News Briefing with Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner
(Note: The general appears via teleconference from Iraq.)
BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): General Bergner, this is Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon. Can you hear me? (Pause.)
Q Oh, no.
MR. WHITMAN: (Off mike) -- at his end.
General Bergner, if you were talking to me at the Pentagon, we are not receiving you. So we'll work on that. (Pause.)
GEN. BERGNER: Let me try one more time, Bryan. Can you hear me now?
MR. WHITMAN: We can hear you real good. I think your mike was just covered up a little too much there. (Off mike) -- worked out -- (off mike) -- difficulties, and for your time this morning and this evening, your time.
I know this is the first time that you've talked to the Pentagon press corps in this format here, so we would like to welcome you.
And by way of introduction, this is Brigadier General Kevin Bergner, who is the deputy commanding general of Multinational Force- Northwest. His troops are responsible for the ongoing security operations in northwestern Iraq.
And as is -- our format here, General, is, we open it up for you to give us a little bit of an operational overview. And I know that you're able to talk about Tall Afar a little bit also. As that operation has been of some interest back here, and we had a briefing a couple weeks ago on that also, while it was still ongoing.
And then we'll open up for a few questions back here, and we'll try not to take too much of your time. So with that, let me turn it over to you.
GEN. BERGNER: Okay. Bryan, thanks again. Most of you have probably heard from or talked to my boss, Major General Dave Rodriguez. And so I am his deputy commanding general, and it's my pleasure to give you a quick update this afternoon from Mosul.
I'll talk about three main topics: recent trends in security, operations in Tall Afar, and I'll talk a little bit about preparations for the constitutional referendum here. And I'll be glad to take your questions.
First, in terms of recent trends in security, I'd say it's important to note that we continue to make significant progress in taking down the al Qaeda network that has plagued the citizens of northern Iraq. And we are probably at the point of impacting about 80 percent of that network in terms of detaining, capturing, killing the leadership and disrupting their resources and disrupting their support bases and neutralizing their capability to conduct operations against the Iraqi people and against Iraqi security forces and our own forces.
The other area within security trends that I think's noteworthy is the population. The population here is no longer on the fence. They want their freedom. They're providing information to Iraqi security forces and coalition forces. And we see that in a number of ways, but one of the most quantifiable is in terms of the number of tips and information that they pass that allow Iraqi security forces and our own to interrupt and preclude attacks.
They're also volunteering to serve in their security forces. Police recruiting is steadily strong. And they increasingly identify with their elected governments. And we see that in terms of how they participate in interactions with their local government at the district, city and provincial level. For example, in some cases we've had meetings with the provincial government that involved 25 people back in January and February; today in those same places the number is between 250 to 400 people that will attend a meeting. They come to discuss the security situation, the economic situation and so forth. So an encouraging sign that the Iraqi people increasingly have a confidence in their own government.
In terms of Iraqi security force effectiveness, many are capable of limited independent operations at the small unit level right now. Police are shooting back when they get shot at. They're standing their ground more and more. They are offensively oriented. And they are increasingly able to develop their own intelligence and then conduct operations based on that intelligence.
The Iraqi police from Mosul and the Iraqi army forces of the 3rd Iraqi Army Division are universally recognized by the people at Tall Afar as forces that they both trust and respect. And I hear that from the people that I talk to on the street, I hear it from the sheikhs, and I hear it from the city leadership, as well.
In terms of police training, on any given day we've got about 800 in training, and each month about 600 complete the eight-week basic course for Iraqi police. And in late August the Ministry of Interior opened an accredited police academy right here in Mosul, so for the first time in the past year, there are now police from Nineveh Province that are receiving the same quality of training and preparation here in Mosul that they used to have to go to the Jordan International Police Training Academy for. We continue to use both academies as bases to get as many police through training as we can.
Much of the credit for these accomplishments in the security area rest with the soldiers of the 1st Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division, the Stryker Brigade Combat Team, who just completed a year- long deployment here. And I want to just take a minute to thank Colonel Bob Brown and Command Sergeant Major Tom Adams and their magnificent soldiers. They have truly made an enormous difference in the lives of millions of Iraqi people here. And the Iraqi people here will never forget them, and nor will we. They did -- they've done a tremendous job.
Let me turn quickly to Tall Afar and Operation Restoring Rights. The Iraqi Transitional Government decision to undertake offensive operations to neutralize the terrorists in Tall Afar has now transitioned into a broad reconstruction and reconciliation effort. The ITG's goal, which was to restore Iraqi control to Tall Afar has largely been accomplished, and we are now building on that success -- on the success of those tactical military operations. These efforts continue to be led by the 3rd Iraqi Army, the U.S. 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, and they're augmented with police. And overall, they have restored great stability to a city once plagued by the terrorists.
I spent most of today talking to citizens there. They are returning to their homes. I saw very normal routines. The government of Iraq has begun to execute a vital program of reconstruction and reconciliation there. At all levels, the local city government, the provincial government and the national government, they're involved in reconstituting the police force that will have the confidence of the people. They're involved in restoring food distribution, and they're involved in seating a new city council and revitalizing the infrastructure. Those are the main efforts that the prime minister, the governor and the mayor are in a combined way undertaking for the Iraqi people.
There will continue to be attempts by terrorists and other factions to intimidate the people there and undermine security, but it is very clear that the population is thankful for the steps their government has taken. It is very clear that control of Tall Afar has been restored, and they are now working very closely with both the Iraqi army, the police and our forces. The prime minister's representative, Dr. Haider (sp), Governor Kashmoula and Mayor Najim are very much in the lead in working with the people of Tall Afar and pursuing reconstruction and reconciliation.
And a quick word on the referendum. Preparation for the constitutional referendum in national elections is progressing as planned. And through the combined efforts and effective partnership with the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, the provincial government and Iraqi security forces, over 100,000 new voters were registered in Nineveh province during the pre-referendum registration period. I should point out that in the election in January only about 150,000 total voted. So we've had almost that many just come in and register, and several hundred thousand more have called or otherwise accessed the registration process to update and verify their registration data. So a clear interest and broadly so through all the ethnic, religious factions in Nineveh province showing their interest in commitment to be an eligible voter in October.
We see proof in other ways on a daily basis that people are ready and willing vote and participate in the important decisions on their future. Iraqi security forces have developed plans that are ready to secure the referendum, and we feel very confident in our preparations to assist them in securing the polling sites.
That's a quick overview of what's under way in Multinational Force Northwest. Many signs of progress and much work still to do. Before I close, I want to also just take a minute to say thanks to the families of all the great soldiers at MNF Northwest. They carry a heavy burden and make enormous sacrifices to support this mission, and we want to just say how proud we are of all of them, of their soldiers and how thankful we are for all of them. God bless them all.
So that's a quick overview, and I'll be glad to take whatever questions you have.
MR. WHITMAN: Good. We'll get right into it, General.
Q General, Charlie Aldinger with Reuters. You started by saying that 80 percent of al Qaeda has been destroyed or denigrated in northwest Iraq -- or denigrated. Could you give us some figures to support that? What base are you working from?
GEN. BERGNER: Charlie, let me start off by saying I said 80 percent of the network has been affected by our operations, and when I say affected I mean in terms of either disrupting the flow of resources to them, disrupting the flow of people that participate in those terrorist acts, disrupting the leadership, and so forth.
Since January, we have captured or killed 80 senior leaders -- and by that, I'd say mid- to senior-level leaders -- that we know were part of the al Qaeda network in northern Iraq. And that's just the people that we captured or detained. That doesn't count the effectiveness of our operations against their resources and their support bases.
So we feel pretty confident that we have made tremendous progress against every component of this network. And I think the proof is in the trends that I just talked to you about. The Iraqi people increasingly support their own security forces. They increasingly have the courage and the confidence to come forward and work with their government. And they increasingly are willing to serve in their security forces. All of that is a function of the reduction of the intimidation and the attacks that they had otherwise been experiencing from al Qaeda-backed forces.
So we can quantify it, and we can also measure it in ways that the population holds very important.
Q Well, "by quantify it," 80 percent is a pretty specific figure. If you say you've captured 80 of the mid- or high-level leaders, does that mean there were a hundred of them; there are only 20 left? I mean, how do you --
GEN. BERGNER: Yeah, it's a much more dynamic assessment than that, Charlie. And you know, you have people that move all around this network. You have guys that are killed and captured, and someone will step up and try to take their place. So there's no single basis to say what their current strength is, but we know how much we have attritted over time, and we know what the effect of those efforts have been.
MR. WHITMAN: Bob?
Q General, this is Bob Burns from AP. I don't mean to take this too far, but I don't understand what you're saying on the 80 percent. I mean, it's got to be 80 percent of something. What's the figure that you use to calculate to get to your 80 percent?
GEN. BERGNER: Yeah, it's not -- Bob, I guess what I'm trying to tell you is, it's not just the number of people. It's also the interruption of the support bases, the resource flow and their freedom to conduct operations. That all goes into our overall assessment of how effective we've been.
Now the challenge is, you've got to keep them from reconstituting and continue to keep that pressure on. And so that's what we're working very hard to do.
But we're very -- we feel that we have made significant progress over the last several months against that network.
MR. WHITMAN: Go ahead, Eric.
Q General, Eric Schmitt with The New York Times. Can you describe for us what size Iraqi security force will remain behind in Tall Afar both in terms of army, special forces and Iraqi police? And do you envision the same size Iraqi police force being stood up when you reconstitute it? And if you could also describe the composition of that Iraqi security force, Peshmerga versus Shi'a-Sunni combination, that's going to remain behind in Tall Afar.
GEN. BERGNER: Yeah. Eric, the force that's in Tall Afar today is a pretty robust one that is led by Iraqi army forces, augmented by Iraqi police, and was further augmented by Iraqi special operations forces.
The size of the force that we will keep in there is going to be consistent with the level of threat and security that we know we've got to deal with. So that's really the driver. It's a conditions- based decision that we'll arrive at.
Right now we've got about 10,000 Iraqi security forces as part of that force, and it will stay a very strong force until we see that the Iraqi government, the city government and the Iraqi people have coalesced to a level that they're able to deal with the security situation with a reduced force. So we will keep it very strong, is my point to you.
Q And what's the composition of that force that will remain there? Are they mostly Pesh that remain, or what's the composition, roughly?
GEN. BERGNER: No, it's largely made up of the 3rd Iraqi Army Division, which is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious force that was nationally recruited. And they will continue to make up the preponderance of the force. We expect it to be displaced over time by Iraqi police as we reconstitute the Iraqi police force in Tal Afar. And that will be the main transition that you'll see over time. Police will displace the Iraqi army once we're able to bring trained, vetted police back to the force.
Q How large will that police force be?
GEN. BERGNER: The Iraqi government has taken the leadership and has agreed to grow that force to over a thousand Iraqi police to make sure there's a robust force in place. And so that's sort of our baseline that we're working against right now. That's our target for training and throughput in the different police academies that we'll be sending police candidates off to.
I should also point out to you that one of the things we're looking for as an indicator of effectiveness is how many men -- young men from Tal Afar come forward to volunteer to serve in that police force. And every day that goes by as people return to their homes, we see an increase in that. Today we sent 150 screened candidates to the next step in their process to join their police. So we're encouraged already.
MR. WHITMAN: Al?
Q General, it's Al Pessin from Voice of America. Back on the statistics, have you seen or can you report to us any change in the number or intensity or sophistication of attacks to support your 80- percent reduction figure?
GEN. BERGNER: Let me just go back and make one point real clear. I said we have been effective in our work against -- what we think -- about 80 percent of the al Qaeda network. So I didn't say reduction, I said effect has been achieved in various ways.
Q Well, I was wondering if that effect can be seen in any change in the number, intensity or sophistication of attacks.
GEN. BERGNER: Yeah, it can be seen. We have seen fewer complex attacks against Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi people. We've also seen an overall reduction since January in the number of attacks against both our forces and the Iraqi people. And as I mentioned earlier, we've seen less indirect fire. We've actually had days in Mosul now where we've had zero indirect fire, zero small-arms fire and zero VBIEDs. That was a feature of the security environment back in the winter that would have been almost unheard of. And I guess the other point I'd say is we're finding more IEDs before they have a chance to hurt people, and that's largely enabled by the Iraqi people coming forward and reporting things, that they didn't have the confidence to do before.
Q Do you have any figures; for example, how many per month in August versus January in terms of attacks or in terms of casualties?
GEN. BERGNER: I'll give you a kind of a macro view. In the January-February time frame, we saw well over 100, sometimes up to 110, 115 attacks, and we're now seeing in the range of 40 to 60, sometimes it will spike above that, but 60 to 70 attacks. So just in rough terms, it's close to almost a 50-percent decrease in the number of attacks.
But I think more than a number of attacks, what's important is to measure this in terms of the Iraqi people's willingness to take this on, the Iraqi security forces' courage and confidence and the Iraqi government's capability. And those are very -- those are very important pacers in this discussion as well.
Q The figures were per month or per what?
GEN. BERGNER: Those figures were in a week of what we had seen.
Q Thank you.
MR. WHITMAN: Jim Mannion.
Q General, Jim Mannion from Agence France-Presse. You mentioned -- or you've talked about the effect that you've had against al Qaeda in that region, but what about the Ba'athist insurgency there? And what are you seeing as being the relationship between the two? Are they working together? Are they working separately? Are you seeing any movement by Ba'athist insurgents towards, you know, laying down their arms or reaching some sort of an accommodation?
GEN. BERGNER: You know, the interaction of former regime elements, al Qaeda network and other elements is a very complex one, and it's one that we have to work on all fronts. I guess what I'd tell you is we continue to see improvement overall in the security environment, largely due to the factors I've already enumerated. And I really wouldn't -- I don't have anything else to share with you today in terms of the specifics of the question you asked.
MR. WHITMAN: Any other questions?
All right, General. We have reached the end of our designated time, and I know that it took us a little bit to get started there. But we appreciate having the opportunity to get the overview and ask a few questions of you. Please let General Rodriguez know, on behalf of the press corps, that they don't think that he's off the hook just yet. They want to hear from him every now and then, too. (Chuckles.)
But we appreciate your time and thank you for taking the time to do this.
GEN. BERGNER: Thanks, Bryan. Thank you very much.