DoD News Briefing with Col. Ricky Gibbs at the Pentagon
BRYAN WHITMAN (Pentagon spokesman): Well good morning. Good afternoon to you, Colonel, and thank you for joining us this afternoon.
It's my privilege to introduce our briefer today, who is Colonel Ricky Gibbs, who is the commander of the 4th Brigade 1st Infantry Division. His brigade arrived in Iraq in March, and he operates as part of Multinational Division-Baghdad. He's briefing us today from Camp Liberty in Baghdad. And this is his first opportunity in our forum of this nature to talk to you, and he's going to give you a brief overview of what his unit's been doing, and then take some of your questions.
So, Colonel Gibbs, thanks for taking the time this afternoon, and welcome to this format with the Pentagon press corps.
COL. GIBBS: Well thank you, and good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Thanks for having me here today.
As Bryan said, I am Colonel Rick Gibbs, and I command the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Infantry Division, known as the Dragon Brigade, from Fort Riley, Kansas.
Task Force Dragon is comprised of more than 4,000 soldiers in seven battalions from different duty stations in the United States and Germany, and this is our first deployment to Iraq, after standing up in January of 2006 as one of the Army's newest modular light infantry brigade combat teams. And four months ago, we deployed to the East and West Rashid Security Districts in the Multinational Division- Baghdad area of operations as part of the President's Iraq troop surge announced in January.
Now, our area we operate in is approximately 58 square miles, which is slightly larger than the city of San Francisco, and has a comparable population density of about 700,000 people. And in our area we are actively partnered with one Iraqi army brigade and two national police brigades, and we have fostered cooperation and teamwork by empowering the Iraqi leadership of these brigades to take the lead in our many security, governance and essential service initiatives.
Our operations are not just focused on the kinetic operations or combat, but also on governance, essential services and economic functions as well.
We currently have 127 active projects throughout the districts, east and west, with another 62 projects in the planning phase. More importantly, our project managers have worked very closely with the neighborhood council and the district action council for Rashid district to increase the number of Iraqi-planned and -funded projects throughout Rashid.
Helping us in this endeavor is our new Provincial Reconstruction Team. This State Department-led program allows us to better identify, develop and manage the kinds of systems needed for the local governments and businesses here to grow and flourish. They offer -- they also offer -- perhaps the most valuable aspect is their training and mentorship of the local government officials to teach them how to stand up a government and manage that government.
We are currently now in the middle of a combat operation called Operation Dragon Fire. Together with the 3rd Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division's Arrowhead Brigade, which is commanded by my good friend Colonel Steve Townsend, and our three partnered Iraqi security force brigades, we are clearing the areas in order to defeat those extremist actors and those criminals who are using the area as a safe haven to launch attacks against the peace-loving Iraqi people and coalition forces.
Just some of the significant results of this operation I'd like to highlight:
We've cleared 45 neighborhoods or what we call -- or what the Iraqis call mahalas. And we've done that in the last three weeks.
We've destroyed one large truck-borne improvised explosive device containing 14 155-millimeter rounds that could have been used against innocent Iraqis and coalition forces.
We've detained over 94 people who we are -- think suspects in these terrorist operations; 24 suspected terrorists put in long-term detention, and of those 24, 16 we consider to be high-value individuals who are cell leaders, financiers and organizers of the various insurgent and criminal factions in the Rashid security districts.
We freed two kidnap victims, one of those being a retired Iraqi army general.
We've captured 245 small-arms and rocket-propelled grenade systems. We captured four complete mortar systems of various calibers, another 397 explosive munitions, destroyed three car bombs and more than 150 completed improvised explosive devices and enough components to make about 3,000 more IEDs.
We destroyed two torture houses and one terrorist safe haven, which also was a cache location.
Perhaps of equal importance in this operation were the many essential service projects we've been able to accomplish during this operation. For example, we've established safe neighborhoods and safe markets. We conducted cleanup of those safe neighborhoods and sanitation projects in those neighborhoods, and we've re-established electrical power throughout the district; not fully, but we've worked on it and improved the lives of the Iraqi people.
Now, unfortunately, this operation did not come without loss. We will never forget the six Dragon soldiers and the one Arrowhead soldier who paid the ultimate sacrifice since our operation began in early May. We will never forget them, and our condolences and prayers go out to their families and friends.
Now with that, I'll entertain any questions you might have.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, thank you, Colonel. We do have a few here. Let's just start on the end with Pam.
Q Colonel, this is Pam Hess with United Press International. The 16 high-value detainees that you have, do you understand them to have been always resident in Baghdad or did they move in in order to oppose you, and if they were there for a long time and how long had they been operating?
COL. GIBBS: Some of them lived in the Baghdad area, and some of them have come in from outside of the Baghdad area and from other places in Iraq. How long they've lived in the area, I can't really say. I've been here now four months with my troopers, but since we've been here, we've been tracking them and trying to take them off the streets.
So we have a mix -- those that live there and those that are brought in from across Iraq. And they bring in new ones and hire new ones as we take them off the street.
Q Are these Sunnis? Are they associated with al Qaeda in Iraq or Ansar al-Sunna or another insurgent group?
COL. GIBBS: Yes to both. We have indications of al Qaeda and we have indications of Jaish al-Mahdi, so we have a little bit of both in the Rashid security district.
MR. WHITMAN: Jennifer.
Q Hi, Colonel. It's Jennifer Griffin with Fox News. What impact do you think Muqtada al-Sadr's re-emergence on the scene today will have on your area and also on the rest of the situation there?
COL. GIBBS: Well, I just heard that about an hour ago myself. My prediction will be that we'll have, you know, demonstrations, but most of the demonstrations that I've seen since I've been here have been peaceful, and we'll watch that and see what happens. But I would suspect we'll have some demonstrations, and -- which is good, because that's what we tell them, it's -- in a democracy, you can voice your opinion in a peaceful fashion, and so that's what we're going to look for.
MR. WHITMAN: Joe.
Q Colonel, this is Joe Tabet with Al Hurra. You mentioned in your opening statement that you are working or cooperating with one Iraqi brigade and two police Iraqi brigades. If you can give us more details on that. And my second question is, how much do you think the increase of the size of the Iraqi army is helpful?
COL. GIBBS: I'm sorry. Your question wasn't -- it was garbled. I didn't understand the whole question.
Q Yeah. My question is -- my first question is if you can give us more details about your cooperation with the Iraqi brigades that you mentioned in your statement.
COL. GIBBS: Yes. And I think your second question was, how much are they working with us?
To the first question, the operation that we're in right now, Operation Dragon Fire, was planned, rehearsed and executed and is still being executed with full cooperation of our Iraqi forces. You heard in my first statement we have one Iraqi army brigade from Irbil, and we have two national police brigades partnered with my brigade, and those two national police brigades are from the Baghdad area. So we planned it, we rehearsed it, we shared intelligence, and we're conducting the operation side by side. In some cases they take the lead; in other cases we take the lead. But again, we're working very closely together.
MR. WHITMAN: Courtney.
Q Hi, Colonel. This is Courtney Kube from NBC News. I just want to make sure I understood a couple of things correctly that you said. Operation Dragon Fire began early May and it's continuing now, correct?
COL. GIBBS: Yes.
Q And you said you found enough explosives to make 30,000 IEDs over the course of that time, is that correct?
COL. GIBBS: No, I said 3,000. We found enough components to build approximately 3,000 improvised explosive devices.
Q Okay. Great. And then also on Jennifer's question about Muqtada al-Sadr, you said you're expecting to have some demonstrations, and you have seen some already. Can you tell us a little bit more about that? I mean, who's conducting these demonstrations?
COL. GIBBS: About a month ago, we saw two different demonstrations in two parts or different areas of East and West Rashid District. Both of those were peaceful, and both of those, in our assessment, were conducted Jaish al-Mahdi units or factions. But again, both were peaceful. They walked down the street, they walked into the neighborhoods, and they dispersed on their own.
Q And have you seen any since Muqtada al-Sadr has returned to Iraq yet?
COL. GIBBS: No, I have not. I have not seen that yet. As a matter of fact, I just heard about Muqtada al-Sadr's alleged return about two hours ago.
MR. WHITMAN: Andrew.
Q Colonel, this is Andrew Gray from Reuters. What is your biggest concern about your operations? If you're looking into the future, are all the pieces in place, do you think, for stability to be established long term, or what do you feel is missing? What keeps you up at night?
COL. GIBBS: Probably what keeps me up the most at night really are two things. The first is the ability of the national police to hire enough Iraqis to join their ranks, train them and equip them to conduct operations side by side with U.S. forces. We have them with us now, but they don't gain as much confidence in the people as the Iraqi army does. And I think that's normal because it's a fairly new force that has to gain training and equipment and people before they can gain the respect of the people. That's number one.
And number two I think would be the ability the NACs and the District Advisory -- the NAC being the Neighborhood Council, and the DACs, the DAC being the District Advisory Council, to provide those services in an immature environment for the people of the East and West Rashid Security Districts.
Q Can I just follow up on that? You know, we've heard a lot about clear, hold and build. And it sounds once again that you've done a lot of clearing; you can do that. It's the holding and especially the building you have concerns about. Is there anything more that can be done on that front?
COL. GIBBS: I didn't understand -- I heard "anything more to be done" -- for what?
Q In terms of the building, I guess. If you have clear, hold and build, when you get to "build," what needs to happen? How can you strengthen those councils? What elements, perhaps provided by the U.S. government or by others, could increase your chances of success there?
COL. GIBBS: What could be done to help the councils, I think we have in place, is the Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Those are the experts in governance and business; and Iraqi cultural advisers that I have on my team and that we have down through the brigade combat team down to the battalion level, who advise me on the military side of what we need to do to help in both training and resources. And they also go down into those councils when they meet and advise the councils, and then set up training for the leaders from each of those councils, and then provide them mentorship when they execute those particular meetings -- the city halls, the chamber of commerce is probably the closest relation to what we have in the United States.
In the military side, I just think they need to keep moving out with hiring equal representation of both Sunni, Shi'as, Kurds and Christians to come into the national police, provide them the requisite training, and provide them the resources to execute what they need to do to provide security in an unbiased way for those Iraqi citizens who want peace and prosperity. And that's really what they want. Everyone I talk to on the street, their number one concern is security.
Q Colonel, Jonathan Karl with ABC News. We heard yesterday from both the president and from the Defense secretary concerns that this could be a very difficult, bloody summer as insurgents try to throw the coalition effort off course. What are you seeing ahead in your area? Are you anticipating that we could see a further upsurge of violence in your area?
And then I just have a technical question, if you can give me a rundown of joint security stations and combat outposts in your AOR.
COL. GIBBS: We have seen since we've been here a down surge in murders and sectarian violence, but an upsurge in violence against coalition forces. And why is that so? It's because we have increased the troop strength in this particular area. I think we've almost doubled it in the area that I'm in, and we've moved into those areas that were particular hotspots to force out the extremist actors and those people that are causing the violence. So what does that mean? It means they attack us to try to get us out because they now no longer have the freedom of movement and freedom of action to take and make violence against local Iraqis.
Regarding the days ahead, we are training their leaders and we're taking them off the streets. Since I've been here, I think our count is up to over 200 of key figures that we've taken off the streets who are planning, financing and executing those operations in the streets of -- at least East and West Rashid.
Can you say what the second question was?
Q Just if you could give me an idea of what you have by way of joint security stations and combat outposts in your area. And are your soldiers actually staying overnight in these JSS's? Are they -- how much time are they actually spending out there?
COL. GIBBS: That's a good question. Yes, we have joint security stations. To be exact, I have five joint security stations and 20 coalition outposts, or COPs, is what we call it. A COP or coalition outpost is where my companies are living in the mohallahs or the neighborhoods with the Iraqi people, and that's where they live, work 24 hours, seven days a week. And they rotate on a particular schedule back to our forward operating base, Falcon, to get a couple days, three days, four days a rest, whatever the cycle that they're on. Each battalion has its own particular cycle based upon the area that they're operating in.
These coalition outposts allow us to live amongst the people, that have a place that's closer to the people where they can come and offer tips on what's going on, which, by the way, the tips that are coming in from the people are astronomical, and that's allowing us to find these terrorists or the Takfir, as the locals call them, and take them off the street. The joint security stations are the planning and control headquarters for a given number of these coalition outposts. It's the -- for lack of a better word, it's like the police station for a district. So the joint security station sits roughly in the middle of a number of neighborhoods and a number of coalition outposts, which the locals can walk in, give a tip, or call in and give a tip, or walk in and ask a question about anyone that has been arrested or that one -- that is missing that we might be able to help them find.
Q Just quickly follow up, how many of -- how many soldiers on average are in these coalition outposts? How many are actually living there, you know, spending -- doing the 24-hour deal you talked about?
COL. GIBBS: In a coalition outpost on average, it's between 90 and 125, 150.
COL. GIBBS: (Off mike) -- it's probably around 50 to 100.
MR. WHITMAN: Gordon.
Q Sir, Gordon Lubold from the Christian Science Monitor.
To what degree has that greater decentralized approach caused more exposure for your soldiers? And have they been in greater danger? Have you seen more casualties as a result?
COL. GIBBS: I didn't understand that question. All I heard was, casualties.
Q Try again, I'm wondering if the more decentralized approach you're taking, and with the combat outposts and the other centers, has that caused greater casualties among your soldiers, because they are more exposed?
COL. GIBBS: Well, I wouldn't say they're more exposed. The coalition outposts that we have them in are well-defended and protected as we can make them. Our soldiers are trained to live and operate in those kinds of conditions. And frankly every soldier that I talk to when I go out and visit would rather be in the coalition outpost, as opposed to living on the forward operating bases. The casualties that we may see or will see or have seen have been a result of, we're finding the enemy and we're closing with the enemy as infantry soldiers are supposed to do. And as a result of that, we make contact and unfortunately we lose a soldier or we get soldiers wounded.
Q Colonel, Tom Bowman with National Public Radio.
I wanted to get back to Jaish al-Mahdi and Muqtada al-Sadr for a second, if I could. You said, you expect more demonstrations. And you mention, it's part of the democratic process.
But the bottom line is, it can't help your situation. They want you out of Iraq; they want you to leave. And won't the more demonstrations in his return just increase sectarian divisions? It can't make your situation easier.
COL. GIBBS: Well, here's what I see, and I walk the streets with my soldiers every week. The average Iraqi on the street, when you ask them -- or when I ask them the question, I've gotten no yeses -- do you want the Americans to stay here in Iraq? And they say, yes, you cannot leave us now; without you as the honest broker, then we are in trouble.
The ones who are fomenting the violence and stirring the pot are al Qaeda for their own good, which is not for what the Iraqi people want. And then the JAM, who have their own agenda. But again, it's a small number.
When you talk to the average person on the street, and I'm out probably six days a week on the street visiting each of my 20 cops that I have spread across that city of Detroit, as I mentioned earlier. I talk to the people on the street, and I make a point of asking them that question: Do you want us here? They say, yes, we need you here to help provide that security, so we can stand up on our own two feet.
Q Lastly, if you could give a sense of the makeup of this Rashid area, is it a mix of Sunni-Shi'a, mostly Shi'a? Give us a ballpark percentage if you could.
COL. GIBBS: I'd probably say, it's about 50-50.
Each area has some -- you know, on the west side you have -- again, both on the east and the west, you have a mix, but you have pockets of Sunni neighborhoods, you have pockets of Shi'a neighborhoods, and you have some small pockets of Christian neighborhoods, predominantly on the east side in reference to Christian.
And so what happens is, the terrorists, al Qaeda or JAM or just common criminals, try to get in the middle of those crowds and cause a ruckus and get the two sides to fight and then try to blame it on the other side and the fact that the United States and the coalition partners cannot keep them safe, which is not true. They have resulted (sic) to catastrophic acts of violence to try to send a signal which is not true. By and large, the security is going well, and the coalition outposts are doing phenomenal work to help provide that security.
MR. WHITMAN: Al?
Q Colonel, it's Al Pessin with Voice of America. You mentioned material for 3,000 IEDs and the 200 insurgent leaders that you captured. Can you give us a sense of whether you think those are the kinds of numbers that are going to change the future of your area, or are there lots more explosives and lots more leaders out there?
And with regard to the future, do you think it'll be possible by September to make a realistic assessment of how the surge and the new security plan are going?
COL. GIBBS: Reference to leaders and equipment -- yes, there's more people -- there are more leaders out there, and there are -- there is more equipment out there. But we take it off the street fairly quickly.
Ideally, in the future they may bring in the leaders that are out there, but they're not trained. They -- as with -- the faster we take them off the street, put them behind bars for long-term detention, that dips into their trained leaders. And we've seen that so far. We've taken those 200 leaders off the street, and what we see are more reckless, untrained people trying to step and take over. And that's a good thing for us, because that means we can predict an attack and take those people off the street.
Regarding the equipment, we're -- we know roughly where that equipment comes, where -- the lines of infiltration of that equipment in that area.
And the troop surge that we have in place is targeting those routes that they bring that stuff in, and we're taking it off the street. And you saw the numbers in my opening comments.
We make assessments every day on our plan, and we're making steps towards progress. But I think -- everybody says it correctly, this is not a quick win. It's not measured in days, it's measured in months. And I'll let my bosses make that determination on where we are in September.
MR. WHITMAN: Ken, go ahead.
Q Colonel, Kent Fireman from Bloomberg News. You mentioned that the district was split pretty much 50-50 between Sunnis and Shi'as. Have you seen that composition change over time? And is there any sign that one group or the other is trying to drive the other out?
COL. GIBBS: It has changed in the four months I've been here, yes. The Shi'a will try to push out the Sunni. The Sunni will then push back in the Shi'a. And now that we're here and have been able to establish that security and we've cleaned it out, we've seen the families move back in. The exact numbers of families I can't give you because we measure each mahala differently based upon whether or not it's a Sunni or a Shi'a mahala. But it changes based upon the security in that area. And so far, we're doing pretty well with security in all of the mahalas. We've seen an influx of families come in, and a smaller number of families being pushed out.
Q But you've pretty much put an end to the kind of ethnic cleansing that was going on before you began your operation?
COL. GIBBS: I'm sorry, sir. I lost you there for a minute. Say that again, please.
Q Are you saying that you have pretty much put an end to the kind of ethnic cleansing that was going on before you began your operation?
COL. GIBBS: Yes. We track the numbers from when we came in and where we are today, and we have lowered it by 50 percent --
Q Thank you.
MR. WHITMAN: Maybe time for one more.
COL. GIBBS: (Off mike.)
MR. WHITMAN: Sir, we want to hear the end of your answer there, Colonel.
We cut you off for a moment. Yeah, you said you had cut it down by 50 percent, and then we accidentally cut you off.
COL. GIBBS: No, that's -- I'm sorry. Yeah, we -- from the time we arrived, we saw the numbers of what was occurring in sectarian violence, and that was one of our tasks. That's our primary task, is to protect the people, and so we watch those numbers very closely, and we can categorically say in my area, in East and West Rashid, that we've cut those numbers in half.
MR. WHITMAN: (Off mike) -- more. Go ahead, Bill.
Q Colonel, Bill McMichael, Military Times newspapers. You said you've seen an upsurge in violence or attacks against your forces. Could you give us an idea of how that's changed -- maybe an average daily rate from when you first came into the country versus now and characterize the types of attacks that -- you know, what's causing those attacks? And are you seeing any evidence of these EFPs we've been hearing about?
COL. GIBBS: We've seen -- again, we've seen a downsurge in murders and sectarian violence, and we've seen an increase against our forces. We predicted that would happen, and we've seen it now for the last three or four weeks, the numbers go down. And why have they gone down? It's because we have moved into the neighborhoods, and they've tested us. They've tried to figure out if they can take us on head to head, which they -- obviously they cannot. So they've tried to nip at our heels when we first came in to test us and see what we were doing in different circumstances that they were to attack us with. They had an increased number of attacks in numbers, and not anything that we cannot overcome. And since they can't do that, now they try to get after these catastrophic attacks with vehicle-borne IEDs and improvised explosive devices to cause that catastrophic damage. So the attacks against our combat outposts has -- I'm seeing a decline in my area, but we have seen an increase in the improvised explosive devices.
But the good news is just last night, one of my units went out on the street late at night, and they were able to dismantle over 26 improvised explosive devices in one particular neighborhood.
And they could do that because our soldiers, our great soldiers and leaders are figuring out the enemy faster than they're figuring us out. So they were able to get in there, get tips from the people, go to the locations where the people said they found -- they saw people putting in those improvised explosive devices, and we were able to take those devices off the street without any loss of life or damage.
Q I'm sorry, Colonel. You said that there's been an increase in attacks against the forces, but then you just said there's been a decrease in the last three to four weeks or you're down the last three to four weeks. Could you reconcile those? I'm confused.
COL. GIBBS: Yes. When we first arrived, there was a spike against us because we were moving in, we had more force, and we were moving into those areas where they had free rein. So they tried to push us out, they tried to attack us to see if they could figure out what our weak spots were, and in my assessment, they found that we didn't have any weak spots, so now they can't kick us out of a COP, coalition outpost. So those attacks in that fashion have gone down, and the IEDs, improvised explosive devices, kind of nipping at our heels, as I call it, have kind of gone up.
But again, the good news story was we figure out their tactics, techniques and procedures for putting those in thanks to the tips of the people who want peace, and when then go out and pick them up and take them off the street.
Q Are you seeing any EFPs in your gathering of IED materials or attacks with EFPs?
COL. GIBBS: I'm sorry, EFPs?
MR. WHITMAN: That's correct. If there are EFPs that you're finding as part of your -- these IEDs that you're picking up.
COL. GIBBS: How many -- what percentage we're finding, is that what you asked?
Q If any?
MR. WHITMAN: If you're finding any and if you can quantify that, that would be great.
COL. GIBBS: Yeah, we're finding EFPs. It's probably about 25 -- and again, my numbers aren't exactly right -- but 15 to 20 percent is my guess on what we're finding. In all the IED attacks, approximately, 15 to 20 percent of those are EFPs.
Q If they've gone up, IEDs have gone up, the overall percentage or number that they've gone up by?
COL. GIBBS: No, I don't have the number off the top of my head how many they went up, but we can get that and get that to you.
Q EFPs in JAM areas or have you been able to associate them with any groups? I'm wondering if they've migrated to Sunni hands.
COL. GIBBS: What I'm seeing in my area is, they're predominantly al Qaeda.
MR. WHITMAN: (Off mike) -- have already gone over our time, and we do want to be respectful of the colonel's time. We appreciate you taking some time with us.
And before we bring it to a close, though, let me turn it back to you, Colonel Gibbs, just in case there's anything you want to add or cover that perhaps we didn't touch upon.
COL. GIBBS: While I think your questions were all good and fair questions, I will tell you that -- in closing, I'll say that -- how proud and pleased I am of the performance of our great soldiers and leaders. Every day they amaze me, and they never stop amazing me with their bravery, their kindness to the Iraqi people, their determination and their sheer will.
You know, despite the extreme heat -- I think today we're around 112 (degrees); I heard somebody say 123 -- often periods of little to no sleep, they eagerly step out the gate and take the fight to the enemy. And even when they take a loss, they haven't lost their determination. And what makes me proud of them is that they know what they're stepping into, and they're eager to get out there and do it.
The American people can be proud of their men and women serving their country here in Iraq, because they truly are making a difference.
Secondly, I want to thank the American people for your support. Your many kind letters, your care packages are always constant reminders of your love and support. So thank you there.
And finally, I'd be remiss if I did not thank our families back at Fort Riley, our family readiness groups, all our volunteers, to Fort Riley and the surrounding communities back home. I want to thank you for what you've done for us, for what you're doing for us now, and for what you're going to do for us in the days ahead.
So with that, thank you for having me.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, thank you, Colonel, and we hope to have you back soon.
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