BRYAN WHITMAN (Pentagon spokesman): Well good afternoon, and thank you for joining us, General.
This is Major General Rick Zilmer. He's commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Forward, and he's also the commander of the Multinational Force-West. He began this tour in Iraq in February of '06, and he's speaking today from Fallujah to us.
And without taking up any more time, General, I think I'd like to turn it over to you and let you make some opening remarks, and then we have a good full house here for some questions.
GEN. ZILMER: Okay, great. Good morning, Mr. Whitman, ladies and gentlemen. I'm Major General Rick Zilmer, and I'm the commanding general of Multinational Forces-West. I have the responsibility of coalitions in Al Anbar province. Multinational Force-West is organized around the California-based 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Forward. This MEF is a Marine Air-Ground Task Force and comes complete with support from over 100 organic aircraft from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, and it's sustained by the Marine Logistics Group out of Camp Pendleton, California.
Most of the work on the ground this past year has been accomplished by the United States Army's 1st Brigade 1st Armor Division, and the 5th and 7th Marine Regiments organized into Combat Teams, with additional capability such as tanks, combat engineers, and other enhancements. Recently, the 6th Marines replaced the 5th Marines, who are responsible for the greater Fallujah area, and the 2nd Marines replaced the 7th Marines, who are responsible for the vast northern area from the town of Hit in the south to the Syrian border in the north, and west of the Jordanian border. The U.S. Army's 2nd Brigade, 28th Infantry Division, followed by the 1st Brigade, 1st Armor Division is also part of the team and is responsible for Ramadi.
We also have some real partners with the 14,000 soldiers of the 1st and 7th Iraqi Army Divisions, who operate in Anbar province. The 1st Division is responsible for its own area of operations called AO Sakhr (ph) or "eagle" in Arabic.
This has been a year of tremendous change. We took over in February 28th, 2006. The previous December, Anbar had just completed its provincial elections, with some participation of the tribes. Beginning in late March, al Qaeda began a murder and intimidation campaign that targeted the local tribal leaders who supported the election or did not resist the new government's efforts. Those leaders who were not killed fled the country; additionally, in the following months, al Qaeda killed, co-opted or hired the competing nationalist insurgent organizations.
The Golden Mosque of Samarra was bombed in February of 2006 with the intent of al Qaeda to create sectarian violence, and it worked. Sectarian violence became the main destabilizing force in Iraq, especially in Baghdad. Coalition and Iraqi battalions were deployed from Anbar to attempt to stop the bloodshed.
Throughout the summer, we were able to build on the idea of Team Fallujah, a community with a strong city council. We partnered with the local police force and Iraqi soldiers to develop their security.
When the 1st Armor Brigade arrived in Ramadi in June, we were able to increase vehicle and pedestrian movement into the city by adding checkpoints and screen all the traffic in major thoroughfares in and out of the city. Furthermore, we built forward operating bases in Ramadi's worst neighborhoods to develop a full-time, dismounted presence throughout the city. The FOBs, or the forward operating bases, are also IP stations, and are manned by Marines, soldiers and police; we finished the last one this month.
Up north in the Western Euphrates River Valley, we created communities in the Haditha Triad and other smaller towns on the river. The concept is the same throughout: clear the city of insurgents in partnership with the Iraqi army, hold the city by control of the population movement in and out of the city to screen the terrorists from the civilians, and then build internal security to the city so that the police can grow in safety and partner with the local civic leaders to further develop the police and the economy.
One of the most secure areas in Anbar is the al Qaim region near the border. The local community, supported by the tribes and their government, have decided to participate with the rule of law and have as many police in al Qaim as are in Fallujah. The most notable recent development is the desire of the tribal leadership to take responsibility for their cities. They want to clear their neighborhoods of the disbelievers, the Takfiri, the criminals, who offer no hope, no opportunity, no vision for a peaceful future.
We think the security climate has shifted in a positive manner. This is -- the local tribe's involvement has contributed nearly 2,000 men to join the Iraqi police and take charge of security in their own neighborhoods.
It is this growing cooperation with the local community, this common interest in a better life for its citizens, so that they can again prosper, that gives me guarded optimism in the future of Anbar.
With that, ladies and gentlemen, I'll be happy to take your questions. Thank you.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, General, thank you for that overview. And we do have a few questions, and we'll get started right here with Pam Hess, to start.
Q General, this is Pam Hess with United Press International. On the matter of sheikhs cooperating, we've heard that a couple of times before. I know back in 2004 I was told that, and again heard that in 2005. What makes you think that this one is different or that this time it will stick?
And could you give us more specificity about the campaign of intimidation and assassination against the tribal leaders? How many sheikhs were killed? How many fled? And do you have confidence that those that remained behind actually have the chops to pull the tribes in line and do what it is you're asking them to do?
GEN. ZILMER: Thank you, Pam.
First, what makes this effort a little bit different, I believe, is just the tangible results of their association. And that is really turning out their young men in their communities -- and this is largely Ramadi-based at this point -- to come and join the Iraqi police and to a lesser extent the Iraqi army. So in that sense, this has been much more successful than previous efforts.
Last year during the months of December and January, we watched -- at least five members of the provincial security council were all executed during that time as part of that murder and intimidation campaign. That is their MO, and when I speak of "they," I'm talking about al Qaeda. It is clearly a murder/intimidation campaign that is led by execution of leaders. Anybody who demonstrates any effort to cooperate with the coalition forces or the provincial government or the Iraqi army, the IP, the Iraqi police, they set themselves up at some measure of risk. So this has clearly been their main modus operandi over the past year.
Again, I'm optimistic because I've seen the results of their efforts. I've attended meetings, economic conferences. The sheikhs have been coming out in very, very large numbers, more so than at any time than we've seen in the year that we've been here. So I'm very confident about their efforts to come together.
That said, I believe they will be tested. They will be challenged.
This is a growing threat, because it is the people that the sheikhs represent. That is the threat to al Qaeda.
So I'm optimistic about what I see. They certainly need to be sensitive about their security. I think they're doing the right thing by building their neighborhood watches, contributing their young men to join the police, to join the emergency response units that are largely a new formation, if you will, in the last three months.
So all the positive indicators of coming together are there, and again, I'm optimistic that they will sustain this. The challenge that I think that we will face in the future is having these -- this communion, association, of sheikhs transition into a formal -- into the formal process of the government, whether it's at the provincial level or the national level, to bring that credibility, to bring that influence they wield. We want to bring that into the existing government that we have developing over here.
Q If I can follow up, it seems to me one of the concerns you would have is that they never make that transition, and in a effort to secure Anbar province, they end up creating a whole new set of militias that then contribute to the security problem in Iraq. What are you doing to make sure that doesn't come about?
GEN. ZILMER: Well, I think what is fundamental about the development of the emergency response units -- and right now, there's about three battalions that are in various stages of forming -- is that they are sanctioned by the Ministry of the Interior. So by their very charter, they recognize subordination, if you will, to the minister of Interior, to the national government. And that's what distinguishes them from a militia. They do have national support. They do support the national government.
So that is a fundamental distinction. But again, it's largely been supported and encouraged by the association of the sheikhs. And the tribal engagement that we're seeing, again, is largely built, at this point, around Ramadi -- (audio break) -- that we don't have it in other places in Anbar. It is also strong out west, out in the al Qaim region. But those are probably the two strongest regions that we see in Anbar where the tribal peace, the sheikhs coming together, is such a new event.
MR. WHITMAN: Andrew?
Q General. Andrew Gray from Reuters here. As you know, obviously, under President Bush's plan, you're to receive several thousand extra troops for Anbar. Can you tell us a little bit what kind of a difference that will make to your operations? And will it be enough to change your focus from primarily training and transitioning to Iraqi forces?
GEN. ZILMER: The 4,000 Marines in our case that have been identified for reinforcing operations in Anbar province, they will have a very positive effect there is no doubt about that. They will allow us first and foremost to reinforce success where we have seen success, and in the late fall months and where we are right now we've seen some tremendous progress all -- but from a security perspective as well as from an economic and governance perspective.
But those 4,000 troops, again, they'll allow us to reinforce that success we're seeing out here, but just as importantly, they were announced as part of the overall Baghdad security plan. Our security out here in Anbar is tied very directly to that of Baghdad and vice versa. So the addition of those 4,000 troops out here are going to enable us to provide that isolation, that security that is essential for the Baghdad security plan.
While our role has largely been the development of the Iraqi security forces, you know, that's all a subset of a larger mission statement, which is the defeat of the al Qaeda and the insurgents out here. And make no mistake about it, we've been involved in a fight out here for the last year. This is a very active, a very vibrant insurgency that exists out here. We've been very successful in our operations over the course of the last year.
So what these additional Marines provide to us is an ability to reinforce the success that we've seen in the last couple of months. It allows us to get to some of the areas that we haven't been able to establish the presence we would have liked. But at the end of the day, it's still about providing that time, and that's what these 4,000 Marines will give us. They will provide that additional time for us to develop the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police, which at the -- as I said, at the end of the day, are essential to the long term security and stability in Anbar province.
Q General, Dave Wood from the Baltimore Sun. What's the reaction of the Marines in Al Anbar to the broiling political debate back here in Washington and particularly the moves in the Senate that seem to be in opposition to the president's plan?
GEN. ZILMER: I haven't been able to do any in-depth discussion with Marines in light of the activities in the Senate, but I will tell you that, you know, we have, you know, between television and Internet and all the rest, I mean, the Marines, sailors and soldiers they know what's going on not only in the United States but around the world. So they have an opportunity to see and view the news as anyone does. But I think fairly all of our warriors over here understand what our mission is, what is that we are trying to accomplish. And I think that's the beauty of our government and that we have the ability to debate amongst ourselves, and that's the beauty of democracy.
So yes, we watch what goes on, and we understand that there is debate back in -- back home about the direction of the war and where it's going.
But the morale remains very, very high out here. Our Marines understand what their mission is. We have a variety of visitors that come through here on a very frequent basis. And without fail those guests that come here to visit remark upon the morale of all our forces, not just Marines; it's sailors and soldiers as well.
So I think the morale's very good out here. We understand what our nation is asking us to do out here. And I think perhaps the difference is that, you know, our Marines, our sailors and soldiers out here every day -- they live, they live this event out here. They are out and about in the Iraqi -- with the Iraqi people in their neighborhoods. They're performing the mission that they have been given.
So again, we are certainly -- we understand what happens back home. We watch what happens back home. But I'm not concerned about losing sight of the focus, and that is important here because, as I've said before, it is a dangerous environment.
But as one measure of that, we had a headquarters Marine Corps recruiting/retention team come through here in November and December, and reenlisted 106 percent of their objective coming out here. So the Marines are voting with their feet by staying in, and so I'm very comfortable that despite that debate that goes on back there, our folks over here are staying true to the mission.
Q General, Barbara Starr from CNN. For yourself and other senior commanders in Iraq that you've talked to, can you speak a little bit more about the insurgency that you are facing there? What are you seeing, and other commanders that you speak to, in terms of sophistication, money, organization, training? Do you still -- do you feel that this has moved beyond some sort of improvised insurgency, if you will?
GEN. ZILMER: I think the insurgency -- again, it takes on a different character in other parts of Iraq. And I'll speak to Anbar. The nature of the insurgency out here, as you know, is one of Sunni extremists. We don't have quite the sectarian divides that you see in Baghdad.
Over 90 percent of the population out in Anbar is made up of Sunnis. The insurgency that we fight daily is largely led by al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda is an absolutely ruthless organization. As I said in my statement, there is no peaceful design or opportunity for a future that al Qaeda presents to the Iraqi people. It is an absolutely brutal -- (audio break) -- execution-style murders, extortion, kidnapping, torture. There is no future with that organization. And I think over the months, part of the reason that you've seen this galvanizing of the sheikhs and the tribes, rather, is a recognition that after, in our example -- after a year of watching this mindless destruction and violence and anarchy, it's finally settling in to many of the people in Anbar -- those that have remained behind, the leaders that have remained behind -- that al Qaeda offers -- you know, there's no future with al Qaeda.
So it is a very challenging insurgency. It is an insurgency that has international designs. This -- while the insurgency is largely -- its day-to-day operations are led by mostly local Iraqis; some of that leadership is foreign, and their design, as I said, is international. What they want is a caliphate state out here. They want to turn back the hands of time. It is antithetical to progress, and again, any positive future -- and I think it has taken time for that message to settle in. I think it is settling in now, and as I said, I think that's why we're seeing a lot of these institutions, whether it's the government, the sheikhs, the tribes, beginning to come together -- the growth of the Iraqi police -- because they recognize a threat that al Qaeda represents to them.
Q (Off mike) -- follow-up. When you say "foreign leadership," again, are you able yet to trace back networks, operations, leaders post-Zarqawi to al Qaeda outside of Iraq? Are you seeing direct connections to al Qaeda outside of Iraq?
GEN. ZILMER: I would say that I think -- you know, if you will, what the strategic designs of al Qaeda are are probably driven by external messages to the overall organization. That said, the majority of the day-to-day operations, the cells that we see inside the country are largely Iraqi in nature.
While we believe there are certainly foreign fighters who are part and parcel to that, I would not say that in our example here in Anbar that they are the overwhelming driving force that causes al Qaeda to function out here. But we certainly do see the elements of the messages that are a -- as I say are of a larger international design. But the fight that we see almost exclusively on a daily basis is against locals who are, you know, subverted by that message.
MR. WHITMAN: Jeff.
Q General, Jeff Schogol with Stars and Stripes. Can you give us an estimate of how much of Ramadi U.S. and coalition forces control?
GEN. ZILMER: Well, I would say we control the entire city. If I desire to go anywhere in the city, now, certainly there are some dangerous neighborhoods, and our activities since last summer, since about June, have been the systematic reduction in terms of establishing security throughout the city. I can go anywhere I need to go inside the city. It is -- it has been a fight in Ramadi, and it is still a dangerous -- parts of it are very dangerous.
But if look at -- you see and we met with the governor of Anbar last night, we are beginning to see the signs of shopkeepers returning back to their shops. You see, again, the growing police presence in Ramadi is a very positive element. We see efforts to begin the reconstruction efforts, whether that's repairing the electrical capacity of the city, cleaning up this -- there is substantial rubble and battle damage in the city. Some of that clean-up has begun.
So those are the things that are -- that we are beginning to see. There's still a long way to go. The sophistication of the attacks that we've seen in Ramadi, early last summer the attacks, which we call complex attacks, would last sometimes for 30 minutes to two hours. The level of the attacks we're seeing right now is significantly less than that. So they are active, they are busy, but the presence of the coalition forces, the Iraqi army and again the Iraqi police, have changed that to the degree that if we need to go any place in that city, we will go there.
Q (Off mike) -- are danger zones.
GEN. ZILMER: I'm sorry. Could you --
Q The city -- how much of the city is dangerous, as in you wouldn't there unless you had a plan beforehand and you maybe had enough people to do it?
GEN. ZILMER: Well, most places in Ramadi I would go with a plan because, you know, there are insurgents who move around the city. So I think probably trying to establish that in some sort of percentage is probably maybe as much as 50 percent. But again, the enemy still has the ability to move around; he will go where we are not. And we understand that. But if we must go someplace, then again, there is no challenge to us that prevents us to go anywhere we need to go.
MR. WHITAKER: Let’s go to the back.
Q General, Ken Fireman from Bloomberg News. I understand the need to take your allies where you can find them. But my question is, by allying ourselves with the sheikhs and tribal leaders, as you describe, do we run the danger of alienating other local groups or local leaders who may have no use for al Qaeda but are rivals, in some sense, of the people we're allied with?
GEN. ZILMER: I think there's certainly a sensitivity to that. My concern, of course, is we support the development of the provincial government here, and if we encourage or allow activities that circumvent the existing government as it is -- the provincial government in this case -- and the provincial government is in its infantile steps still in Anbar, but it's made progress over the last year -- that would be dangerous and I think that would be unhelpful.
But again, in our meetings and our consultations, I think that's certainly a position that we stress, that we solicit from them, is subordination, if you will, to the provincial government, recognition of the national government, and to this degree, what we're talking about, the Sahawa Al Anbar or the Awakening, all of their voiced positions, their documentations, they have a very active advertising campaign -- they broadcast on the media, television radio -- they have always been inclusive of a larger government participation.
So that is clearly something that we must emphasize and insist upon if we are to have any sort of a relationship with them. But again, this is a phenomenon that has developed since late in the summer and right now, the words, the messages, the meetings that we have -- the exchanges are all the right ones. So I'm optimistic at this point but absolutely, we are sensitive to those possibilities and drifting away from the established government processes that we are supporting here in Anbar.
Q This is Joe Tabet with Al Hurra. Could you tell us, how much is the total number of the U.S. troops in Al Anbar?
GEN. ZILMER: I'm sorry, sir. Did you ask, what is the number of troops that are in Al Anbar?
Q Yes, sir.
GEN. ZILMER: We have slightly over 30,000 U.S. troops that are part of Multinational Forces West in Al Anbar. And that's a composite force of United States Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen from the Air Force. So it is a very diverse group. Truly, it is a joint organization that we have out here. But it's a little over 30,000.
Q This is Mary Walsh from CBS News. I wonder if you could talk to us a little bit about the economic piece. If the sheikhs are sending out young men to do neighborhood watches, who's paying for that to happen? And are you seeing any other United States governmental agencies coming in to help with the economic piece of the stool that we keep hearing about? What's going on economically?
GEN. ZILMER: Thank you.
I think that's probably the piece that we would like to see the most progress on. And again, getting that -- depending on whose statistics you get, it's anywhere from 40 to 50 percent of the adult- age males are out of work. They have no opportunity for employment, and we hear that all the time from the leadership, the government, the mayors, about getting their young men -- getting them work. That's a very important social custom: to have their self-respect, to have to work, to have a vocation.
So we are -- we have always been trying to jump-start the economy to get it moving, to get the reconstruction of Anbar province. And when you try to undo or correct 40 years of economic mismanagement, it's a sizable challenge. We have seen our Provincial Reconstruction Team that is out here now -- for the first four or five months we were here, it was in name only an organization, but we have since begun to add some truly talented people who are able to bring that about.
So we have invested much time and energy in terms of our civil affairs teams, working out of our civil military operations centers to try to get -- again, to get the economy jump-started first and foremost with the essential services, whether that's the sewage, the water, the electricity, the trash pickup -- those are the things that need to start. It's certainly not the type of labor future that we want their young men to, you know, only anticipate, that all they're ever going to do is pick up trash in my city, but it's also trying to get the schools and universities back up and operating.
But through a variety of monies and projects, we've completed about 302 projects here in this year alone worth about $51 million. Again, these are all projects that are intended to generate the restoration of essential services and try to get people back to work, whether it's doing canal clearing as a means of hiring or doing the mundane things like clearing up rubble, repairing the city -- those are the sorts of things that we're trying to get started.
Anbar province is largely an agricultural community. For years, there has been just -- I would say probably benign neglect coming from Baghdad in terms of assisting with the planting, the seeding, the yearly crop development that has to happen out here. Anbar province probably operates at something less than 20 percent of its capacity for agriculture products here, so this is a ripe area for development, and again, getting some of these young men farming, working their fields.
So there are a variety of opportunities here, but it's about getting, you know, the railroads working. It's about getting the phosphate plant up and operating. It's about getting the ceramic, the glass factories up again working and bringing those men off of the streets. It's about, you know, filling out the Iraqi army. We still have many slots out here available for the development of the Iraqi army forces. We're still about 3,500 short in the police.
So it's -- those are sort of -- (audio break) -- it's going to take the economy time. The state-owned enterprises that we are trying to get moving forward now have not been effective for years. Trying to change that idea of having -- working towards a very limited quota as opposed to being driven by modern market forces, by profit margin, those are all new ideas, new concepts, and that's what our PRTs bring. We've had a number of economic conferences where we take the leadership of the province, led by the governor, his provincial council members, the mayors -- we take them out and expose them to these modern economic processes, hopefully trying to encourage, plant that seed, that again, we can move forward.
We've been supported by the Office of OSD with a number of initiatives, again, trying to take these state-owned enterprises and give them a global view, create market -- or create products, rather, that have a global appeal.
So I would say in the last six months we brought a lot of expertise here from OSD, from State Department, the development of our Provincial Reconstruction Teams, USAID. All these pieces are beginning to take a hold now. And again, going back to the guarded optimism, I think that's what's important to destroy the reason for the insurgency out here, is give these people some hope and prospect for a bright future. But -- I think we're on the right foot, but it's going to take some time to develop that.
MR. WHITMAN: General, we have reached the end of our allocated time, and I'd just like to thank you once again for talking to us about this important region in Iraq.
Before we bring it to a close, though, let me turn it back to you in case you have any closing comments you'd like to make.
GEN. ZILMER: Thank you, Mr. Whitman. I would like to perhaps leave you with one final thought. And I know I am not the first and I'm not the last commander you spoke with out here who would express this to you, but it's been an absolute honor and privilege to serve with the men and women from the United States military who are deployed over here. They do their work every single day, day in, day out. Twenty-hour workdays are not uncommon here. There are few days off, if any. But despite the hardships, the sacrifice, the danger that exists out here, they have absolutely been the greatest part of what we have done over here. So I've been absolutely thrilled to share in this challenge over here with every one of them.
And the families back home, the fathers, the mothers, the husbands, the wives, the children of these great servicemen serving over here should be very, very proud of the dedicated hard work that happens over here, day in and day out.
And many times the things that we do don't make the 6:00 news. The work that we're doing over here -- as I've said before, it's not glamorous, it's not spectacular, but it's the essential bedrock of developing this society and transitioning the society to one of security and stability that's so important.
So it's been an honor to work over here for the last year with these great Americans.
And the last thing is, we have paid a price to be over here. We have lost a number of Marines, sailors and soldiers over here. And as always, our prayers remain with the families who are -- who have to deal with that tragedy. They have been all great Americans, and it's been an honor to serve beside them. So I just feel very, very good about the opportunity to serve with these great people over here, and I hope that sentiment is understood by those back home.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, thank you for that, General. We certainly know that your days are long also, and we appreciate the opportunity to spend some time with you and hope that in a couple of months perhaps we can have you back and hear about the progress that's going on in Al Anbar.
GEN. ZILMER: Thank you very much, Mr. Whitman.
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