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Brig. Gen. Kern Briefs on Iraqi Free Forces

Presenters: Brigadier General John H. Kern, Cmdr, 352nd Civil Affairs Command
April 10, 2003 9:00 AM EDT

(Also participating Mr. Bryan Whitman, DASD (PA) and LTC Dan Stoneking, Defense Department Spokesman)

Whitman: Last week, we began with an introduction on the Iraqi Free Forces, the Free Iraqi Forces. And if you recall, Colonel Blackledge gave you some insight into some of the humanitarian efforts and their involvement in Umm Qasr.

This morning, on the screen right there behind me, we have Army Brigadier General John Kern, who is the commander of the 352nd Civil Affairs Command. And he is joined by some Iraqi Free Force members from Umm Qasr, who are prepared to discuss some of the roles of the Free Iraqi Forces that are engaged in missions there in southern Iraq. And we'll give you an opportunity to talk to some of them.

There will be a bit of a delay in the connection, but not too much; we've been doing pretty good. So we will only be taking questions from here today.

So with that, I'd like to welcome General Kern and ask you if you have a few things you'd like to say before we get into questions.

Kern: Sure, I will, from Umm Qasr, Iraq. I'm Brigadier General Jack Kern, commander, 352nd Civil Affairs Command from right there in the D.C. area -- Riverdale Park, Maryland, which is where we are headquartered.

I've got soldiers now that are stretched all throughout Iraq with the advancing forces there in Baghdad, Karbala, An Najaf, An Nasiriyah, Basra and now here in Umm Qasr, where we started when we entered Iraq. I've got a couple of great Free Iraqi Force soldiers with me, Habib and Ali, who are soldiers that we have trained -- we, the U.S. Army, have trained in Hungary -- and then had some more training done for them by our 350th Civil Affairs from Pensacola, Florida; brought them to join us and they are now out with my units and many others working on civil -- (audio break).

Whitman: Regain that connection right now.

Stoneking: While we're waiting, they're e-mailing me the spellings of the two gentlemen's names.

Whitman: We're back on.

Kern: (Audio break) -- sending out a shipment of food to send that north. And with that, I think I'll stop.

What questions can we answer for you?

Whitman: We lost you for about the last 30 seconds. I don't know if there's something that you said right there at the end that you'd like to repeat for us here?

Kern: I'm sorry; I didn't hear your question. I think you were asking me to repeat what I just said at the end, and that was that we're doing some great work here in Umm Qasr. We've got the dredging going.

We have opened up a humanitarian assistance warehouse, where some of our NGOs are working. And I was just down in one of those warehouses, where the British Army is filling an order of humanitarian assistance food that's been brought in, and they are sending that out to one of the towns in response to a request from one of our Civil Affairs units.

What questions do you have?

Stoneking: General, this is Lieutenant Colonel Stoneking. Before I turn it over to the press for questions, would you like to introduce the gentlemen to either side and see if they have a few comments first?

Kern: Sure. This is Habib. Why don't you talk?

Habib Ali: Yes. This is Habib Ali. I'm glad to return to Iraq. Saddam's regime is done. I mean finished. I'm help the Civil Affair, what they need. I mean, I help the -- I help my people. I give them like power, like water, like food. Yes.

Kern: This is Ali [Ethari]

Ali Ethari: My name is Ali. I speak Arabic.

Kern: (Off mike) -- there you go.

Ali Ethari: (Speaks in Arabic.)

Kern: Okay. Habib, why don't you translate for the folks in the Pentagon?

Habib Ali: He's happy and he says thank you for the people of America and thank you for the President Bush and thank you for everybody in America.

Staff: General, would you like to --

Kern: Okay, Colonel Stoneking. What other questions can we answer for you here?

Q: General, it's Thelma LeBrecht with Associated Press Broadcast. Could you just -- you were saying some of the things you are doing. Could you just elaborate a little bit on that and how great a help that these Iraqi forces have provided in this work? What exactly have they made in a contribution?

Kern: Okay. Ma'am, you'll have to speak up. We're standing outside in Iraq.

But I think what you've asked are what contributions are the FIF doing for us, and exactly what kind of contributions have they made for us here in Iraq.

They've been really helpful. Bringing them in here is not bringing in just an interpreter. Certainly they can interpret for us, but these men are soldiers; they have been trained by the army of soldiers and then trained by my fellow civil affairs soldiers as civil affairs specialists. What they bring to us is the same thing Army Reserve Civil Affairs bring; they bring their civilian job skills, they bring their knowledge of their country.

We have sat down with them and planned for hours and hours as they walked us through their neighborhoods of the towns and cities that we were going to go into. When we sent them out to our various civil affairs units, we did that very carefully. We selected the location that they would go to and the unit that they would go to based upon the Free Iraqi Force soldier's hometown. So the soldiers who are with me today actually came from Umm Qasr and they know this town and they know the people. That's the same thing that we're having in Basra. We just sent a couple of soldiers, Free Iraqi Force soldiers up there with our civil affairs team. We have more soldiers who are assisting us. They know the people; often they meet -- or not often, but occasionally they meet their relatives. They know things about Iraq that you and I will never know just by studying it. So they've been real members of the team.

Does that answer the question for you?

Q: This is Will Dunham with Reuters. Could you tell me the specific numbers of the Free Iraqi Forces who are involved? Can you also tell me, are they being sent to regions from which they hail? And can you tell me the locations where they are now operating?

Kern: Yes, I can. We have right now 69 soldiers with us. I started out with 74, but I've lost five of them; one due to a problem, when we got his security clearance checked out, we decided to send this gentlemen home. They do not have security clearances, but he had some ties that some folks above us weren't quite happy with. So we moved him home. We've also had a couple of medical issues. As you can see, these gentlemen are much younger than I am, but there are a number who are my age, and a couple of old football injuries caught up, a broken collar bone, couldn't wear the flak jacket, and we had to move a few out like that, for medical reasons. We're down to 69, which means more than 90 percent of these guys have been able to contribute.

You're exactly right. We have sent them back to the regions that they hailed from. I just sent four people by plane to join our special operations forces up in the Kurd autonomous zone. They are from there, they know the opposition groups there, and we think they're going to be very valuable to us. I also have the 404th Civil Affairs Battalion up there working that area.

We've got soldiers -- essentially, everywhere you see a U.S. Army or a U.S. Marine Corps unit, that's where we have some of our Free Iraqi Force soldiers. They're there in ones and twos. And I sent them with a soldier from the 350th Civil Affairs that's attached to us or I sent them with a member of the Florida National Guard or in some cases U.S. Marine Corps Civil Affairs Marine, so that there's somebody to assist them, they don't just show up in a unit and get lost in the big green shuffle.

Does that clarify it for you?

Q: Yes, thank you. Let me have a follow-up as well. Are all of the free Iraqis with whom you're working -- were all of them trained in Hungary? And do they represent the entirety of the free Iraqis who were trained in Hungary?

Kern: Yes, they do. I think there were one or two others who washed out in the training there, but all of the Free Iraqi Force soldiers that are under my command were trained in Hungary. And the program is finished now. It was originally envisioned to be much larger. For a number of reasons, it was finished, and so I have all of them now here with me going into Iraq.

Q: Hi. It's Bill Roberts from Bloomberg News. I'd like to ask Ali, the Arab speaker, if he could describe his prior life experience in Umm Qasr, I guess his childhood and his early adulthood; how he came to leave and how he became connected with the U.S. training program; and who has he met, his family or his friends, on return that he recognizes as a liberator.

Kern: Did you understand the question?

Habib Ali: (Off mike.)

Kern: Can you explain the question to him? Talk a little bit about his childhood here in Umm Qasr; and how did he get -- how was he brought into the Free Iraqi Force program.

Ali Ethari: (In Arabic) -- (in English) -- and everything is medical, and hospital is working, and everything's okay.

Habib Ali: Okay, in English?

Kern: Okay. Sure. Would you translate for us --

Habib Ali: Yes. He said everything in Umm Qasr has been okay. There is a normal life. The power is back, and the water and the food, and there is some people get jobs.

Kern: Okay.

Ali, what was it like here before you left? Do you recall?

Ali Ethari: (In Arabic.)

Habib Ali: He said he has been in the United States 13 years, and he is glad to return to his country, and he going to be -- there is like democratic regime and freedom.

Kern: Okay, I think we'll stop there. Why don't you ask some more questions for us, please.

Q: General, it's Mike Mount with CNN. Two quick questions. One, do you think the group of 69 is enough to cover the entire country? And second, how is the reaction of the locals when these folks go out into the community? Is there any mistrust with them because they were U.S.-trained, at all, or are they accepted?

Kern: First, I would like to have a lot more. This is what I have. I don't have all that many units; I have about 17 units. I can break those down into maybe 35, 40, 50 teams. So I can pretty much put one person with each of my teams without a lot of trouble. So I've got enough to cover the country, although I could very easily use many, many more. But I've got enough right now that provide us the expertise. Remember, my unit has been studying this country for years, and this is our assigned area, so this is not a new place to us per se. As we go out into the community, I've been out with these guys here in the Umm Qasr area. I've been through the Safwan area personally, which is not too far from here. And they're very -- the people are very supportive, because they're uniformed differently from us, they're not wearing the same uniform that an American soldier wears. And we did that on purpose. And they have a very distinctive patch that says FIF. And we have them explain who they are, why they're here: to help liberate the people of Iraq.

So we haven't found any distrust at all, really. And what I do and what my Civil Affairs soldiers have done is put them out in the crowd and let them talk for a while. Then we start to ask questions through our FIF partners, and that seems to work very well. It works much better than just an average interpreter that we hire.

Q: Could we ask the same question of Habib, what it was like for him prior to the conflict and how it is that he came to join and why?

Kern: Sure.

Habib Ali: I can't hear.

Kern: She asked the same question that they asked of Ali. What was it like here before you left, and how did you come to join the FIF?

Habib Ali: Okay. I'd been in the United States eight years, and right now I return to my country, and I enjoy with the FIF. And I'm very, very glad because my country is right now of freedom. No more democratic -- no more anyone say yes for Saddam Hussein, because Saddam Hussein is done, is over.

Q: General, I wanted to ask you a question about -- you said you have just sent four to the north. I wonder -- you may not have heard the most recent reports about Kurdish fighters reportedly going into the city of Kirkuk. And now Turkey is saying it's going to be sending military advisers to the area. I'm wondering will these Free Iraqi Forces that you have -- will that help ease the situation that -- there that might start and what your reaction to that might be.

Kern: Well, you're right. I haven't heard that news, and so I don't know anything about that particular situation. Obviously, like every other officer here, I've been watching that area. I think that my Free Iraqi Force soldiers will be of assistance to the Civil Affairs soldiers we sent them to join.

As to whether or -- what they're going to do with the Kurd soldiers, I really can't answer that one for you. You really have to ask somebody else on that particular one. I'm in charge of Civil Affairs and the Free Iraqi Force soldiers, not the attacks into various cities.

Q: When you have these meetings in the towns between the Free Iraq soldiers and the townspeople and they speak, what do they say, what do they tell them? And then what kind of questions does the U.S. military follow up with? What sorts of information are you seeking?

Kern: Well, most of the information we've been looking for right now are the lower-level need requirements: Food, water, electrical power. Those are the kinds of things that we're working on right now, and that's what we ask.

Here in Umm Qasr, we've been working very hard to get the water turned back on. We've got water coming in from Kuwait. We ask -- we went down into a water distribution point where they were distributing water from a tanker truck, asked if they were getting it with any problems or not. And then we followed up with: What about the water system? How can we get the pipes flowing with water? Do the pipes go into your house? That kind of very practical question.

One of the things that we find that the people ask us and ask our FIF soldiers is: Are we leaving? I think the population is very vulnerable. There's still a lot of mistrust. They don't know that Saddam is gone yet; they want to be sure before they commit.

And so, those are the kinds of questions we get.

Q: General, it's Nick Childs from the BBC. We've also been hearing a lot recently -- in the last few days, at least -- about the Free Iraqi Fighting Forces coming into the south, as well. Could you say, do you have any relationship, any contact with them? Is there any liaison or overlap with those forces?

Kern: There is no overlap or liaison between us. That is a completely different program. It does, unfortunately, have a very similar name. But I'm in charge of the Free Iraqi Forces who are civil affairs soldiers, and that's a different program entirely.

Q: Are you concerned that there is, if you like, a connection in the sense of the name? Do you feel there could be some confusion there?

Kern: I think that those soldiers are being trained by U.S. Army Special Forces. That's one of our companion units. Army Civil Affairs is a portion of U.S. Army Special Operations. I think my Special Forces brethren will do a great job with those guys just like we're doing with our forces here.

Q: Forgive me if this goes over some of the ground covered, but just so I completely understand, the free Iraqis with whom you're dealing are being sent into local towns, villages, cities, and meeting with local leaders to assess the local needs, food, water, electricity, et cetera, also serving as translators? What other types of roles?

Kern: Well, they go in with American Army Civil Affairs or American Marine Corps Civil Affairs to do those assessments. And we're utilizing them based on their area skills. If they're from the neighborhood, that certainly speeds everything that we're doing in that neighborhood. We get to meet the local leaders faster. We have an automatic trust built in if we've got one of the local boys with us translating.

And we also rely on their professional skills. One of the Free Iraqi Force members who is with us is an attorney from Iraq, and he is closeted right now with my attorneys going over Iraqi legal codes, looking at all of that, and it's -- my lawyers think they've found a treasure trove by being able to sit down and talk to somebody who actually practiced law in Iraq. So that kind of professional interaction we have found to be invaluable.

Q: And General, maybe just as a final sum-up question. Since you would love to have more of them, why, exactly, was the program discontinued? And do you wish that decision had not been made?

Kern: I think there was -- I think were some concerns about the loyalty of the next cohort of soldiers. I'd be speculating as to exactly why that occurred. I have not been told why that occurred. I'm down here at the operational level. I get notified by the force provider that I'm getting a cohort of soldiers. We work the details out and they send them to me. Somebody back there is working the programmatics of this, I'm just out here executing.

Q: General, it's Mike Mount again with CNN. Are these forces also working with townspeople to try to assess setting up police departments or, I don't know, fire departments, or anything that would keep civil rest in the towns?

Kern: We are working all of that. They are in the meetings with us. I just talked to one of the officers here who is working on police forces. They found a fire department. And we use our FIF members with us in those conversations. There's a functioning city council here in Umm Qasr, and our folks have sat down with that city council, talked to them and said, "You folks select the people to be the policemen." The policemen before we entered the town have all left. And like every town, it needs policemen for law and order, and all of the issues that any town in any country would have. So we think we're probably going to have a police force here of about 40 people. And right now we're waiting on the town council to come back to us and advise us on that. And we use the Free Iraqi Force soldiers in those meetings with us as we talk that.

Whitman: General, I think we've run out of questions here. We'd just like to thank you again for taking the time this afternoon to join us, and especially your Free Iraqi Fighters [Free Iraqi Forces] there and for all the work that they're doing in Iraq.

Thank you.

Kern: Well, thank you very much. You all come visit us. Come on out here, join us with the other embedded reporters. There's a crowd of them standing here taking notes, taking advantage of this. Come on out and see the civil affairs soldiers and the Free Iraqi Force soldiers.

Thanks.

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