access to weapons, ammunitions and explosives.

How do we know this? We know this because the AQI and ISI elements are now resorting to extortion and kidnapping to get their funds. We know this because the IEDs they're using are much smaller than we've seen in the past. They're trying to rustle up what they can. And so that -- that's what we're seeing there.

However, they're down, but they're not out. And we have to keep the pressure on them so, on election day, there's freedom of movement, voters do not feel harassed or intimidated; the candidates en route to the election the weeks before the election do not feel threatened.

And so we're working on that. And it is primarily my partnered Iraqi army units that are doing that. We have absolutely outstanding, incredible -- incredibly aggressive Iraqi army division commander in Mosul; very, very strong.

Now, what are we doing for the elections? Right now, a lot of planning and prep going on with that. We are joined at the hip, if you will, with the IHEC, I-H-E-C, the Independent High Electoral Commission, here in Iraq, and we are -- we are going to their meetings. We're sitting in the back, listening to their meetings with our Provincial Reconstruction Team partners in each province. So at the provincial level, we're listening to the Iraqi election planning, and seeing where we can help with things like barrier material for polling sites, coordinating outer-ring security. Obviously, there will not be a U.S. soldier in -- and I do not think there'll be a soldier near -- a polling site. This is an Iraqi show. They can handle it. They -- actually, the Iraqis have a wonderful reputation for handling the big events like elections. And I am -- I have great confidence they can handle this one themselves.

And so, we'll be doing some outer-ring security with our partners, with the army. In most of my other cities, the police will be doing the inner-ring security by themselves.

The other -- the other thing we'll be doing to help with the elections is, there will be international observers -- UNAMI and others -- coming in. We'll provide them life-support at bases near the locations they will have to go -- they will have to go observe. And we'll also provide them with transportation and security, up to a point.

So this is going to be an Iraqi show, but we're trying to help logistically and with external security as much as we can; and also, freedom of movement.

If you've got -- you've got an Iraqi army soldier and a U.S. soldier at a checkpoint or patrolling in an area that -- where there is high tension, where we know there are strong-arm tactics or threats or intimidation, we want to tamp that down, so there's freedom of movement of voters to get to the polls.

Looking to -- looking to rock the vote here; we're looking to get as many Iraqis out to vote as we can, and so we want to set the security conditions that will allow that.

Q General, thank you. This is Raghubir Goyal from India Globe and Asia Today. My question is that many Iraqis now feel free and freedom and safer. But what is your assessment now in general? How do you feel as far as Iraq is concerned, comparing with Afghanistan? And what can you do or what can they learn from Afghanistan? Because now Afghanistan is focus, not Iraq, in my viewpoint.

GEN. CUCOLO: There's no -- and I want to make sure I got that right, sir. And I'm sorry. It might have been the microphone. Could you -- could you repeat the beginning of it? I understand that Afghanistan is the focus, Iraq is not, absolutely; understand that. Could you just repeat the beginning, please?

Q Yes, sir. Many Iraqis feel they are safe now and they are free, and they are very thankful to the U.S. for their freedom. But what do you think and what do you feel, how do you feel, as far as Iraq is concerned today, safety-wise?

GEN. CUCOLO: I hope I got it right, but I'll give it a shot. The Iraqis -- Iraqis are wonderful people that want what you and I want.

They want a safe and secure environment for their children. They would like -- they would like a job. They would like a source of income. They would like to feel valued. And, I mean, this is all things that certainly U.S. soldiers are seeing in other parts of the world, and it's not new to us.

It's so different in each province, what I see the Iraqis feeling and what I'm hearing from them. In some provinces, it's essential services. In some provinces, it's concern about a corrupt provincial government, because either the government is -- the provincial government is not delivering what they promised, or they're not seeing the progress they thought. And what I'm detecting overall is that there is a thirst for change and a desire to go out and exercise their freedoms, and -- the freedom to vote, the freedom to have -- to make a choice and have a government that is accountable to them.

So it's really hard -- (chuckles) -- because I've got -- it's hard to explain in simple terms, in short bursts, short sentences. Because, gosh, of the seven provinces that I have some degree of U.S. force responsibility for, each province is so different. Nineveh is different from Kirkuk. Kirkuk is different from Salahuddin, and Diyala is not like anything else. It's just -- it's a hard question to answer succinctly for you, and I apologize for that.

But I -- but I'll tell you what else. The Iraqis, I believe, watched what happened in Afghanistan in their elections. They watched what happened in Iran in their elections. And there's also a desire not to have that happen here, incredible national pride here to do this right.

And I see that in the security forces too. I'd like to give you a vignette about the security forces.

I had -- I had a provincial governor who was voted out by the council, which the council is allowed to do by the provincial powers law. And we see real -- for a U.S. constitutional reference, real Marbury versus Madison stuff going on here.

It's a great thing to watch: the provinces flexing their muscles, trying to understand what they can do. Where does the central government responsibility go, et cetera?

Well, anyway, I had a governor voted out. He did not want to leave. I'm going to fast-forward the story for you. At one point, at one point, the council was frustrated with the speed of the resolution.

The resolution of the issue was going slow, having the governor who was voted out leave office. And they turned to their Iraqi army division commander. And they turned to their chief of police. And they said, that's it, we can't wait any longer, you must arrest him. And the division commander said, I will not arrest him.

And the police -- the chief of police said, I will not arrest him, because there's no warrant for him. There is no legal reason to arrest him right now. Let the -- let the rule of law take its course. And I will stop anyone from trying to arrest him.

There are some good things going on here. And I just hope some of those stories get out.

Back to you.

Q General, it's Peter again with The Wall Street Journal. This is not specific to the north. But I'll ask you anyway, because I'm sure you're read in on a lot of these issues.

There's been obviously a lot of domestic instability in Iran. And there's been some speculation in analysts in town here that because the security forces in Iran have been inward focused on making sure that there was security inward that they would be less poking around in the neighbors.

And I wonder if you've seen any data or any intel that would speak to that -- whether the Iranians are so preoccupied with their own domestic troubles that they're less, you know, bothering with the internal affairs of Iraq?

GEN. CUCOLO: Right. Hey, that's a great question, Peter. I have not seen any data that shows a decrease. I can tell you what I see. What I see is, since the 3rd of November, I have seen a steady effort by Iran for soft power in Iraq -- for example, "Here, let me give you the money you need to build that school." Just some exercise of soft power in corners of provinces that they can do that.

And then, I have not seen an increase or a decrease in reporting on Iranian forces or movement of weapons, ammunition and explosives from Iran into Iraq to extremist groups that are operating with Iranian support. I have not seen an -- it's been steady. It's been steady. It exists, and it's been steady.

Back to you.

Q General, Jim Garamone again.

In answer to Peter's question before, you said something about beefing up the operations along the borders. What do you mean by that? Do you need -- are you going to shift troops to meet that?

GEN. CUCOLO: Well -- actually, I'll tell you what.

We -- I have never had more -- I do -- I do not believe there have been more soldiers, particularly on the Syrian border, than we've had. I -- right now I've got -- in my battle space in the north, I've got two cavalry squadrons -- that's battalion-size units -- doing classic cavalry-type operations in the open desert with an Iraqi army division just inside the border. The -- as you know, the border-enforcement units of Iraq are literally on the border, in border forts. So they've got the first line. And the Iraqi division in that particular part of western Nineveh province has got the second line. And we are partnered with them with more U.S. forces than we have had in a long time, two cavalry squadrons.

And so the decision will be, do we -- how much do we -- as we draw down, do we leave forces on the border doing that? Would that -- is that the last place we draw down, or do we leave forces there because of the importance of securing borders for a sovereign nation, helping them secure their borders?

So that's the beefing up. The other critical part of the beefing up is helping the border-enforcement brigades with their capabilities. And between -- and it's an Iraqi central government effort, and it's happening. It's getting in fact,-- it's getting all the equipment you need to inspect transit of people and goods and vehicles and cargo, trains and roads -- trains and road -- train crossings -- railroad crossings and road crossings at the border points, and then, at the border fort, backing them up.

The other night -- two nights ago, we found 13 people came across the border between two border forts. The border forts did not have the night-vision capability or the ability to see them. We did, with our Iraqi partners. An -- a combined U.S.-Iraqi unit moved forward, captured the 13 people, brought them to the border fort. And at the border fort, we worked out -- you know, we did biometrics on them to see if we knew these folks before, and basically turned them over to the Iraqi authorities.

That's an example of a night out in the desert in the west.

Back to you.

COL. LAPAN: Well general, it looks like we're -- we're good here, so I'll kick it back to you for any closing remarks you'd like to make.

And good to see you again. Thanks.

GEN. CUCOLO: Good to see you, Marine.

I -- I appreciate your time tonight. I -- I -- one of you mentioned that Afghanistan is the focus and Iraq is less so. This is -- this is true and this is absolutely -- absolutely in the realm of the possible for the forces we have here. The American soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and Coast Guardsmen are doing an unbelievable job here. I am in awe of them every day. And we also feel incredible support from back in the United States.

When you -- when you're deployed and you weather a holiday period, it's interesting; the -- the outreach, the love and the warmth that came from the United States, from folks we don't even know, was absolutely fantastic and was -- was a real morale boost for all the soldiers over here. So I just want to thank anyone listening for their support.

I'll give you one example. Mr. -- Mr. George Miller of Colonia Middle School in Colonia, New Jersey, under the shadow of the Garden State Parkway, this was his 30th year of having his health class send cards and letters to soldiers overseas. His 30th year. And -- and when those cards come in from those little kids, and they say, you know, "Have a merry Christmas, thank you for what you're doing," it's -- it's absolutely fantastic.

So for -- for all of the George Millers out there, thank you for everything you do. We -- we appreciate it. And it gives us energy to complete the mission.

Thank you.

COL. LAPAN: Thanks, general.

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