BRYAN WHITMAN (Pentagon spokesman): Well, good morning and welcome. Let me see if General Mixon can hear us.
General Mixon, this is Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon. How do you hear us here?
GEN. MIXON: I can hear you very well, thank you.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, it looks like you said something to us but we didn't hear you. So we're going to try to see if we can't get some sound from you again.
GEN. MIXON: Okay, can you hear me now?
MR. WHITMAN: No, I'm afraid we didn't.
Q I'm hearing it on the mult. It's on the mult but it's not on the PA.
MR. WHITMAN: If you'll bear with us for just a moment, General, we'll get this fixed.
GEN. MIXON: Okay.
MR. WHITMAN: There we go.
Well again, good morning. And, General, thank you for joining us. This is, I know, your first encounter here in this format with the Pentagon press. I will attest that they are a fairly tame group -- (laughter) -- on a Friday morning.
But for those you in our audience here in Washington, this is Major General Benjamin Mixon. He is the commander of Multinational Division North and the 25th Infantry Division. He's been operating from his headquarters. He's speaking to you today from his headquarters at Forward Operating Base Speicher, which is outside of Tikrit. And his unit has been there since the September time frame.
As is our custom, I believe he has a few things he'd like to talk to you about, give you a brief update in terms of what his unit has been doing, and then take a few of your questions.
So, General, with that, let me turn it over to you. And again, thank you for your time this morning.
GEN. MIXON: Well thank you very much. And I appreciate this opportunity to tell the story of what these great American service members are doing over here in Iraq.
And also, to the press corps there, Barbara Starr sends her regards. We spoke to her earlier today. She had a great visit here to Camp Speicher and had the opportunity to talk to some of our soldiers.
I'd like to provide you some opening comments to perhaps provide context and make available time for questions. So this will be short introductory comments that I will make.
Today marks the beginning of our fourth month here in Iraq. And since assuming responsibility for the six provinces of Multi(national) Division North, I have made my priority to partner with Iraqi security forces, focused on the idea that we have one mission, that is security for Iraq's people. Our primary focus is on developing the security forces so that they can maintain security for their country. As the Iraqi army and police continue to develop their capabilities and assume more responsibility, the coalition will transition to a more indirect role. We have a goal for this transition, and we're making advances every day. We currently have one Iraqi army division under control of Iraq ground force command, and a second division transferred today.
A third division will transfer by the end of January, and by February all four Iraqi divisions in Multinational Division North will be under Iraqi Ground Force Command.
Now, for the next several minutes, I'd like to discuss some of the challenges we face in Multinational Division North, as well as I'd like to highlight some of our accomplishments and the accomplishments of our Iraqi security forces.
To provide some perspective, our area encompasses a(n) equivalent to the state of Pennsylvania. Over 11 million Iraqis live in this region, comprising a very diverse population of Kurds, Sunni Arabs, Shi'a Arabs, Turkoman and Assyrians, just to name a few.
The Iraqi people and the natural resource of this region have tremendous potential. They are at great risk to themselves and their families, and thousands of brave Iraqis have joined the military and public service in order to build and grow a strong and unified Iraq.
For this to occur, the Iraqi people must overcome numerous challenges. Principal among these challenges are the actions of the terrorists and the criminals. In their efforts to expel coalition forces and prevent the establishment of a credible government of Iraq, anti-Iraqi forces continue to fight coalition forces, kill Iraqi policemen and soldiers, along with innocent Iraqi civilians, to include the brutal murders of women and children.
In Dohuk and Sulimaniyah provinces, we see relative peace and prosperity, with their progress unimpeded by violence. However, in our other four provinces, we see the enemy trying to disrupt progress with suicide bombs, improvised explosive devices, attacks on security checkpoints, and terrorizing innocent citizens with kidnappings, hijackings and murder, just like last week in Mosul, terrorists fired rocket-propelled grenades in a new public health facility that was under construction.
In Kirkuk, in Salahuddin provinces, we see the enemy interdicting critical oil and power infrastructure, degrading the quality of life for millions of Iraqi citizens.
The most volatile province is Diyala. Here al Qaeda operatives incite sectarian violence with terrorism aimed at the majority Shi'a population. In turn, some of the Shi'a populace have turned to illegal militias to provide security. These Shi'a militias go beyond providing security and also conduct reprisal attacks against the Sunnis. This has locked Diyala into a cycle of sectarian violence.
The depth of this problem is further complicated by the reports of corruption and sectarianism within small elements of the Iraqi army and police.
This set of challenges is varied and broad, and we clearly face a devious and heartless enemy. The soldiers, airmen, Marines and sailors of Task Force Lightning are equally committed to our mission, as well as those majority Iraqi security forces, in their day-to-day fight against this enemy.
Our campaign to overcome these challenges and defeat the enemy is simple and is achieving positive gains.
Regarding security, our aim is to stand up a professional Iraqi security forces that defend and respect the rights of all Iraqi people, regardless of their sect. Task Force Lightning continues to develop all facets of the Iraqi army by providing specialized training and hands-on oversight to our military transition teams. Additionally, coalition forces partnered with Iraqi army units train, assess and further develop Iraqi leadership and unit skills at all levels. These efforts have yielded great progress.
For example, in May 2006, 20 of the 40 Iraqi battalions in Multinational Division North could conduct counterinsurgency operations with minimal support from coalition forces. Today that number is 35 battalions.
The Iraqi army and its brave soldiers have sacrificed immensely. But through this sacrifice and their commitment to their country, they have become stronger and more capable of conducting operations on their own.
As I mentioned, today in western Nineveh province, the 3rd Iraqi Army Division formally took the lead in providing security for Iraq's people. Over the past month, this unit has conducted over 400 operations independent of any coalition support. These operations included foot patrols, reconnaissance missions and raids in which they successfully detained terrorists and foreign fighters along with hidden stockpiles of harmful munitions and weapons.
The development of a capable and credible Iraqi police service is equally important to improving the security situation in northern Iraq. The police are the security backbone that must serve and protect the Iraqi citizen every day, enforcing the rule of law. Because of this and the fact that the Iraqi army has made significant progress, Task Force Lightning has made training and partnering with Iraqi police a top priority. As a result, we have seen marked improvements.
Although their development lags behind the Iraqi army, the vast majority of police forces have completed formal training on its -- (audio break) -- by the end of this year. Currently, over 36,000 police have been trained and we are on target for over 37,000 to be trained by the end of December.
More important than these raw numbers are the actions of the police. It was not so long ago that Iraqi police abandoned their posts when confronted by the enemy. Today the police are much stronger and confident.
Just last month in Mosul, dozens of al Qaeda operatives attempted a coordinated attack against several Iraqi police and army locations. The Iraqi police held their ground, gained the initiative and captured over 70 of these insurgents.
The problems at MND North require more than just security solutions, however.
The conflict here is a political fight being waged along criminal and military lines. As such, any security gains we make must be underpinned by effective governance in order for them to be lasting. Our primary importance is achieving a political reconciliation with the Sunni community. We are seeking to do this by working with our Department of State provincial reconstruction teams to increase the capacity of our provincial governments. This is certainly a long-term effort, but we have already made progress.
Just two weeks ago, Task Force Lightning sponsored a conference in which the provincial governors met with the prime minister, and this afforded the governors their first collective chance to coordinate directly with the central government and the national ministries.
I will close by telling you that Task Force Lightning is accomplishing its goal of transitioning security to Iraqi security forces. As they develop capacity and accept responsibility for security, we will turn more and more responsibility over to them. From day one this has been our focus. We will continue to partner with our Iraqi partners, and I expect that over the next three to six months they will assume full responsibility for security of Iraq's people. And I'm confident that your service members will continue to perform in the outstanding manner that they have over the last several years.
I'd be more than happy to take your questions at this time.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, General, thank you for that overview, and we'll get started right here with a few questions.
Q General, this is Bob Burns from AP. I wanted to ask you about a couple of the comments you made, including the last one there about the three to six month time frame. You also said that by February all four Iraqi divisions would be operating under Iraqi command and control. At that point or at what point, if not by February, at what point would your U.S. combat forces be able to pull back from combat roles entirely and play simply a support role?
GEN. MIXON: Well, throughout this progress we intend to enlarge the size of our mobile training teams, and also our police training teams, and also the teams that we have working with the border security forces along the Syrian and Iranian border. We will take less of an active combat role, but we will continue to target al Qaeda operatives that are operating within the area and working with our Iraqi security forces targeting those elements that are emplacing improvised explosive devices and conducting attacks against the Iraqi populace.
Look, these are our allies here in this fight, and we're going to stand by them throughout this transition period.
Q A particular time frame, three months, when you would get to the point where you would be doing only those missions you mentioned -- going against al Qaeda exclusively and training?
GEN. MIXON: Well, I think there will be a normal transition to that next summer, as we look at the normal rotation of our combat forces. And there will be decisions made, I'm sure above my level, where we may see a reduction in the numbers of forces that are on the ground, and certainly a increase in those that are in a role of advising the Iraqi security forces.
MR. WHITMAN: Jamie?
Q General, Jamie McIntyre from CNN. I hope you're taking good care of Barbara Starr there.
MR. WHITMAN: And if you want to keep her a few more days -- (laughter) -- we'll let you!
Q I wanted to ask you -- I'm sure you're aware that all the talk in Washington today is about the expected recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. And you've touched on some of this already, but I wanted to ask you directly about this idea of transitioning over the next year, perhaps longer, more combat troops into a support role to the point where, perhaps in a year or so, most combat troops could either be pulled out or at least pulled back. As a commander on the ground, how realistic is that, and how much does it already reflect what you're doing now?
GEN. MIXON: I think it certainly reflects what we're doing now. And I can only speak to Multinational Division North, but I can certainly see great opportunity to reduce the amount of combat forces on the ground in Multinational Division North and turn more responsibility over to Iraqi security forces.
I think we have to keep this in perspective. We spent about 10 years in Bosnia-Herzegovina setting the stage for those elements to be successful. We need to allow the Iraqis the same time to get their security forces on the ground, to get their government working, and then have a gradual withdrawal of American security forces, but continue to partner with them over the long term.
MR. WHITMAN: All right, Joe.
Q General, this is Joe Tabet with Al Hurra channel. As the commander of the MNFI North, how do you describe the relation between the MNFI and the Kurdish militia, the peshmerga? And do you consider this army, this militia is helpful for stability and security in Iraq?
GEN. MIXON: Well, I only recognize the Iraqi security forces, and we have former peshmerga that are part of the Iraqi army. Now, I don't do any direct work with anybody that calls themselves peshmerga. I work with Iraqi security forces, and I also meet regularly with the provincial governors in the northern provinces.
MR. WHITMAN: Andrew?
Q General, this is Andrew Gray from Reuters. Just to go back to what you were saying earlier with the comparison with Bosnia, are you suggesting it would take, then, a similar amount of time -- 10 years -- before U.S. forces in your area could be completely gone? Will there be a long-term role for them, as you see it?
GEN. MIXON: No, I'm not suggesting that at all. What I am suggesting is that we are establishing relationships with the Iraqi security forces just like any other nation in the world that we have partnered with and that we have allied with, many in this very region here, that we'll continue a long-term relationship with them for training, for support and advice. That's no different than the country of Egypt, which we partnered with for many years; with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other nations that we have partnered with in this region and throughout the world.
MR. WHITMAN: Pamela.
Q Thanks. Hi, General. This is Pam Hess with UPI. How many of your troops do you have in with MiTT and PTT and border security teams, and how many more could you take out of hide without getting additional forces, say, over the next six months?
And could you also talk to us about the move of the Stryker Brigade from Mosul to Baghdad and why, I assume, you're confident that that's not going to result in degradation of security in Mosul.
GEN. MIXON: Well, I don't discuss operational moves until they're officially released. But there will not be a degradation of security in Mosul. First of all, the police in Mosul have things well in hand, as does the 2nd Iraqi Army Division. But there will be adequate force from the coalition side there for sure.
Q (Off mike) -- numbers of troops do you have dedicated right now solely to military/police training teams and the border security training teams, and how much more you think you could grow them without adding troops.
GEN. MIXON: Yeah, exactly. We have in the neighborhood of 2,000 to 2,500 presently. And the plan that I'm studying right now is to add about another 2,000 to that force. And I believe I can do that without having to ask for any additional support.
I had this conversation with General Abizaid just a couple of hours ago, and I told him the same thing. And I assured him, and I really would like to assure you all there, as a commander on the ground, if I need more forces, I will ask for them.
MR. WHITMAN: Mr. Mannion.
Q General, this is Jim Mannion from Agence France-Presse.
You mentioned that in Diyala province there have been problems with sectarianism and corruption in the security forces. How much of a wild card is that as you make this transition and attempt to draw down U.S. forces?
GEN. MIXON: Well, on the plan that I see I would see that the coalition forces remaining for the longest period of time in Diyala. Diyala's a reflection of Baghdad, and as many of you know, it's connected directly to Baghdad through the highways and through the cities and also through its composition as far as Shia's and Sunnis are concerned. It also has the influence of Iran, which we suspect may be influencing some of the actions. So that's the area that I would see taking the longest to get up to the standards that we would like to.
But having said that, our current goal is to turn security responsibility over to the 5th Iraqi Army Division in the February- March time frame, and I expect that we will meet that goal.
Q If I could follow up, are you seeing no problems of that sort elsewhere in your area, particularly sectarianism in the army or the police?
GEN. MIXON: The only other place that I have seen the sectarianism with the civilian population is in the vicinity of Balad. But Diyala is where it is most prominent, and it's an area that we have paid particular attention to to ensure that it doesn't make its way into the army and to the police. So we've been watching that very closely.
MR. WHITMAN: Mike.
Q General, it's Mike Mount from CNN. I know you don't like to do hypotheticals, certainly military-wide don't do -- like to do hypotheticals, but the assets of the Stryker Brigade bring -- and as you said earlier, you're not going to talk about future movements -- but should Stryker Brigades, at least one moved down to Baghdad. Would it be plausible, is the security situation stable enough in Mosul that Stryker Brigades can permanently be moved out of Mosul and be replaced with other U.S. forces, that don’t have the same kind of assets? I'm just kind of trying to get a sense of what the security situation is in Mosul and if that's something that we can see is a possibility of troops drawing down in that region in the near future in one of the regions in Iraq.
GEN. MIXON: Now, that's a great question, and it's certainly possible. And I expect that that will happen, that we will see a different force composition over time.
It will be a capable force, for sure. But as I said, they will shift their focus over to the training of the police and the partnering with the 2nd Division as the 2nd Iraqi Army Division comes under IGFC control in January.
So I guess what I would tell you is, really the key statement here is, I have no concerns about the Stryker element departing from Mosul, when and if that happens.
MR. WHITMAN: The other Mike.
Q General, Mike Emanuel with Fox News. At the end of your opening statement, you gave a time frame of three to six months, and I just wanted to make sure that I could get a little more clarification about what you envision happening over the next three to six months with Iraqi forces and -- go into that a little bit.
GEN. MIXON: Yeah, I'll explain that. It has been our goal, since the day that I arrived here, per the campaign plan that General Casey and General Chiarelli laid out to transition Iraqi divisions and MND-North over to Iraqi Ground Force Command by March. We expect to meet that goal. And then those divisions will be taking their instructions completely from the Iraqi Ministry of Defense and the Iraqi Ground Forces Command.
We will shift more of our effort to our MiTT teams over time, over the next three months. We will continue to conduct combat operations alongside our Iraqi partners, while at the same time putting more energy towards the training of the police. And this is all a part of the transition plan that we have had really since the first day that I arrived, based on the overall campaign plan that General Casey and General Chiarelli provided me with when I come in to MND-North.
MR. WHITMAN: Let's go back to Pam.
Q Thank you. It's Pam Hess from UPI again. I suspect I know what your feeling is about the possibility of a partition in the country. It is one of the ideas that gets kicked around here in Washington as people see what's going on there and kind of throw up their hands with "Well, clearly they can't live together."
What are you hearing from the Iraqis that you're working with? Because it's your AO that would be very heavily partitioned.
GEN. MIXON: Yeah, I've read all the articles and the ideas concerning that. But I can tell you, without a doubt, I have not met a single Iraqi, either that's in government or in the military or the few that I have met that are average citizens, that is interested in partitioning Iraq.
MR. WHITMAN: Go ahead.
Q Even the Kurds? The Kurdish area? I mean, they have much to lose and more to gain by being independent.
GEN. MIXON: Well, that may be your opinion. I'm not so sure that they share that opinion.
One thing that is important to understand is that the Kurdish region of Iraq has had about a 10-year head start. Remember, we provided them a great deal of protection during that period, the no- fly zone period. They recognize the value of a representative government and also the economic opportunities they have.
But the leaders that I have talked to up there, the governors in particular, also recognize it's in their benefit to stay part of a larger Iraq and to bring this thing together so that Iraq as a country can become very powerful in its own right.
MR. WHITMAN: We've got time for a couple more. Andrew, go ahead.
Q General, Andrew Gray from Reuters again. You were quoted in a New York Times story last month -- I'm sure you're aware of it -- about the Iraqi Army 5th Division as expressing some concerns about the commander there, the idea that they were focusing very much on targeting Sunnis, and you said that the commander was either failing to supervise closely enough or he was directly involved in what was going on. Do you still have those concerns? And how are you addressing them?
GEN. MIXON: Well, as I have continued to work with Major General Shakir -- that's the division commander -- and have pointed out these perceptions that the population in his province has, he has adjusted his operations so that they are focused on the enemy in his area. This is all a part of the training process for not only him but his staff, and we have seen improvement. We'll continue to work with him. And certainly he understands that for any of the Iraqi security forces, whether it be police or army, that we are not going to tolerate a sectarian agenda, because it's totally against what the coalition and what the Iraqi government is trying to achieve here in Iraq.
MR. WHITMAN: Bob.
Q General, Bob Burns from AP. I'd like to ask you about your comment about increasing the number of -- I guess you were referring to embedded trainers when you said, I think, studying the possibility of adding 2,000 to the 2,500 or so you have now. I gather you were talking about taking soldiers directly out of combat roles into this role, and I'm wondering why you would do that rather than wait for them to come through the training -- transition training center business that's going on at Fort Riley, where they're being -- going through special training to do this role.
GEN. MIXON: Well, those forces that are being trained at Fort Riley will certainly provide replacements for our existing MiTT teams. But to say that the forces are taken out of a combat role really doesn't explain what they will do. I intend to take combat units and put them with the MiTT teams so that those organized combat units can be dedicated toward training, but also going on combat missions with Iraqi security forces. Those elements will be able to provide advice and assistance, they will be able to see how the Iraqi forces are conducting, and then design training programs to assist them.
So nobody should have the impression that mobile training teams are somehow sitting in a safe, secure base conducting training. They're out there on the frontlines conducting combat operations with the Iraqi security forces. And that's the concept that we're looking at as the mobile training teams continue to be trained back at Fort Riley.
MR. WHITMAN: General, we've just about reached the end of our time. Let me take one more and then turn it back to you for any closing comments you might have.
Jim, go ahead.
Q Jim Mannion from AFP again. Can you explain what happens when control over the Iraqi divisions goes to the Iraqis? Does the U.S. military at that point lose all control over those forces? You know, basically, what will the relationship be at that point?
GEN. MIXON: The relationship is a well-coordinated supporting -- supported relationship. The mobile training teams, working with the Iraqi divisions, will keep us advised of their planned operations. The Iraqi divisions, just like any of our allies, want to conduct operations with us. We still have capabilities that they don't have, such as air weapons teams of Apaches and Kiowa Warriors, the Air Force air that we can bring to bear on the enemy.
So it's just like any other ally that we'd have. We'll do combined operations with them, they will do some independent operations, and we'll do some independent operations that will be coordinated with them, focused primarily on defeating this enemy that's disrupting the building of this government here in Iraq.
MR. WHITMAN: General, like I said, as we bring this to a close, let me turn it back to you for any final comments that you'd like to make.
GEN. MIXON: Well, I appreciate this opportunity to tell the story of what's going on here in MND-North. First, and most importantly, our heart-felt prayers go out to all of our families that have lost loved ones for this noble cause. We pray for them every day that they'll have strength with the loss of their loved ones. And certainly, most importantly, to the American people, it's that support that is most important to your service members that are serving here. As long as we have the support of the American people, we can achieve victory in Iraq.
God bless America.
MR. WHITMAN: General, thank you very much for your time this morning. This has been very valuable to us. And we hope that in another couple of months or so you can come back and give us another operational update.
GEN. MIXON: I'll be more than happy to do that.
Q Thank you.
Q Thank you.
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