(Note: General Mixon appears via teleconference from Iraq.)
BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): Well, good morning and welcome. I see that we can see General Mixon. Let's see if he can hear us okay.
General, this is Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon.
GEN. MIXON: Yeah, hello, Bryan. How are you this morning?
MR. WHITMAN: We're doing fine, and good afternoon to you and thank you for taking some time to be with us this morning.
I think all of you in the audience here know that this is Major General Benjamin Mixon, commander of Multinational Division North, as well as the 25th Infantry Division. He spoke to us in this forum and format most recently in March, and today he is at Contingency Operating Base Speicher outside of Tikrit.
He took command for the responsibilities and ongoing security operations in MND-North in September of 2006 and is here to give us a brief update and overview in terms of what his unit has been doing, and gracious enough to take some of our questions from the Pentagon press.
So with that, General, let me turn it over to you.
GEN. MIXON: Thank you very much. And to the members of the press corps, I appreciate this opportunity to bring you up to date on what's going on in Multinational Division North.
Usually when I've conducted these sessions with you, I have focused strictly on security operations as a whole across MND-North. What I'd like to do today is to talk to you about each one of the provinces that are in my area of responsibility. I think that's important, because too often the focus is centralized on Baghdad. And each one of the provinces that I have in MND-North is different, is different in its security organization, is different in the amount of progress they're making. And I believe this is important to understand as we progress in this fight.
So I'm going to read from some brief prepared remarks, because I want to allow plenty of time for questions.
As I said, I'm going to frame my comments around the progress, and I'm going to talk about security, governance and economics by province. I have seven diverse provinces in my area of responsibility. They are Nineveh province, Kirkuk, Salahuddin, Diyala, Dohuk, Erbil, Sulimaniyah, Erbil (sic).
Dohuk, Sulimaniyah and Erbil are relatively stable, and they are progressing well. So I will not address those, unless you ask some questions about those northern provinces.
My overall assessment is that in Nineveh, Kirkuk and Salahuddin provinces we have achieved overall tactical parity against the enemy and in selected areas we have tactical superiority.
What I mean is by tactical parity -- is we continue to work on all the other lines of effort, that being economic and governmental, while engaging in the tactical fight, as well as working to improve the Iraqi security forces. Tactical superiority means that the threat is more criminal in nature, and there is minimal to no terrorist activity.
In Diyala province, we are working in a combined effort with Iraqi security forces to achieve tactical parity. The tactical situation there is very difficult, and the fight is ongoing. Across MND North, we'll continue to work to improve Iraqi security forces, and they will become more capable, and we will work with the police units until they are fully established and capable of providing for their own security.
Moving over to the governance line of effort, I'll use the following terms: "functional," which means the government is functioning; "semi-functional," which means the government is functioning but with challenges that are slowing our progress; and "nonfunctional," which is the same as the name implies, the government is not functioning in an appropriate manner and is impacting our ability to provide a secure environment, and most important, essential services for the population.
Progress in governance is semi-functional in Nineveh, Kirkuk and Salahuddin provinces and making progress every day. These three provinces have completed or are working on their 2007 budget and render minimum or better services to the people of their respective province, and their governors are engaged every day in the progress of governance.
Government in Diyala, however, is nonfunctional. The leaders of this province are still working on their 2007 budget, and I was advised today that they have completed that budget, although late. Unfortunately, they failed to execute their 2006 budget, which puts the province well behind on essential services. They cannot regularly achieve a quorum in their provincial council, and they fail to provide those essential services the population needs. The PRT that is in all of my areas but particularly in Diyala is working with the government in Diyala to improve their functioning, and I am optimistic that they will improve over the coming year.
Support from the central government and the provisional deputy governors is mixed in all provinces, and at times ineffective, especially in Diyala. They are overburdened by a centralized bureaucratic process from Baghdad and impacted by corruption and sectarian issues. These are areas that we must improve on over the next several months.
Kirkuk province remains divided along ethnic lines, and Article 140 concerns by the Arabs and Turkoman population hamper progress within the government of Kirkuk. Nineveh has made the most progress, but similar issues exist. The Salahuddin government has made progress in the budgetary process and demonstrates a strong desire to govern effectively. The key leaders in Salahuddin remain highly critical of the central government, focusing on the de-Ba'athification issues and the resulting unemployment that that causes.
Our dedicated members of the U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Teams, the PRTs, continue to focus their efforts to improve the governmental process across MND North. They often transport the governors to the central government to force interface with the ministries, the prime minister and his deputies.
We continue to use my Commanders Emergency Relief Program funds to enhance provincial economic progress and oftentimes to reward local support of our security operations. In fiscal year 2006, we obligated more than $125 million in these funds. And as you know, those have a direct and positive impact. In 2007, we have already dedicated $75 million to projects within the provinces.
After nearly eight months on the ground, I am concerned about the overall progress of our Iraqi security forces and the governmental processes. Progress is being made in selected areas, although slow. And at times we have episodic setbacks and unnecessary roadblocks to security and governance, but we continue to move forward.
Finally, reconstruction and capital improvements in MND North continue on a steady glide path but are moving too slow. We have seen progress in such areas as small business, microfinancing in Salahuddin and Nineveh provinces, coupled with larger projects such as the Kirkuk Provincial Solid Waste Management Project or the Tall Afar grainery reopening, which holds up to 75,000 tons of grain and has been dormant for over four years. We recently opened that grainery. Additionally, Iraqi-led date palm spring efforts are ongoing in the largely agricultural province of Diyala, which is very important to their economic progress.
With regards to Iraqi infrastructure, the Baiji oil refinery, which is within my area, remains my greatest concern and challenge. Security of the pipelines is not where it needs to be. And although we have seen improved oil management over the past 45 days, further management controls and efficiencies need to be emplaced. And we need to gain more optimal petroleum refinement and distribution to the Iraqi people.
These petroleum issues are related to the electricity issues that plague the country. While electricity generation is improving, distribution continues to remain a challenge.
Additionally, and most important, the strategic infrastructure battalions who are responsible for security of the pipelines must be better trained and equipped in order to effectively guard the pipelines and power lines. Results in these particular organizations have been marginal, at best, since my arrival. Our efforts to train and build capacity for them is limited, and the national ministries must step and do their job so that Iraqis can have basic services at the grassroots level.
Our Task Force Lightning soldiers have performed magnificently since our arrival. My staff and I intend to redouble our efforts in the governance line of effort while working to improve the Iraqi security forces within our means. Defeating the effects of IEDs remains a high priority while we simultaneously conduct intelligence- driven operations against al Qaeda cells and other insurgent groups, rogue militias, and particularly against the financial networks that support them.
Task Force Lightning remains committed to the number one priority of improving Iraqi security forces and transitioning them to take responsibility for the country's security.
The most important and difficult task we have is to improve the Iraqi government capacity, particularly at the provincial level. That will lead the people to having confidence in their government. The confidence of the people in that government will enhance our security operations and enable us to ultimately defeat this enemy.
I'd like to close my comments by thanking the American people for their continued support for our mission. It is vital to our success. Most importantly, I'd like to thank those families of our service members that have lost loved ones in this conflict. Our hearts and prayers go out to you, and we wish you the very best in the future. And always remember, your soldiers will never be forgotten.
I'm prepared to take your questions at this time.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, General, thank you for that overview, and let's get started here with Kristin.
Q General, this is Kristin Roberts with Reuters. I don't mean -- I'm sorry if I mischaracterize you, but what I hear you saying is that you're surprised by the slow pace of progress in the Iraqi security forces and in governance issues. Can you give us a little bit more detail about what you think are the major obstacles and main road blocks standing before progress? Is it the bureaucracy in Baghdad? What are the things that are keeping Iraqi security forces and the provincial government from progressing at a rate that you would think would be appropriate right now?
GEN. MIXON: In a nut shell, it is the bureaucracy in Baghdad. The ministries move too slow to provide support to their security forces, and also in the area of providing support to the governors. It is getting better, but it's way too slow. So we have to work to improve that, and we are doing that by taking our governors to Baghdad so that they can interface with the ministries and by also having governors conferences up in our location and bringing the ministers up so we can enable interface with them. But it needs to be sped up, and we need to show the people of Iraq that their government can provide essential services and security to them, and that will be the most powerful weapon against this enemy.
MR. WHITMAN: Courtney.
Q General, this is Courtney Kube from NBC News. You said specifically that you're concerned about the overall progress of the Iraqi security forces. Can you be a little bit more specific about that? What specifically about their progress is lacking or is concerning you?
GEN. MIXON: Well, as we transition in, if you recall our previous conferences, we focused on the turnover of the Iraqi security forces to Iraqi Ground Force Command. And we have done that with three of the four divisions in my area of responsibility. From that point, these divisions on the ground have done a good job of assuming responsibility for their security. But they are slowed down in their progress by a logistics system that does not support them adequately, and by a bureaucratic process that hampers promotions, that hampers pay and hampers other logistics assets getting down to the ground level.
So it's up to us here to work with the minister of defense and the other higher echelons of Iraqi command to support these ground forces. I am convinced, if they get that support, that they will continue to progress. But I want to underscore the fact that those soldiers, those Iraqi soldiers and security forces that are on the ground are in fact stepping up to the plate, and they are providing basic security in both individual operations and also combined operations to us. But we need to move them farther, and they can move farther if they get that support that they need from the higher echelons of command in Baghdad.
MR. WHITMAN: Go ahead and follow up, Courtney.
Q So General, when you say you're concerned about their progress, you're not talking about necessarily their operational capabilities. You're talking about, they're held up by logistics and the government. But are you saying that you're concerned specifically about their abilities to provide security in any way?
GEN. MIXON: Not at this point, but I want them to progress further. Because ultimately the end state that we have to achieve in Iraq is for the security forces to be able to provide security to the Iraqi people. In order for them to do that, they have to have the support that they need up and down the chain of command, just like any other military organization. So in order to get them progressing and to get them to a point to where they will be able to conduct operations with minimal to no coalition presence, we have got to get their entire system of logistic support, the entire system of command and control, moving faster from the central government. And we intend to work on that over the next couple of months.
MR. WHITMAN: Jim.
Q General, Jim Mannion from Agence France-Presse.
Given these problems, is it realistic to expect to be able to turn around this situation by September?
GEN. MIXON: I'm not focused on September. You know, that's a debate, I know, that's going on back in Washington. I'm focused on the long-term capabilities of these forces, and we're looking long term.
I believe we can make progress; we have made progress, but it needs to move at a faster rate. But most importantly, I want to make sure that these Iraqi commanders and these Iraqi soldiers, that every day are out there fighting this enemy, are supported in the way they should be supported. That's my ultimate aim. They need the support, they deserve it, and we're going to work very hard to improve the capacity of support up and down their chain of command.
Q Could I follow up?
MR. WHITMAN: Go ahead.
Q General, do you -- well, two things. One is that, do you think that the surge in forces is going to be required into next year? And the second thing is, do you have enough troops in your area now to do, you know, the job that needs to be done?
GEN. MIXON: I have enough soldiers in my area of Nineveh province, Salahuddin province and also Kirkuk province to provide that security and to conduct operations with those divisions in that area and to move them forward. I do not have enough soldiers right now in Diyala province to get that security situation moving.
We have plans to put additional forces in that area. I can't discuss the details of that. We have put additional forces in there over the last couple of months, an additional Stryker Battalion. But I'm going to need additional forces in Diyala province to get that situation to a more acceptable level so the Iraqi security forces will be able in the future to handle that.
Now, you ask about the continuance of the surge into next year. I can't answer that question. That's a question that needs to be addressed at a higher level. But I would say this, because it's relevant. You know, we just can't think about pulling out of here just like that. We need to have a long-term commitment in some form or fashion to ensure security in the region. It doesn't necessarily have to be the large number of brigades that we have here now, in my opinion, but we need a long-term commitment that will enable us to continue to work with the Iraqi security forces, just like we've done in other parts of the world and just like we have done in this region.
We have been engaged in countries in this region for many, many years. We maintained a presence after the first Gulf War in this region. We have worked with the other countries -- Jordan, Egypt, just to name two of them. So we will continue to need to be engaged to work with the Iraqi security forces for many years, but not necessarily at the current levels.
MR. WHITMAN: Luis.
Q General, it's Luis Martinez with ABC News. Last time you joined us, you also mentioned that you did not have enough forces in Diyala and that you were requesting additional forces to go in. Did you get the number of forces that you wanted for the situation at hand back then, or has the situation now deteriorated even further in Diyala that you need even greater numbers of forces there?
GEN. MIXON: I laid out a plan for General Odierno on the numbers of forces that I would need. We have made progress in those areas. We have taken terrain back from the enemy. General Odierno intends to give me additional forces as they become available. And I believe once we see those plans through, that the situation in Diyala will get to the level that we want it to get to, and that's that the Iraqi security forces can begin to take responsibility for the security in that area.
And by the way, that's the last division, that's the fifth division, that we need to pass control to Iraqi Ground Forces Command, and that's the ultimate aim that we're working towards by putting additional coalition forces in that area.
Q Can I follow up, sir? When you talk about Salahuddin and Nineveh province doing well, when do you anticipate that they will actually transition to full Iraqi sovereignty?
GEN. MIXON: Well, we call that provincial Iraqi control, as you know. The northern provinces, we anticipate that they will go to regional Iraqi control some time in the early summer. That's really a decision for the Iraqi government. I am looking at Nineveh province very hard now. I think that during the summer time frame that they will be ready to go to provincial Iraqi control. Once again, I make the recommendation, and that is worked out at higher levels.
On the other two provinces, I suspect that as we look at the situation in the latter part of the summer, early part of the fall, it will be worth taking a hard look at that point in time. Of course, we have to, you know, take a look at how well the government has moved along, and naturally, the enemy has a vote. And as you all know, the enemy is being pushed around out of places like Al Anbar and Baghdad, and we are anticipating some additional activity in our area. We're ready for it. We just have to see what happens in that area.
MR. WHITMAN: Bill.
Q General, Bill McMichael, Military Times papers. You said that defeating IEDs is a huge priority for you. Are you encountering explosively formed penetrators in your provinces? Are you having any -- is somebody finding -- having any luck interdicting those? And are you -- if so, are you doing that at the -- able to do that along the border regions rather than before they actually reach to the cells that are using them?
GEN. MIXON: That's a great question. We have had a -- some, as we call them, EFPs. We made a huge cache find about two months ago in Diyala province. That almost eliminated the EFPs within our area, but we anticipate seeing them again, of course, so we are staying on the hunt for them. We're adapting new technologies to detect IEDs and are working that issue very hard.
So to answer your question, yes, we have seen them, but the numbers have gone down dramatically since we had a huge interdiction of a large cache about two months ago.
Q If I could, a quick follow, General. Are you -- so are you actually seeking these out perhaps at places where they might be crossing the border? Do you have efforts that are ongoing in that regard?
GEN. MIXON: Well, I don't want to discuss the details or the information, but the answer to your question is yes, we are in selected areas. But our information leads us to believe that they are coming across in other locations, not necessarily in my area of responsibility.
MR. WHITMAN: Carl.
Q General, I'm Carl Osgood. I write for Executive Intelligence Review. Can you characterize how the level of violence in your area, particularly in the non-Kurdish parts of your area, has changed over the last four months since the beginning -- over four or five months since the beginning of the surge, basically?
GEN. MIXON: We've seen the level of violence in Diyala province increase. We believe that's caused by two factors. Number one, we have picked up our level of offensive operations, so we've been engaging the enemy and moving them out of areas that they in the past were operating and may have had safe haven. But number two, we also do believe that there are elements moving out of Baghdad.
In the other areas, the level of violence has remained about the same. But we have seen more spectacular attacks, VBIEDs and so forth, directed against the civilian population, directed against the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army. But we also have seen a greater number of attacks against civilians throughout our battlespace. And so that's what we have seen across my area of operation.
MR. WHITMAN: Let's go back to Kristin.
Q Sir, can you tell us exactly what the increase in the level of violence in Diyala has been and is that what’s behind your need for additional forces there?
GEN. MIXON: No, that's not exactly what's driving it. We did our analysis after coming in here in September, and we began to get a better feel for exactly what the enemy was doing in Diyala, which -- by the way, Diyala has always been a focus for al Qaeda in Iraq. It's where many of their high-level individuals have been killed or captured. They declared it their caliphate about a year or two ago. So they have been in there for a while.
But as our great soldiers down there began to understand the terrain, we began to find where they are at. It's a large province. It's very different than Baghdad, and there's lots of places that the enemy can hide. And quite frankly, there's a lot of former regime elements in there, and the Sunni population in certain areas were providing them support.
So we stepped up our offensive operations, and it was at that point that I realized I was going to need additional forces. So I requested those additional forces, and General Odierno has been providing them over time as they've been available.
Q Not related to the surge in Baghdad, to the security crackdown in Baghdad, any transfer of violence outside of the city to other areas.
GEN. MIXON: No. The level of violence began to increase before the surge. It has increased, of course, during the surge. But to try to put a specific measurement on that, the best I can tell you is, is we are sure that there are elements, both Sunni extremist and Shi'a extremist, that have moved out of Baghdad and they have relocated into not only Diyala province but also into Salahuddin province. We anticipated that and we intend to do something about it.
Q General, you talked about -- earlier you talked about the -- you know, some of the problems with the central government, one of them being hampering promotions of officers in the Iraqi security forces. Is that type of interference or whatever -- is it sectarian related? In other words, are you having problems getting Sunni officers promoted because you're dealing with a government that's controlled by Shi'a?
GEN. MIXON: I have seen the problems in providing the support, and let me just say across the board to -- the Iraqi army and the police basically falls into three categories. The first one, of course, is they are inexperienced. Many of them, this is the first time they've been in those positions, so that is causing them some difficulty and that is understandable.
The second part of that is tremendous bureaucratic process where everything is centralized in Baghdad. And this probably relates to the way things were run in the past, and we have to change that. We have to get more authority down to the provisional directors of police and the Iraqi army division commanders.
And then the second part, there is indications in some cases of sectarian issues in the hiring of certain sects, and we work to combat that. So it's a combination of a number of things that we have to work with the central government on to make sure that the right support and the right decisions are being made for the overall security of the Iraqi people.
Q Is that the case in both the army and the police, or is it just the police, these issues of -- you know, involving hiring of certain sects?
GEN. MIXON: It's principally in the police. I've seen more of it in the police. I have seen a little bit of it in the army, but the army seems to do a better job of balancing the force.
Q It's really quick.
MR. WHITMAN: We're just about out of time, so -- (inaudible) -- for Courtney here.
Q He's still talking. Yeah, we missed it.
MR. WHITMAN: I'm sorry. I -- we talked over you. I talked over you there on the last part of your answer there, General.
GEN. MIXON: Okay, let me start over.
What we have to work on across the board is to convince all of the population, whether they be Sunni, Shi'a, Kurd, Turkoman -- you name it -- to become a part of the Iraqi security forces. That's at the grassroots level. And then we have to ensure that up and down the chain that they are treated fair and equitable, and that's what we are going to focus on in working with the various ministries that have decision-making authorities, whether it be police, army or the border security forces that I work with.
MR. WHITMAN: All right, we have one last quick one, and then we'll bring it to a close, General.
Go ahead, Courtney.
Q General, this is Courtney Kube at NBC again, and just one quick question on Diyala province. Can you give us an idea of how many U.S. soldiers and how many Iraqi security forces you have there currently?
GEN. MIXON: Well, I have a reinforced U.S. brigade in that area, okay? That brigade, you know, is in the neighborhood of 3,500 or so soldiers. And I have the 5th Iraqi Division in there, which is a little over 10,000 Iraqi army soldiers, I believe, and I've got several thousand police in that area. The police in that area are authorized about 3,000 more. We're working to have them hired and trained so we can put additional police in the street.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, General, we have come to the end of our time. And I want to give an opportunity to you for any closing remarks or anything we might have missed here that you'd like to tell us about.
GEN. MIXON: Well, I appreciate the opportunity to talk to the press, because we want to make sure that we get our message out to the American people and they stay informed about what's really happening over here in Iraq. I guess I would conclude by saying that we are making progress. It is slow, but we need to continue to move forward. Because what is going on here in Iraq is vitally important to our nation's security and security within the region.
We cannot lose sight of that, and we can't take the short-term approach. We must take a long-term vision here. Our soldiers understand that. They're proud of what they're doing. We're proud of our soldiers and families and their sacrifices, and we need to keep our eye on the ball, and to stay focused on the long-term effects of having a safe and secure Iraq that can govern itself. I appreciate this opportunity, and God bless America.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, thank you for your time, General, and we look forward to meeting with you like this in another couple of months. Thank you.
GEN. MIXON: Okay, thank you very much.
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