Press Conference with Secretary Robert Gates and General George Casey at Talil Air Base, Iraq
Secretary Gates: Well, thank you for being here. To the extent this is a fact-finding trip, I found at least one fact: I’m too old to do seven countries in five-and-a-half days. Last month when I was in Baghdad, I met with commanders to hear their candid opinions. I wanted ground truth from the people who have been living the successes and the setbacks of the conflict here in Iraq. Today, I had the opportunity to get some more of that ground truth here in the southern part of the country – in Talil and in Basra. An important part of my trip today is having the opportunity to meet with more of our coalition partners and also the leaders of several of the PRT teams. Clearly the security challenges that we face overall and especially here in Iraq, cannot be dealt with purely by military means. So it was useful to see the other side of the story. Twenty-five countries are providing valuable aid and support to the effort here in Iraq. And we are grateful for their contributions. I saw this morning the results of their great work in the Basra area. It should be noted that the three provinces to completely hand over security responsibility to the Iraqis so far are here in the southern part of the country where our coalition partners have the lead. There are instigators of violence who are working against these efforts in Iraq. Many Iraqis recognize this destructive influence and are taking steps to eliminate it. The United States is fully committed to aiding them in this effort. Ultimately, as you heard the President say and me say, our goal is an Iraq that can defend itself, sustain itself and govern itself, and live free from the scourge of extremism. Whatever one’s views on how we got to this point here in Iraq, at this pivotal moment, there is widespread agreement here that failure would be a calamity for American national interests and those of many other countries as well. Given what is at stake, failure is not an option. Overall, it’s been a very productive if somewhat tiring week. In meetings with our NATO allies and American commanders and talking with the PRT leaders and other coalition members, there is universal agreement on the importance of success here in Iraq and on confronting extremism here. The United States continues to be committed here in Iraq and in Afghanistan as well as the commitment of our coalition partners, their soldiers, and their families in the theater. Finally, I would just like to say that the determination of the men and women in uniform, active and reserve, has been very impressive. And I’ve seen it first-hand both in Afghanistan and here. We mustn’t forget that each one of these soldiers has family back home. And that’s true of both ourselves and our coalition partners. But speaking particularly of the American troops, I just hope that Americans won’t forget each one of these and their loved ones back home - the ones back home trying to get the kids to school, get the lawn mowed, get the snow shoveled. And I hope that Americans will reach out, not only to the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, who are here in the Middle East and in this theater, but will reach out to their families and help them all they can. I’d be happy to take some questions.
Q: Mr. Secretary, can I ask a question of either of you? At this stage of the new U.S. effort to reinforce - the effort to secure Baghdad in particular - is the Iraqi government producing what they had promised to produce at this stage and where are you on that?
GEN Casey: So far, so good. The Prime Minister spoke on that the other day, and he laid out a range of commitments that he made of the government and its security forces. That the security forces would have the authorities they needed to accomplish the mission, that there would be no political influence on the security forces, that there would be no safe havens for terrorists and the security forces can prosecute and go after anyone who broke the law. And so far, we’re seeing them come through on those commitments. Now it’s too soon to say, it’ll play out over time and we’ll continue to watch it. They are also committed to moving three brigades to Baghdad and they are on their timeline to move those units into Baghdad. So, as I said, so far, so good, but a long way to go before we’re done.
Q: General Casey, can I ask about the operation that took place, I believe it was an Iraqi lead with coalition advisors, which resulted in the arrest of someone who was being linked to one of the major death squads – the Shi’a death squad leaders. Mister Al-Sadr’s organization are saying that that man is a media spokesman, that he has nothing to do with militia activities. Can you confirm that he was the man arrested and are you confident you got the right man?
GEN Casey: I’m not sure which operation you’re talking about. What’s his name?
Audience: Deraji. Sheik Deraji.
GEN Casey: We’ve had a series of operations against Al Qaeda, Saddamists and against death squads. And we have picked up probably five or six death squad leaders here in the last three or four weeks of a very, very high level. The details of this arrest were unfolding as I was getting on to the plane to come down here this morning, so I can’t say anything conclusively about it just now. But we continually, with the Iraqi security forces, target, as the Prime Minister said, all who break the law.
Q: Does it indicate some sort of new, an effort, following up on Bob’s question, by the Iraqi government against the Sadr organization? Is this part of an effort that would lead to the disarming of the rogue elements in those militias?
GEN Casey: I think it’s indicative of the Prime Minister’s and the government’s commitment to target all those who break the law.
Q: Mr. Gates, could you respond to the Prime Minister Maliki’s comments in Italian newspapers that the insurgency has lasted longer than it should have because the U.S., specifically, has been slow in arming the Iraqis?
Secretary Gates: I think first of all, I would invite General Casey to comment on that because he’s been much involved in that effort. I think that it’s pretty clear that an important focus of the U.S. effort here in Iraq over the last year or so, has been, in fact, to train and prepare the Iraqi security forces and, in particular, the army. I’ve not been on the job long enough to know the details of what’s been provided to the Iraqis. But my impression is that it’s an important part of standing them up has been giving them the equipment to do the job. But I’d invite General Casey to elaborate.
GEN Casey: The training and equipping of the Iraqi military has taken place over the last three years. And I’d just remind everyone that it started from scratch. It started from zero - no bases, no units, no equipment, nothing. At the end of 2006, we completed the building of what we call the objective counterinsurgency force – the Iraqi army we promised three years ago that we’d build for them. And we also completed the building of the objective police force – the civil security forces. Now that’s bases – we’ve built bases and academies all over Iraq. It’s border forts all around. Two hundred and sixty or fifty border forts all around Iraq. We’ve issued them everything from their uniforms to their guns to their tanks. And this is not a quick process. There’s over 325,000 security forces now and there were zero three years ago. So, the idea of people saying, “What’s taking you so long?” Well, we’re also fighting an insurgency as we’re doing this. So, the completion of the equipping and the moving of the Iraqi security forces to a higher level will take place throughout 2007. We think that by the end of 2007, they can be at near an independent capability. They will still probably need a little bit of support from us, but they will be much more capable than they even are now.
Q: Mr. Gates, how do you appreciate the Romanian contribution in Iraq, and how are you looking in the future to this contribution?
Secretary Gates: I commented to General Casey earlier that I first visited Romania in 1975. And to see Romanian officers here in Iraq as part of a coalition with the United States and so many other countries was very gratifying to me. I think it’s a measure of just how far Romania has come and we’re very proud of them.
Q: Cooperation with American army with Romanian soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Secretary Gates: Very close.
Q: General Casey?
GEN Casey: I’d say very close also. And to give you an idea about how far Romanians have come, there is a Romanian general office who works on my staff helping me with the coalition.
Q: As the U.S. increases proposed proceeds over the next several weeks and months, do you face a decision still this spring or summer of extending additional units beyond that Minnesota Guard brigade that’s been announced?
GEN Casey: That’s
Q: Not you, but your successor.
GEN Casey: That’s a service decision about how they build it. What I do, is I ask for the number of forces that I need for the mission; the services decide how they best can fill it.
Q: Do you foresee that there won’t be a need for people to be extended beyond what’s been announced so far?
GEN Casey: I couldn’t say. I mean right now, the brigades are programmed in and that’s a service decision to decide whether to send a brigade from the States or they extend somebody from here.
Q: What’s your thinking now about how long these additional troops will have to stay here? I mean, I know it’s early so far, and probably no final decision has been made. But just give us your thinking about how long you see them staying, what they need to accomplish while they’re here.
GEN Casey: The primary focus of the forces coming in is to assist Iraqi security forces in securing Baghdad. And as I’ve said, that’s not going to happen overnight either, and we may see some progress gradually over the next 60 to 90 days. But I think it will be probably summer before we get to the point where people in Baghdad will feel safe in their neighborhoods.
Q: Then you’ll decide at that point whether you can afford to drawdown or do you have a working assumption at this point about how long they’re likely to be here?
GEN Casey: I believe that projections are late summer. But you don’t know, the first troops are just arriving now. So we’re going to wait and see the effect they have on the situation here before we even start thinking about when we can send them home.
Q: General Casey, you were initially skeptical or expressed some reservations about sending more American troops into Iraq. What changed your mind, what made you think that now that is the right strategy?
GEN Casey: I have said and done all along that I will ask for the troops that I need to accomplish the mission. The things that changed – one was the situation in Baghdad. Two was the commitments from the government that we just talked about, that these forces, if they came in, would have freedom of action to move with the Iraqi security forces. And three, it was clear that the reliability of the Iraqi security forces in the Baghdad area was not to the point where we could count on them to do the right thing without additional coalition support. So those three things combined to convince me that at this time we needed some additional forces to accomplish the mission.
Staff: Last question.
Q: Did I understand you correctly in response to David’s question, you said it would be at least late summer before you could think about…?
GEN Casey: We’d start thinking about it before then, but it will be late summer before we see the results that will cause us to make some decisions.
Staff: Thank you.