Defense Department Briefing on Ongoing Security Operations in North-Central Iraq
(Note: The general appears via teleconference from Iraq.)
BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs): General Taluto, this is Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon. Can you hear me?
GEN. TALUTO: Yes, I can, Bryan.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, General, thank you again for joining us. It was only a few weeks back that you were in this -- talking to us in the briefing room, and I -- good morning to all of you folks that have joined us here in the Pentagon.
As you'll recall, Major General Joe Taluto is the commander of the 42nd Infantry Division and Task Force Liberty. His troops are responsible for ongoing security operations in the north-central region of Iraq, an area that includes Balad, Kirkuk, Tikrit, Samara. And he's back to provide us with another operational update.
Today he is speaking to us from Forward Operating Base Danger in Tikrit. And our audio to him is a little bit weak, so when we get to the questions and answers, we may have to help him hear it and may have to repeat our questions to him, too.
So with that, General, why don't we let you start with a brief overview before we get into some questions?
GEN. TALUTO: Okay, Bryan. Sure enough.
I've got some feedback on this transmission, so it may be a little distracting. But we'll work through it. We've worked through tougher.
Anyway, good day to all of you. Good morning where you are, and good afternoon where I am. And I'm happy to be able to speak to you from our headquarters here in Tikrit.
Before I take some questions, I want to just take a minute and give you an update since our last briefing, as Bryan mentioned, just several weeks ago, back in July.
Our mission here in north-central continues to makes progress. Right now we're concentrating our efforts on training our Iraqi army partners and assisting Iraqi authorities in their preparations for the elections this fall. We have made good progress in both of these areas. A couple of examples:
In the last 45 days, we have -- we have five Iraqi army brigades, and we have completed training exercises on four of those five brigades, focusing on counterinsurgency fights and securing the Iraqi elections. That is all at the brigade level.
Government officials and security force leaders in each of north- central Iraq's provincial joint coordinating centers are developing and training and rehearsing their plans to secure the vote in north-central -- for north-central citizens.
There is a considerable confidence among all our Iraqi partners in securing the referendum vote and election. While much of that confidence comes from the success they had completing this mission in January '05, there are even more advantages for the Iraqi people this time around. Iraqi security forces are better equipped and trained. Iraqi security leaders' experience in the January 30th vote are able to be applied to -- those lessons learned -- are being able to be applied to this fall's election. The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq is more organized and prepared. And most of all, there's a growing sense of support among the Iraqi people to express their right to vote.
Registration of voters continues this month across 93 sites in four provinces of north-central Iraq. At the same time, Iraqi and Task Force Liberty soldiers have continued to sustain the fight and keep pressure on the insurgency. We see no major changes in the nature of the threat. The enemies of Iraq continue to ebb and flow. There's a continual ebb and flow of their attacks in conjunction with political developments. We expect that that will continue through the election period. What is important is that none of the insurgent efforts have had significant impact on the preparations for the elections in north-central Iraq and the democratic process.
In the shadow of election preparations, progress continues in north-central Iraq at the local and provincial government level. Provincial councils today now select and manage their own reconstruction projects even as we continue to complete water supply and treatment, power and utility projects. and schools and the health clinic renovations across the entire area of operations.
As the political dialogue continues, our work intensifies. Our partnerships are strong and our resolve even stronger. One of the things that make our soldiers so determined is the considerable effort they see every day by the Iraqi people, their leaders and their security forces.
That's just a little opening comments, and I'll be happy to take some questions now.
MR. WHITMAN: Thank you, General. We'll get right into it.
Charlie, would you like to start?
Q General, Charlie Aldinger with Reuters. While there seems to be a sense that the elections will go fairly well, that a lot of people will vote, are you concerned -- can you hear me? (No response.) Can you hear me? (Pause.) Can you hear me?
GEN. TALUTO: I can hear you again. I can hear you now.
Q Okay. While there seems to be a sense among the military, and perhaps Iraqi leaders, that the election will go fairly well, that a lot of people will vote safely, is there a worry in U.S. military leaders that the Sunnis will be virtually shut out of government as a result of the new constitution and election and that might lead to civil war?
GEN. TALUTO: (Audio break) -- process is going extremely well. A lot of people are registering, especially the Sunnis who did not vote in the last election. So there certainly is an intent on their part to vote. None of us know yet the impact of the draft constitution when that is approved and it gets out here and people get to see it. So we really don't have the atmospherics on that. Of course, if the draft constitution comes out and there's a consensus in Baghdad, that's going to be good for everybody. If there isn't a consensus in Baghdad, we're going to have to just see how that -- what path that takes us down.
Q All right.
MR. WHITMAN: Why don't you just go ahead, Bob.
Q General, this is Bob Burns with Associated Press. You mentioned in your opening comments the ebb and flow of the insurgency. I'm wondering if you can describe a little more, specifically whether it's ebbing or increasing with any quantifying of that attack -- in terms of attacks.
GEN. TALUTO: Okay. In north-central Iraq what we've seen over the past several months is there was an increase in suicide vehicle- borne IEDs in this area. Now, that's fallen off dramatically in the month of July and August, yet, in the month of July and August some of the IED activity has picked up, which was down in May and June. So we have -- this is what we call the ebb and flow. We expect that the enemies will increase their attacks, particularly as we run up to the referendum. The divergent groups all have their own strategies, and they select a time for these attacks. But they go up, and then we'll have, you know, a week or two where the attacks will go down. They seem to, you know, rearm themselves and then reattack. But we're extremely familiar with their patterns and what they go through, so we handle it. We handle the increase in the attacks with a minimum of difficulty.
Q How about foreign fighters? Have you seen any increase in foreign fighters or decrease among the insurgents, in terms of who you've captured?
GEN. TALUTO: In our opinion, here in north-central right now, the foreign fighters -- some of their activities have tailed off. Now, we have -- we did have an attack of a dismounted suicide bomber in Baqubah the other day that QJBR took credit for, and we certainly think in our preliminary investigation that that was a foreign fighter attack and that that's attributable to the terrorists. But it's been low level here in north-central Iraq. That does not mean that they're not here, it doesn't mean that they're not planning, and it doesn't mean that we're not looking for them. So it's as I said. They choose some of the timings on this; in the meantime, we have our own techniques about getting them off balance and keeping pressure on them.
So right now we don't see a lot of activity from the religious extremist group or the terrorist group. What we're seeing is we're seeing the Iraqi rejectionists, you know, more at work right now.
MR. WHITMAN: Steve, go ahead.
Q General, Steve Komarow with USA Today. You spoke about the improvements in the Iraqi military. I was wondering if you could give us an update on them perhaps taking over sections of your area or if that's going to be happening soon in the future.
GEN. TALUTO: Well, we have several areas where we think the Iraqis can take a more prominent role on the Army side of the house. And we work with our higher headquarters in determining, you know, what's the right timings for all of these things, but I can say with great confidence that our Iraqi army forces in north-central -- five brigades, 18 battalions -- are doing extremely well. And they're conducting -- in some cases they're conducting almost virtually all of our traffic control points. They do a considerable amount of work on what we call flash control points, where they move around and set up control points in different areas. They are doing about half with just U.S. backup on raids, cordon and searches, and in patrolling. So they're making progress in all these areas. And there's some battalions that are certainly a little bit ahead of others, and those battalions will soon be candidates to take on a lead role in certain areas.
MR. WHITMAN: Over here. Joe.
Q General, this is Joe Tabet with Al Hurra. With your experience on the ground, what is your interpretation of possible war in Iraq? And what would be your move or your reaction if the level of security goes more badly?
GEN. TALUTO: That was really -- I mean, it was raspy and I really did not get your question. I'm sorry. Could you say it again, please?
Q Yes. What is your interpretation of possible civil war in Iraq?
GEN. TALUTO: One more time, please.
MR. WHITMAN: Let me see if I can do it from the podium. I think what Joe is trying to ask you is, what do you see in terms of the possibilities of civil war, civil conflict in Iraq?
GEN. TALUTO: Okay. I got that loud and clear, Bryan. We're not seeing any indicators of that, that would lead us to think that sectarian violence is about to break out on any large scale.
Of course, we own Kirkuk province, and everybody's always concerned about the tensions there. But I can tell you that the tensions are about normal. They haven't really increased. There's always a lot of debate in Kirkuk, et cetera.
But we have -- in Diyala province, we have a healthy mix of Kurdish, Shi'a and Sunni, and they get along very well in Diyala province. In fact, they're proud to say that they're -- you know, they are married to each other, in many cases, and they get along just fine.
So we're not seeing indicators of sectarian violence that would lead us to think that there's going to be any large-scale breakout. So you know, civil war's a pretty far of a stretch on that part of it.
There is tensions. There are activities, there are events that happen where there are sometimes kidnappings or assassinations or attempts to, you know, attack a political leader or something like that. But you can't really chalk that up to a sectarian-type violence. There could be a lot of other different motives. So that's my answer on that.
MR. WHITMAN: Jim, in the back.
Q General, Jim Miklaszewski with NBC. You said a few minutes ago that you're getting a better sense or you have a pretty good idea of the tempo and the tactics of the insurgent operations. Yet when we see the rise and fall of these attacks, they appear to be able to operate with some impunity. Why is it that the United States military, along with the Iraqis, have been unable to quell the violence in Iraq?
GEN. TALUTO: Well, first of all, let me say something about that. Nobody reports any of the attacks that don't happen. You know, we stop a lot of things that never occur. We take a lot of people out of circulation that otherwise would be working and operating. So I would not say that they're operating with impunity, because we actually stop, we actually deter many of the attacks. They -- you know, we take away their resources in many cases. So they don't have free rein. So that's -- I'd like to kind of put that in that context.
Now what they are is, they're intrinsic. They blend in. They're not easily identifiable. They choose the timing for attacks when they are successful, or when they are successful in bringing the resources together and the time and the place, and they make an attack, they can have success. And it's very difficult because they are intrinsic. And so it seems like they can act with impunity, and then they do escalate their activities. So they surge and so on and so forth.
Also, there are spectacular attacks, what we call spectacular attacks. When a car bomb goes off and a number of civilians are killed, or Iraqi police, or in fact U.S. soldiers are killed in large numbers, that gets everybody's attention. It certainly gets our attention. We take a look at why that happened, and we look at how to mitigate against that.
So yes, there's an ebb and flow. They can spike attacks. They are intrinsic. They have certain advantages because of that. But the fact is, we stop a lot. We mitigate against large-scale attacks in a great number of instances.
Q And if I could follow up, General, the fact that they are intrinsic would indicate that they're getting some kind of help from the civilian population. And although many civilians have stepped forward, the tip lines and the like and informants have stepped forward, are you at all frustrated that a vast majority of the Iraqis haven't stepped forward to point the finger at those carrying out these attacks? Or is it the case where it is just too dangerous for the everyday unarmed civilian to step forward and give the U.S. military that information?
GEN. TALUTO: Well, multiple questions in there. First of all, let me just say the tip lines and the tips that we get from the Iraqi citizens have continued to go up. I just reviewed the statistics on this for the month of August, and they're up in August from July. They were up in July from June. So we continue to get phone calls.
We continue, you know -- we have informants out here that work with us in a variety of different areas. So we do get -- we are getting support.
The fact is that there are Iraqi nationals -- Iraqi rejectionists, we call them -- that want to see this process fail, for whatever motives they have. There are -- there's a criminal element here that, you know, are making money off of the chaos that these insurgents bring.
And there is a certain amount of the population that's intimidated, you know, by reprisals from a very small group of very brutal people.
So the -- there's places where foreign fighters are getting support. That network is set up so that it's very intrinsic to even the Iraqi population. They don't necessarily know where they're getting help. And where the foreigners are getting help, they're getting help from Iraqis that in some cases share views of the religious extremists and in some cases are doing it in supporting each other and leveraging off of the chaos. So I hope I answered your question on that.
MR. WHITMAN: Let's go over here, then back there.
Q General, Nick Simeone at Fox. You said that the Iraqis are making progress in training, but when do you think enough will be trained?
GEN. TALUTO: Well, I mean, I can only speak for my area. Again, we have two divisions -- two Iraqi divisions in north-central Iraq. One division headquarters is in the province of Diyala. The other division headquarters is here in Tikrit. In fact, it just took over a palace complex that we turned over to them that was occupied by a U.S. brigade. We just turned it over to the 4th Division of the Iraqi army, and they're here now in Tikrit.
Those two division headquarters, the 5th Division has two brigades and the other one has three brigades worth of troops, and then there's 18 battalions. So I can speak to that.
What I can tell you is that these five brigades and the 18 battalions have all made steady progress and they're all in a window in the near future to be doing more and more. You know, we've been making big improvements on equipping. Day by day, more and more, we have gotten them their equipment. The training continues to go on, both collective training that we take them to training sites and work with them, and then, of course, practical things that they are doing every day on the job with partners, U.S. partners out there.
So they're making progress, and I'm very confident that some of the units in North Central will be able to take a lead role in conducting counterinsurgency operations.
And let's just make sure we understand what we're saying here. Conducting counterinsurgency operations basically means, you know, they can take care of the insurgent threat. By no means they're not a world-class army yet. They've got a long way to go there and build up a whole sustainment piece that they need to have to help support these forces that are out here, but they're getting to the ability where they can take on the insurgents in the communities here. In fact, some of their intelligence-gathering capabilities is better because they can work the human piece much better than we can and have lot more insight.
They're learning -- there's a lot of aspects to their learning. They're learning how to deal with detainees. They're learning how to treat people with dignity and respect. They're learning how to be a professional army organization, and this is what the U.S. soldiers are bringing to them in that case. But we're on track here. We've had a plan here since the time we took over from the 1st Division to move this -- to move these forces along. We have done that. Everything has gone up. Every single unit has made progress, and some of those units will be ready to step up very soon and take on the lead. Some of the places that are more problematic, it's more difficult. If you have an area that has a more intensified insurgency, then there's more training, and it's more difficult for them to take over, especially if they don't have the sustainment pieces in there where they can sustain their equipment, you know, take battle damage and have their equipment replaced rapidly and so on and so forth.
MR. WHITMAN: Let's go back here and then down to Jim.
Q General, Jeff Schogol with Stars and Stripes. Excuse me -- Jeff Schogol with Stars and Stripes. Throughout the Iraq war, we've been relying fairly heavily on the National Guard. Do you have an idea how much longer we can send these many National Guardsmen to Iraq, for example, to be part of Task Force Liberty?
GEN. TALUTO: Well, from my standpoint, I mean, Task Force Liberty is 60 percent Reserve component, and most of that is National Guard. We have a small Army Reserve component, and 40 percent is active component. We've had no problems sustaining our task force here with replacement forces and the like. I think the question that you ask is probably something better asked back home. If I'm not mistaken, I think the chief of staff of the Army said, you know, they have plans to continue to bring troops in here as necessary, and I would assume that that includes National Guard units. So I think we're going to do what needs to be done.
MR. WHITMAN: Jim.
Q General, Jim Mannion from Agence France-Presse. In the past, a big problem with the Iraqi security forces has been that they've been infiltrated by insurgents and rejectionists or what have you. Do you have a handle on that now? And how are you getting a handle on that obvious problem?
GEN. TALUTO: Yes. In fact, we know that there's cases where if not infiltrated, there are certainly people in the police and in the army that assist and aid insurgent efforts. And what is their motivation? In some cases it may be economic. In some cases it may be intimidation where they've been forced into a position where they either cooperate or something bad's going to happen to them or their family. In some cases it may be, in fact, a person who's joined the force for the purposes of cooperation. So there are several categories of this infiltration.
We're very aware in several different ways about the people that have joined the forces. I would not want to go into how we know some of these things. And I would also tell you that we have developed tactics and techniques to try to mitigate against what is a very difficult problem. We have had attacks from the inside. We have had just most recently in Baqubah. We have not completed that investigation. We had an attack here in Tikrit on a police station where a guard let a vehicle-borne suicide vehicle into a police station parking lot and detonated by the police station. So we've had some of these things happen to us. It has not happened a great deal. I believe the reason it has not happened more is because of some of the things that we do from a technique standpoint that work against their ability to really get people inside our operations where they can do damage.
MR. WHITMAN: Let's go all the way to the back, to Sally.
Q General, it's Sally Donnelly from Time magazine. You said you've seen an increase in the number of tips. Can you tell us -- can you put some numbers on those? And is there any change in the character -- or who is giving you these tips? For example, are you getting any more women give you tips?
GEN. TALUTO: You know, I've never -- that's a good question, Sally. We've broken this down in many different ways; I've never asked if they're women or men that have made the tips, but I'll start asking that question. We had 4,824 calls to the JCC in two weeks in August, from August 1st to 15th. Six hundred forty-two of those phone calls were walk-ups, where people actually came in and talked. And of those walk-up tips of 642, 297 of those calls or tips were actionable, and so consequently meaning that we went out, in fact, you know, actioned the tip immediately and there was some positive gain to that. So that's pretty good, and that's in two weeks. And that's ahead of the pace we were on in July.
MR. WHITMAN: It looks like we have about one minute, so one more question.
Q Can I follow up, then?
MR. WHITMAN: Can you follow up? (Laughs.)
Q All right.
MR. WHITMAN: Let's go -- Jim, why don't you go ahead, then we'll catch Bob's real quick.
Q General, back here in the States, there's been a slight but steady increase in antiwar rhetoric, not only from the public but from members of Congress. Recent polls show that public support for the war is waning somewhat. Given the unprecedented access that the troops in the field now have to that kind of information, what kind of effect has it had on the troops? And what are they saying about it, if anything?
GEN. TALUTO: Well, we got over 22,000 men and women in Task Force Liberty, and I -- but I travel around and I speak to a lot of them. It rarely comes up, so I couldn't tell you what all these great men and women think about -- you know, what their personal opinion is.
I do not hear -- and my command sergeant major, who does traveling, and my other deputies and so on and so forth -- we don't get any feedback about being concerned about the issue. So it's -- there's no overt voice here in the task force about it.
And frankly, I have to tell you something. What I see -- what the people back home have to understand -- and I know they understand this part -- they understand that this is a very difficult environment. It is a tough, tough mission, day in and day out. The focus for these soldiers has got to be on their job. And that's what we here in the division headquarters impress on everybody every day. We have to go about our business. We have to stay focused on what it is we're doing. The rights of people to express their opinions are what they are.
The bottom line: Our troops feel supported. They feel supported by the American citizens back home.
MR. WHITMAN: All right. For our last one, Bob, can you top that follow-up to Iraqi tips and antiwar movements? (Chuckles.)
Q General, this is Bob Burns from AP again. You mentioned earlier the efforts you're making to prepare for elections in the next couple of months. Do you want and are you expecting to get any additional U.S. troops for your area for that purpose?
GEN. TALUTO: It may be possible. We have a plan that doesn't require any additional troops. So you know, we're pretty comfortable with the level of our troop support right now. We're comfortable with our election security plan. We're really -- you know -- as I mentioned in my opening remarks, the Iraqi people we work with in the security area here that -- the joint coordination centers and the directors that work to coordinate police and army and all that -- are very confident from what they learned on the last election. However, we understand that the insurgents got an opportunity to see what happened on the last election.
So we're very focused. We're very comfortable with our plan. If there were forces available, if my boss offered up additional forces, I would use them in certain places, but they're not 100 percent required. We can execute right now a safe election security plan.
MR. WHITMAN: With that, General, we will bring this to a close. And once again, thank you for taking some time out of your busy day to spend it with us. It is extremely valuable for us back here to hear from commanders on the ground that are doing the hard work over there.
So thank you very much for your time, and we hope to talk to you again. And our best wishes.
GEN. TALUTO: Thank you all. God bless you all. Have a good day.
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