(Note: General Gaskin appears via teleconference from Iraq.)
GEN. GASKIN: Okay. I can hear you. Can you hear me?
BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): Fine, General.
Again, welcome, and this morning it's my privilege to introduce to you somebody that we haven't had in this room, and it's Major General Walt Gaskin, who is the commander of Multinational Forces West and the II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward). General Gaskin's tour began in Iraq in February of this year, and he is at Camp Fallujah, where he is providing us with this operational update.
General, what I'd like to do is just turn it over to you, so that you can kind of give us an overview of what you've been doing, and then we'll turn to some questions here.
GEN. GASKIN: Okay. Thank you.
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to inform you on the changing dynamics of Anbar province. I have a short update I've prepared, and I'll be ready to take your questions at the conclusion.
As you know, I'm responsible for the coalition forces in Anbar, and I've assumed command of Multinational Forces approximately two months ago. With that as a background, I'd like to share with you my impressions and explain to you how we are faring in Anbar.
My assessment is that Anbar is in transition, both politically and militarily. When I use the term "transition," I mean that the Iraqis are taking on roles and responsibilities that used to be solely performed by coalition forces. Our strategy of clear, hold and build, combined with an energized governmental and tribal engagement, is beginning to bear fruit, seen in decreased attack trends, increased recruiting for Iraqi security forces, and growing increase in economic commerce, along with a noticeable shift in the public sentiment of al Qaeda in Iraq from tolerance to open hostility.
Politically, the governance of Anbar is being -- beginning to function independently.
As we saw a couple of weeks ago, the governor of Al Anbar hosted Prime Minister Maliki in what could be only described as a historic meeting. This was a large step in the right direction for reconciliation and reconstruction. We cannot overemphasize the significance of having the prime minister come to an overwhelmingly Sunni capital of Ramadi.
An important event which occurred in Ramadi while the prime minister was within was the first locally held meeting of the Al Anbar Provincial Council in 11 months. The council adjourned last spring from Al Anbar because of security concerns. This dialogue makes me very hopeful for the future of the province.
A tangible product of this dialogue can be seen in a record number of Iraqi men joining the military and the police. Sons of Al Anbar are signing up to protect the peace of Iraq. They see al Qaeda in Iraq and other terrorists as a plague on their nation, leaving death and destruction in their wake.
Al Anbar is a tribal society, where the local sheikhs are highly influential. It is with their permission and courageous leadership that the men of Al Anbar join the Iraqi army and the police. Our tribal engagement strategy is entirely consistent with the principles we stand for -- human rights, the rule of law, due process -- and supports a legitimate provincial and national government.
This government and the security (inaudible) that defend it is the greatest threat to al Qaeda. With the support of the local tribal leaders, the capabilities of the security forces are growing. The terrorists are finding it increasingly difficult to operate and hide within the civilian population.
Al Qaeda realizes this, and that is why they are stepping up their attacks against the Iraqi police and army units. There have been approximately 400 attacks against Iraqi police in Al Anbar since the beginning of the year. But what is important to recognize is that the police aren't backing down or deserting posts.
The Iraqi police, in conjunction with the Iraqi army, are planning their own operations and conducting targeted raids on al Qaeda and their safe havens. The search for security and stability has led to the formation of temporary units called emergency response units, commonly referred to as ERUs. These units are sanctioned by the Iraqi government and fall under the jurisdiction of the minister of Interior.
There are additional forces designed to protect local areas from al Qaeda infestation and act as an auxiliary police force. The ERUs have a manning structure of about 750 men and are supplied, equipped and paid by the minister of Interior. There are three ERUs in Ramadi, where they have been vital in improving the security situation. The minister of Interior working with the provincial government and MNF West is looking to establish similar ERUs under provincial government authority in other cities to include Fallujah, Hit, Haditha and other places.
It is this type of overwhelming support by the Anbaris that necessitate the creation of a police training facilities in Al Anbar itself. I'm pleased to announce that the construction is currently under way for Al Anbar police academy in Habbaniya, which is between Ramadi and Fallujah. This facility will increase the total number of police serving in Anbar by 500 to 1,000 a month. This police academy is a provincial and national effort to alleviate the needs of Anbari men to receive their police training in Jordan or other academies that are -- (inaudible) -- outside of the maximum capacity here in Anbar.
Iraqis will ultimately teach the classes and run the administration of the Anbar police academy with the minimal assistance from the coalition forces. We anticipate the academy will be up and running by May. I referred to the emergency response unit as temporary. Some of the men who are joining these units are farmers or factory workers who are choosing to fight al Qaeda. Once the terrorist threat has been defeated, these brave men will be able to choose to return to their former professions, to attend the Habbaniya police academy and receive training required to become full-time Iraqi police officers.
There are currently 2,500 members of the various ERUs, and there are 13,200 policemen and 13,000 Iraqi army soldiers serving throughout Anbar, alongside approximately 35,000 men and women of the Multinational Force West. Over the coming months, the coalition troop strength will rise and fall with the coming and going of our third battalion.
These increased forces along with the Iraqi army and police forces are working in unison with the Multinational Division Baghdad to ensure the success of the Baghdad security plan. Multiforces West is supporting the effort in this plan, and as such, is integrating its operations to best support the coalition and Iraqi forces engaged in Baghdad.
By interdicting and disrupting terrorists, we will help reduce the level of sectarian violence in Baghdad. (Audio break) -- the legitimate government will enjoy the full support and participation of Iraqi citizens living and working in Anbar and set on a task of economic reconstruction. Assisting MNF West in this transition is the Provincial Reconstruction Teams headed by the Department of State, in this case Mr. Jim Seriano. The PRT is our right hand when it comes to the governance and economic development issues. Currently there are about 12 persons in that team here in Anbar. However, I am pleased to say there will soon be an additional three construction teams in Anbar. PRT role will be to continue to expand as the security in the province improves and will focus on increasing the capacity of local governance and development of stronger relationship between the provincial government and the government of Iraq.
As I stated earlier, I am hopeful for the future and mindful that these developments would not have been possible without the skills, ingenuity and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform and their families at home who provide us with the steadfast support to allow us to do our mission.
At this time, I'll be glad to take any questions that you may have.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, thank you for that overview, General, and we'll get started right here with Pam.
Q General Gaskin, this is Pam Hess with UPI. Could you narrate for us what's going on in Fallujah? I think two weeks ago there was a massacre at the police station, where police officers were beheaded, and then I think you-all conducted a counter-attack. How related is this to Baghdad, and what's the state now in Fallujah?
GEN. GASKIN: I think you have to understand that Fallujah -- there was no massacre at the police station, but in Fallujah you have to see that what we have established -- the 2nd Iraqi Brigade of the 1st Iraqi Division is actually in the town of Fallujah.
Surrounding that town is a infantry battalion from the coalition forces. And inside the city as well is approximately 500 -- soon to be a thousand -- policemen there.
The idea is to allow the policemen to be able to create stability, trust. They recognize who lives in that city, who operates in that city. And they have the confidence of people because they are Anbaris, they are Fallujans, and they are Sunnis.
Now, the al Qaeda realizes that this is a threat to the way they like to see things go, and they have chosen the IP or the Iraqi police as their targets. And we have seen several cases where they have attacked police stations. And they're using the IDs -- the IEDs, the vehicle-borne IEDs, the vests of suicide bombers as a menace -- a manner in which to attack these. A couple of days ago we saw the attack in Fallujah and the coordinated attack on both the entry control points and as well as the joint headquarters of the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army.
But what is important about this and what is significant is, the Iraqis were able to repel those, the Iraqis were able to jointly call in for support for the coalition forces, and the Iraqis themselves were able to again calm the folks and the people in that town of Fallujah through the security that is represented by their government.
Q I'm sorry. Just to follow up, I was under the impression that there were, I think, nine police that were beheaded when their station was attacked. Is that not the case? I thought I read that in an MNF-W press release, but I could be wrong.
And also, I heard, when I was over there, that -- but after I was out of your AO -- that one of the sheikhs in Fallujah had called Sheikh Sattar to see if he could organize amongst his sheikhs what Sattar had done in Ramadi. Is that true?
GEN. GASKIN: Well, first of all, there was no police beheaded in Fallujah. Now there is murder and intimidation, and we, as -- you probably got that press release, as we moved out into a calmer area, we discovered some torture houses where there were in fact members -- Iraqis that were beheaded as part of that campaign. But for the city of Fallujah itself, there wasn't.
As for the sheikhs in Fallujah seeking out the sheikhs in Ramadi, as you know, the SAA is in Ramadi, under Sheikh Sattar, and they have a very robust sort of a defense and (audio break) mechanism. And he -- and those are -- and what we've seen is interaction between sheikhs as far as security and as it relates to the ERUs.
But that collaboration is a good thing, because it points to the fact that they want to get rid of al Qaeda, and that the sheikhs are in fact getting involved in it. We have had, when the prime minister came out to visit, we have had sheikhs from all over Al Anbar all come together, and they were all talking about the security of their cities and security of their towns, in order to allow them to have a coordinated effort against al Qaeda.
Q Jonathan Karl with ABC News. Two questions, one very general and one specific. The specific one: What are you seeing and how concerned are you regarding these use of chlorine bombs is this as a new trend? And secondly, there's been a lot of talk around here about timetables for withdrawal and the like. What is your sense out in Anbar of what would happen if U.S. troops were to leave, to set a timetable very, you know, near in the future for complete withdrawal? What would happen in Anbar?
GEN. GASKIN: Okay, first on the chlorine bombs, we have seen that as a technique by the al Qaeda. What you have to understand is that the chlorine bombs have more of a psychological effect than they do a killing effect, but it will definitely -- the type of IEDs that will allow them to scare and intimidate the Anbaris. And I think you see that those attacks have been mainly aimed at the IP, which they consider their greatest threat, in order to intimidate them not to come to work, intimidate them not to continue the good work they're doing as far as bringing peace and stability within the city. You know, I think the fact that they are staying on the job, I think the fact that they have allowed the al Qaeda to be pushed out of the cities because of their work is a good thing. So although they're using the chlorine bombs, it has more of a psychological impact than a death and destruction type of impact.
Your second question was about -- let me tell you how I see for Al Anbar. And as you know, Al Anbar is different from any of the other 17, 18 provinces in Iraq. It is predominantly Sunni. The main threat that we have is al Qaeda - Iraq. And what we see is that once we gain the peace and stability in through the major cities, and then we can work on the -- by pushing al Qaeda out of the cities, by creating three important aspects: getting the IP or Iraqi police into the cities, getting the IA, Iraqi army, in support of the police, getting the coalition forces in overwatch, getting the governance going by getting a mayor, a provincial and municipal governanceship as far as the council that will actually connect to create economic development and governance. When you do that, you have to have persistent presence in those areas.
And when you establish things that we've seen in Fallujah, Ramadi, Al Qaim, Rutbah, Haditha, all of those areas have those factors that I talked about, and we see stability on the rise.
What is important is that we have gotten the Iraqis involved in that process through their recruitment efforts and the contribution of the young Iraqis to the military and to the police. The reason that I am able to now move out into the areas that are outside of the city, such as Az-Zaidon, Karma, in between Fallujah and Ramadi, north of the Euphrates River in the east and west of the -- east of the Euphrates River in the west is because I have a number of forces that are able to do that.
We have to give the Iraqis the time to develop the capacity to do all the things that they need to do. We are in partnership with them now. We are in overwatch in some cases, and in some areas, we've actually given them territory for which they control. But to remove those forces would be premature and ill advised because they are now in a rapid stage of development, and I think we will see great results as they have been able to do the things they need to do. And that is in conjunction, too, with the tribal engagement because everything that happens in this province is tribal in nature.
Q Can I just follow up? What would happen, then, in your view, if you announced right now, we said we're going to begin pulling troops out in, say, six months, and we're going to have, you know, basically withdraw all of our combat troops from Anbar within a year? What would happen to the way -- to your interaction with these various groups if they knew that a date's certain American forces would be leaving?
GEN. GASKIN: I think, you know, if we said -- announced that we were going to withdraw forces, that the Iraqis would make every effort to adjust. The fact of the matter is, you cannot buy, remove experience; you have to earn it, you have to live it, you have to be there to work through it, and they are doing that. But that developmental process requires time both in association with us and doing that themselves, but that requires a timetable that's dependent on the developmental stage at which they are.
If you look at the two divisions, for example, that are in Anbar, one in the west and one in the east, the one in the east is a lot further along and capable of handling a lot of COIN operations. The one in the west is beginning -- getting there as we increase the number of its roles, and its strengths and capability.
But the capacity to do what we want requires time. And that would be, I think, the greatest detriment of removing those forces prematurely, removing our forces away from them.
Q This is Joe Tabet, sir, with Al Hurra.
Do you think you have enough troops in your area to maintain the security?
GEN. GASKIN: You came in a little weak. I think the question was, do I think I have enough forces. Was that your question?
Q Yes, sir.
GEN. GASKIN: Okay, given the mission, you know, and the mission that I have now is to interdict those accelerants, those insurgents that are coming into the country, mainly using the Euphrates River Valley as a means for coming in. In addition, my mission is to be a supporting plan for the Baghdad security plan, and to eliminate any of those that would interfere with that process. Given the surge battalions, I have enough forces now, as I stated earlier in my opening statement, to not only do my enduring missions of security along the Euphrates River, put persistent presence in those six major cities that I listed, as well as interdict those accelerants who have come in or out of Baghdad, in order to ensure that that Baghdad security plan operates successfully. So given those missions, I have enough forces to do that.
Q Just to follow up, what is the total number of your troops in Al Anbar, in the West of Iraq?
GEN. GASKIN: I can't --
MR. WHITMAN: I can give it a try for you. The question was, the number of forces that you have in your province, in your sector?
GEN. GASKIN: I have a coalition force of about 35,000, and Iraqi forces totaling -- this is with Iraqi police and Iraqi army -- about 27,000.
Q Sir, this is Kristin Roberts with Reuters. I'm hoping you can give us an idea about the progress the Iraqi security forces are making. How long will it be before they're able to – I suppose -- stand up on their own, both the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army forces? How much longer do you anticipate having to play a coordinating if not a lead role?
GEN. GASKIN: If I understood your question, it was, how long do you think before the Iraqi army will be able to stand up on its own or be capable of conducting regular operations? Is that the question?
MR. WHITMAN: As well as the police forces.
GEN. GASKIN: It was only a year ago when we had so few Iraqi forces, both IP and IA, in Anbar. We have 10 times in the case of the police and about triple the case of the Iraqi army in that area.
Now, what I would like to discuss more than number is capabilities and capacity; their capacity to conduct COIN operations, the capacity to protect their borders, their capacity to interdict and defeat al Qaeda. Those capacities are developed, and every military, regardless of nationality, has to train and develop over time to do that. And the expectations -- as a matter of fact, I'm very pleased at how far they have come in a year and I think they are making rapid progress toward that.
But the difference in this army and this police is that they're making progress while under fire. Most armies train and go into an operation or war having been trained. So the development for them is two-fold. They're in contact and training and developing, and I think they're doing remarkably.
What has been interesting to me is that because they are now, as far as support of the tribal engagement, they feel it necessary to defend their homeland and they think of themselves as Iraqis, and that they are joining the military and the police in large numbers. That large numbers initially is just basically trained policemen, shurta, or Iraqi shunta , men, and they have to over time train up to be soldiers within units, in units with capabilities to do counterinsurgency operations.
We have a plan that we're working through that with them. Some, like I said, are more developed than others. (audio break) -- division in the east is further along. It's an older division. The new division on the west is just beginning. And although partnered with coalition forces, they will require, in my opinion, a longer time for them to develop than that in the east.
MR. WHITMAN: Lisa.
Q This is Lisa Burgess with Stars and Stripes. General, are you noticing any AQI coming down from Baghdad being pushed out the Baghdad security plan, is moving them into your sector?
GEN. GASKIN: I fully expect that they will be as they leave Baghdad, as they clamp down on that, they will move into areas that we have determined to be up in our northeast portion of my sector, and I suspect -- historically they have used those areas to have campsites, training sites, safe haven sites. And the things that I'm doing now is to interdict those sites. So I fully expect them to return to those, those that just don't go to ground and try to wait out to see what this surge will mean.
But my job is to make sure that they aren't able to participate in or go back if they come out.
MR. WHITMAN: Gordon.
Q General, it's Gordon Lubold from the Christian Science Monitor. I wonder if you could give us a sense about your detainee operations. Between you and the Iraqis, how many folks are you rounding up and then detaining for periods of time? And then, what do you do with those people? How many do you have, and what are you doing?
GEN. GASKIN: Well, we are talking about two different systems for detainees. If you're looking at the number of detainees that I have, you know, I've got maybe 250 detainees at various levels, and that we are doing a lot for as forensic evidence now to forward them through the detainee process and right into Baghdad.
But with the oncoming of the IPs and their ability to do criminal detainees, those who were just part of the criminal element and not as much as a part of the insurgent element, we are seeing that their capacity is growing as far as the numbers that they have. And we are working with helping with them build facilities to give those detainees.
The other thing with that is the judicial system for detainees is not out here in Anbar, and we are currently working through the minister of Justice and through the chain of command in order to help there, within their government, establish a means for trying them. As you recall, a number of the judges were either murdered or they left the country for their own safety -- them and their families.
So having a judicial system out here -- especially the further west you go, it's nonexistent.
So having all of these policemen now, with -- working within the rule of law and being able to round up those that are criminal actors, in addition to those who are insurgents and are against the Iraqi government, the Anbari government, has increased the numbers that we are -- we have detained. But -- and that in itself is good news, but it also creates a problem for us with the total number of detainees that we will see.
Now, given the insurgents, we will see this surge -- we will see a larger number, and we are increasing the capacity for putting insurgents away as well.
Q And just real quick, can you tell us how many detainee facilities are you helping to build in Anbar?
GEN. GASKIN: Well, for this team -- remember, the facilities that we are looking at in Anbar, not ones that were standing and ones that we have here at my headquarters for moving on to Baghdad and then Cropper for a larger number, the facilities that we are helping with the Iraqis is the jails that they can fit local criminals in, and that's -- and we are helping that throughout the province. We are helping them with their filling of police stations, joint command centers, detainment centers, so that they can actually get the criminals off the street and those who threaten the peace and stability in the major cities. And it has really helped because the Iraqis themselves feel better when they have this criminal element off the street. That has allowed us to get better intelligence on who's out there and has also given them a sense of a good way of life. The kids can go to school. You can see the marketplaces opening and then flourishing. So we have had a number of facilities that we've built to help that.
That's not to say that -- we still need to have a judicial system that allow us to send these criminal away for longer periods of time. And that -- but you will see that there are number from the corps and from Multinational Forces are building a large facilities for permanent detainment.
MR. WHITMAN: General, we have reached the end of our time, and I want to give you an opportunity, if you have any closing comments, to provide those before we bring it to a close.
GEN. GASKIN: Okay. I'd just like to say in closing that I am very, very optimistic about what is happening in Anbar.
Over the last year, the forces out here, the coalition forces, have laid an outstanding foundation that allow us to actually move towards stability and provincial Iraqi control in Anbar. What I've seen is a couple of things that have made it a reality, I think, for Anbar.
One, it's a tribal engagement. The sheikhs and all of their sub-tribes, clans and families understand that they need to be a part of the political process that will connect with the national government in Iraq, and they are rallying to that. The second thing is, is that they realize that they have to have the young Iraqis join the military, join the police force, and they're doing that.
That combination of standing up their own governments, both at the provincial, municipal and city levels; the new mayors that are being appointed; the police chiefs that are being appointed; and eventually, they will have a provincial election out here in Anbar -- I can see and envision Anbar moving toward the progress and eventually self- sufficiency connected with this government under the rule of law.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, General, thank you very much for your time this afternoon. We appreciate it. And hopefully, we'll have another opportunity down the road to talk to you again.
GEN. GASKIN: Look forward to it. Thank you.
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