COL. GARY KECK: (Press Office director): Well, good morning, everyone, and welcome to the Pentagon Briefing Room. I am Colonel Gary Keck, the director of the Press Office. And it's my privilege today to introduce to you our briefer from Iraq, Major General Mark Hertling, who is the commander of Multinational Division North and 1st Armored Division.
Let me make sure General Hertling can hear us. Sir, can you hear me all right?
GEN. HERTLING: I can, Gary. Can hear you real well.
COL. KECK: This is General Hertling's fourth time to brief us. And he assumed responsibilities in this area in October, and he spoke to us last in February. So he's coming to us from Operating Base Speicher outside of Tikrit. And with that, I'm going to turn it over to General Hertling for his opening comments. Over to you, sir.
GEN. HERTLING: All right, thanks, Gary. Appreciate it. And thanks to everybody for having me today. Good morning to you in Washington. I'm going to read a few things first and then -- make that very brief, and then take as many questions as we can shove into the time we have.
The last time, as Gary said, that I spoke to the group was 11 February. On that particular day, we had been involved in an operation we were calling Iron Harvest down in Diyala, the southern part of our province, for about a month and a half. And it was just a few days after that press briefing that we thought we had secured the area enough to switch -- using a military term -- our main effort and start pushing enablers, like aviation, engineers, intelligence, up to the northern province of Nineveh, and specifically the city of Mosul. We did that in about mid-February, and we began to set the conditions for the operations which are ongoing there now, along with our Iraqi brothers in the 2nd and 3rd Iraqi army division.
It was about that same time too, by the way, that Lieutenant General Riyadh, who was named the head of the Nineveh Operations Command, took charge of that center in Mosul, and we've been partnering with him every since. And as you know, he kicked off Operation Lion's Roar on the 10th of May and preceded that with another operation he's calling Umma al-Rabiain, which means Mother of Two Springs, the name -- or the nick-name for the city of Mosul.
So while we continued to fight through the February-March-April time frame in the southern part of our area of operations -- which, just as a reminder, is about the size of the state of Pennsylvania -- we really shifted our effort primarily to Mosul and also some of the other areas where we thought the enemy was located, and that enemy being specifically al Qaeda.
With our Iraqi brothers in the four Iraqi army divisions which are part of the northern provinces, we've seen some significant gains over the last several months in the north, more so in Salahuddin, Diyala and Kirkuk province, but less so in Nineveh and specifically Mosul, although that's beginning to change as well.
I'll answer any questions that you all have regarding some of these. But I suspect you'll be most interested in what we've accomplished in Diyala, how that province sits right now, and there have been some huge successes down there. But also I'm sure that many of you have a lot of questions about what's going on in Nineveh and the city of Mosul specifically.
Before I do that, though, I do want to cite some statistics for you. The number of IEDs, that thing that many of you focus on, that we've seen in the north have gone from about 900 a month, average, in the month of February to down around 550 in the month of May. At the end of May that was our count. That's even going a little bit further down in the first couple of days in June. So that is an indicator of increasing security gains.
Additionally, we're finding and clearing about 50 percent of those numbers, on average, every month. So whereas that's still about 550 or so too many, as far as I'm concerned, it is showing a decreasing presence. And that's directly related to the improved capability of the Iraqi security forces, the contributions of the Sons of Iraq, the psyche of the Iraqi people and many of the fighters who have been fighting us just tired, quite frankly, of fighting -- and I'd like to talk about some of the reconciliation effort, if anyone's interested -- but also some of the cache finds and the capability of our soldiers.
We've captured or killed a significant number of level-one and level-two AQI fighters throughout the north. Level one are those we define as emirs or walis, the guys who are really leading the fight and who are the ideological head of AQI. The level two are more the ones that would be considered battalion commanders. You can't equate a battalion commander in AQI to a battalion commander in any army, because usually those battalions consist of anywhere between five or 30 people versus the several hundred that you would find in a normal army organization.
We've also captured or killed some level three fighters. Soldiers call those the pipe swingers. And those are the guys who are more interested in being paid for their work than they are linked to the ideological calling of the organization.
Some of you have heard and some of you have reported that many key AQI leaders have escaped. That first report came out of Diyala province when we were in Muqdadiyah. I've seen reports of it since we started our operation in Mosul, and I would suggest to you that that's -- just isn't true.
I'd be interested in where those comments come from. We've captured or killed a significant number of al Qaeda fighters in both Diyala and Nineveh as well as the two of our other provinces. And those who did leave or attempt to leave, we're continuing to pursue those in some of the desert areas throughout our area of operations.
But while all this is happening, what's most interesting as far as I'm concerned is what's happening not only in terms of the improved capability of the Iraqi army -- less so in the Iraqi police, but even they're improving significantly -- but also what's happening in the provincial governments, as we see governors, provincial consuls, director generals do some things now because the security posture's increased, more so than we've seen them since we were here in October.
We're also seeing some very positive changes in the job market and some increases in potential for investment in the various -- very wealthy communities that are around our area.
And I'll talk about any of those things, as well as maybe some objects concerning reconciliation. I know some reporters are interested in some of the suicide vest incidents we've had lately, or some of the things that have occurred just over the last few days. But I'll leave that up to you-all to ask the questions.
So those are my opening remarks, and I'd be happy to try and answer any of your questions now.
COL. KECK: Well, thank you, sir. We appreciate it.
And as we go into questions, please remember that General Hertling can't see you, so please identify yourself and your news agency.
And let's go ahead and start with Courtney.
Q Hi, General. This is Courtney Kube from NBC News. Defense officials, military officials continue to call Mosul the last urban stronghold of al Qaeda in Iraq. I'm curious, as the numbers in the surge continue to move -- as the troops in the surge continue to redeploy, there's talk of additional redeployments -- the numbers of troops in Iraq going down -- are you concerned, as the commander of this area of Mosul, that you aren't going to have enough troops? Do you have enough now? Looking forward, I mean, where do you see your area standing?
GEN. HERTLING: Well, I think the comments about Mosul being the last urban stronghold stand true today. It certainly is an urban stronghold. But I think one of the things that's been interesting is the majority of efforts in Mosul itself have been conducted by Iraqi forces, not us. We were able to contribute in the build-up of the security measures. As an example, there were almost 30 combat outposts built between that February time frame I talked about and the start of operations on 10 May. Most of those were done primarily by U.S. engineers with some help from Iraqi engineers that are improving in capability.
We are continuing to provide air support. We just did a major air insertion of an entire Iraqi brigade using U.S. helicopters last week in a very successful operation the Iraqis called Lion's Hunt in the western desert.
So I mean, we're still contributing to this. But quite frankly my partner, General Riyadh, has been leading the charge in Mosul to improve the security conditions there. Right now, I think, it would probably be accurate to say it is the urban stronghold today.
But I'll never say anything is last with al Qaeda, because you never know what's going to happen to them next. We think that they have gone out into the desert areas. We are pursuing them out there.
We have had some very successful operations in the past several weeks in the desert surrounding Mosul. But security conditions continue to improve in Mosul itself, based on primarily the Iraqi security forces, with our help.
Q General, it's Tom Bowman with NPR.
Could you offer a little more detail on the leadership that you're picking up, with al Qaeda, in Diyala and Ninawa? And also you mentioned the level three fighters, those who are just doing it for a buck. Give us a sense of the numbers you're rolling up. And finally any sense of foreign fighters here or evidence of foreign financing?
GEN. HERTLING: Yes, there's quite a bit of evidence and, in fact, some foreign fighters that we have detained, primarily in the north but also in northern Salahaddin province, if you know where that is, near the towns of Shirkat and some other areas.
We're seeing some foreign-fighter lines of operations coming in, from both the open Syrian desert to the west but also through the north, through the Syrian ports, that they're being smuggled in, in various ways.
We had an incident just last week, as a matter of fact, or two weeks ago, I guess, where a tanker truck, a water tanker truck, was stopped at a checkpoint, by a group of Sons of Iraq surprisingly that wouldn't let it go through even after an attempted bribe.
The driver got out, exploded a suicide vest. Some folks jumped out of the back of the tank. About nine people were inside the back of the tank; started spraying ammunition. All nine of those were killed. Two Iraqi policemen and SOIs were killed.
But it was a pretty good, interesting fight in terms of how some of these folks are trying to smuggle themselves in. That was in southern Salahaddin province, by the way.
So yeah, we're seeing some indicators of foreign fighters. Those are the level two and below guys. We are seeing some foreign fighter facilitators throughout Ninawa. Those are the ones that are trying to move foreign fighters.
And we're seeing them primarily from a couple of countries, the big ones being Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Northern Africa; some from Kuwait; some from other countries within the region. But they're all part of the network.
In terms of the level one guys, what I'll tell you is, those are the folks who are attempting to lead the operation. They are financially connected. We're going after the financial network as well as the individuals.
The level two guys, the battalion commanders, are the ones that put up IEDs, VBIEDs, manned sniper cells, sniper battalions, as they call them, which may be anywhere from three to five people -- all different types of level one and level two individuals.
The level three guys are the most interesting. We had some discussion when we started the operations in Mosul with the minister of the Interior, minister of Defense where one of the Iraqi generals, the intelligence individual for the Iraqi force that was up there, put a number on what he thought was the number of terrorists in the city of Mosul. We had a discussion right after that saying that about half of those could potentially be swung away from the organization if jobs were more available, because many of these guys are doing some of these criminal or terrorist actions just in order to get paid and to survive.
So the level three guys are the ones that, while we still sometimes have to either kill or capture them, hopefully the increase in the infrastructure and the ability to provide jobs may cause some additional tipping of this organization in the north, and everywhere else in Iraq, for that matter.
I hope I've answered your question; that was a very long answer.
Q Number of level three -- what's -- how many have you rolled up and how many do you think are out there?
GEN. HERTLING: Level three? If that's the question, if you're asking how many level three guys we've rolled up, those are the fighters -- I mean, I -- quite frankly, I couldn't put a number on that. There have been -- as reports have shown, General Riyadh detained about 1,200 of those individuals on the first several days of Lion's Roar. Of those, about 200 of them have remained in custody, and they're being further processed and tried for some of their activities. Some of the guys who were initially rolled up were actually released when no evidence was found against them.
Q General, it's Al Pessin from Voice of America. Can you talk about the situation in Tamim province, incidents in Hawija and another incident? What are the root causes of that? Is that part of the Sunni-Kurd issue, and what are you doing about them?
GEN. HERTLING: Well, if you're talking about the incident that occurred yesterday, where a suicide bomber attempted to drive into one of our combat outposts, no, I don't think that's part of the Sunni- Kurd issue, although sometimes the tension between the Sunnis and Kurds are used by some of these groups to further exploit and drive a wedge. Yesterday's incident -- we think it was either AQI, al Qaeda in Iraq or Jaish Mujahideen. We're not sure just yet. We're continuing to investigate.
We think it was an attempt to counter some of the reconciliation efforts that have been occurring throughout our areas, where, literally, insurgents are moving forward and saying: We're tired of fighting. We want to give up. We want to get back on the right side of the government. We realize that we're sort of in a -- not getting any gains out of fighting.
We want to join the political process.
As one insurgent said the other day to us, he understands now that this is a battle of fingers versus weapons. And what he meant was referring back to the vote. So he realizes that the way you move forward now in Iraq society is through the representative process and getting your vote ready.
But again, going back to what happened in Rashad, just southeast -- correction -- southwest of Kirkuk, yesterday, we think that was a direct strike against the reconciliators who are coming forward saying: Hey, we don't want to do this anymore. And it was an attempt to show that there was still power in the insurgent groups or the terrorist groups to intimidate people in this area.
If you look at what's happened in Kirkuk recently, there has been a specific targeting of the police forces, specifically what we call the ESUs, the emergency security units, the guys who go around and really try and counter the insurgents and the terrorists in the area. The terrorists have gone after those individuals to see if they can break their backbone, and they haven't been able to do it yet.
The attack yesterday against our cop -- our combat outpost in Kirkuk province yesterday was the first we've seen in a very long time in that province, and we think they're directing it at coalition forces because of the success of this reconciliation effort.
Q And General, can you just clarify your answer to Courtney's question? I believe she asked whether Mosul is the last urban stronghold of al Qaeda, and you seemed to agree, but then from your answer I wasn't sure if you were saying it's a stronghold of al Qaeda or a stronghold of the ISF. Can you clarify that, please?
GEN. HERTLING: Well, it's a stronghold for the Iraqi security forces; that's for sure. They've got a division. The 2nd Iraqi Army Division is up there under Major General Abdullah, and he's doing a wonderful job. General Riyadh has his headquarters there, and he's coordinating efforts from there. So yes, I think they're building it into a stronghold for the Iraqi security forces.
To go back to what it is a stronghold of in terms of the enemy, we are seeing not only al Qaeda there but also some other elements of the Islamic State of Iraq, ISI; Jaish Mujahideen, Jaish al-Islami, Ansar al-Sunna, several other groups that we've identified within the Mosul area and in Nineveh province. But all of them are either terrorist or insurgent groups.
And that's sort of how we're breaking it down, quite frankly.
We're saying that there's three things that we're trying to help our Iraqi security partners with, and that's counterterrorism, counterinsurgency and countercrime, in many cases, because some of these guys are just members of gangs conducting attacks.
Q General, I'm Carl Osgood with Executive Intelligence Review. Over the past week or so, some Iraqi parliamentarians have been in Washington. And about a week ago, one of them warned -- or reported that there had been warnings of food shortages in Babil province. I'm wondering, do you have a picture of what the food situation is in northern Iraq?
GEN. HERTLING: Well, what I will tell you is I think there's some significant challenges right now because of the drought that's occurring over here right now. I've seen facts from some of our agricultural liaisons from the Department of State and Department of Agriculture that says that the drought that's been occurring for the last three years -- and is the worst this year -- could cut food production by anywhere between 50 to 80 percent in terms of what the agricultural capabilities are of the north. And as you know, it is the breadbasket, and Diyala province, Kirkuk has a lot of agricultural; even Nineveh has some agricultural.
I don't think it's gotten to the point of significance yet, in terms of food availability, because there still are the imports that are being sold at the markets. And my take, walking around from the markets -- and this is more of a tactical feel than factual -- is the markets are loaded with fruits and vegetables from Syria and other places.
But in terms of the grain production and the agricultural productions in northern Iraq, yeah, they're going to be reduced. And some of the governors are specifically working those issues to try and get releases of water from some of the dams in the northern region, but there's not much to be had because of the drought.
Q General, it's Al Pessin again. As you may know, the trial of the September 11th suspect started on Thursday in Guantanamo, and I wonder if you've heard anything up in your region. Did that get a lot of coverage in the local press?
Was there any reaction, from the local people or from the al Qaeda people up there?
GEN. HERTLING: It did not, that I know of. And we do track the local press on a daily basis. We get a report that says all of the newspapers and TV channels in each one of our provinces; what they're publishing.
And I think within the last week, quite frankly, there has only been one article that I've seen. And that's not very many. And the number that I've seen, in terms of the reports, that has talked about Guantanamo trials. So no, I'd have to say the answer is no, at least in the North.
Q Thank you.
Q General, it's Andrew Gray from Reuters.
I wonder if you could give us an overview of your complete strength, in terms of rough U.S. force numbers in your sector, and how much you expect that to come down over the coming months or towards the end of the year, as you hand over more responsibility to your Iraqi counterparts.
GEN. HERTLING: Yeah, I'll say -- I'll be flip and say, no, I can't give you that.
What we have right now is about a brigade combat team, ground brigade combat team, in each one of our four provinces, that we watch over. The three Kurdish provinces, Dahuk, Sulimaniyah and Arbil, we have liaison teams. And that's all.
But what's, I think, the best thing about what we've got up here is the four Iraqi army divisions. And each one of those are improving in capability every day.
To not answer your question even more, what I'll tell you is, our biggest challenge right now is helping the police force, the Iraqi police, grow in capability.
We have the potential for about 17,000 more policemen to come onboard in the North. And that will be significant, as we continue to clear areas of operation where al Qaeda has been.
In order to get into the hold-and-build stage, you have to have someone there that remains after you depart. And the biggest shortage we have right now are Iraqi police.
Some Iraqi army units are still being trained and force-generated for the field. But primarily we're focusing on helping the Iraqi police build up. And the provincial directors of police, in all of our provinces, are doing some magnificent work, working with the minister of the interior, to get new allocations of policemen, get them through the four-week training course.
We just built a new police academy down in Diyala that will, over the next couple months, produce about 500 a month. And then as it gets into August and September, that will jump up to about 15 to 1,800, which will be very significant, in terms of continuing to improve security.
Q Sir, Gordon Lubold from the Christian Science Monitor.
I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the release of detainees throughout this year. As you know, General Petraeus has directed to release several thousand. I'm wondering if you could talk.
How do you support that? What's your role? And do you have any concerns there?
GEN. HERTLING: Well, I think, from what I understand, you're going to talk to Major General Doug Stone later on today. So he would probably give you a better indicator throughout Iraq than I could give you. I can tell you what's going on in the North.
We have been linked to Doug Stone's program.
There have been releases every month up here. We're looking to build -- after they get through with his program in the prisons and the various detainment facilities, they come back, we sign them over to local leaders. It's sort of a parole program, but not quite the same as we're used to in the United States. But we have sheikhs sign over responsibility for these individuals to try and reduce the recidivism rate of these criminals or terrorists.
We understand that some of these guys were insurgents early on. They since understand that the political process is growing, so they want to come back and be an active member of society.
And it's working relatively well so far. I am keeping a very close eye, as all my other brother division commanders are in West and Center and Baghdad, on the recidivism rate. If we capture a guy who has been an alumnus of one of these detention facilities, we shoot that information directly to Task Force 134, the organization that General Stone used to command. And they know about it. So they've got records on these guys. We're watching them very closely.
So far, what I'd tell you is -- we're early on in the process. We're only a couple months into it. So far it's going relatively well, but I will tell you that early on in the program, the less dangerous criminals were the first ones released. So it may be a little bit too early for me to comment on that.
There have been instances. They've been few -- you can count them, probably, on one or two hands -- where a guy has come out of the detention facility and gone back to his old ways and has been recaptured or, unfortunately, killed. But I think you would expect that in any kind of program like this.
Q One of the keys, though, is finding them something to do, right, as they come out? And you mentioned jobs earlier. How are you addressing that effort to just kind of create something for them to do?
GEN. HERTLING: Yeah, that's linked to several things that we've got going on here in the north. It's not only the detainee-release that it's critical to find jobs -- the detainee-release -- those released from detention are critical to find jobs for, but we're also trying to transition the several thousand Sons of Iraq, the concerned local citizen program. We're trying to do that in the short term, before October of next year.
We have, right now, 32,000 Sons of Iraq in the north. We think we'll get, by the time it's over, between 6(,000) and 7,000 detainees released back into the area over the next year or so.
So that is a significant number to find jobs for.
But I think, quite frankly -- and that's one of the things I'm glad you pointed this out, because not only is the U.S. government helping in this program, with the State Department, trying to get -- (short audio break) -- infrastructure up and running again, but the Iraqi government's helping significantly as well, with the ICERP program, to get buildings up and operational; you buy contractors that way; they're getting new infrastructure repair teams going; some of the power lines are being repaired, and that takes manpower and labor.
So, as infrastructure continues to rise, that unemployment rate, which is somewhere, depending on which province you go to in our area of operations, anywhere from 50 to 80 percent, it is critical, and those detainees being released into that unemployment population is something that concerns us, we're watching very closely. Quite frankly, it is not only -- for us not only about fighting the insurgency, it's finding jobs and helping the Iraqi government and the Provincial Council find jobs for these young men and women.
COL. KECK: Last one, Tom.
Q General, Tom Bowman again with NPR. Can you talk about the logistics effort, the U.S. is helping with the Iraqi security forces? Are you still providing the bulk of logistics? And when do you think they can pick up the slack there?
GEN. HERTLING: No, we are not providing the bulk of logistics. We are partnering with them. And each one of our brigades, which I just said were in each one of the four provinces, has a support organization as part of the Brigade Combat Team. And in our area of operations, as we deal with those four Iraqi divisions, those support battalions are partnering with their Iraqi counterparts to try and improve their logistics and their sustainment flow.
It's tough. I know General Dubik down in MNSTC-I is working some very tough issues in terms of getting the higher-level warehouses and parts supplies ready, but really this has all been worked from the ground up. We're starting to see improvements. I know like later on this week they're getting some additional parts locations -- we call them them the Iraqi version of Pep Boys -- set up so they can deliver parts to different organizations. We're helping with that. We've got some aircraft helping to transfer parts.
But frankly, the Iraqi air force is coming onboard right now, and they've even delivered some parts with their MI-17 helicopters and their C-130s that they now have as part of the air force.
So again, it's -- to use an Iraqi expression, shway shway (ph) -- it's little by little. We're eating this elephant one bite at a time. And I think the sustainment and logistics is still problematic in the Iraqi army, it's a major challenge in the Iraqi police, but we're addressing that problem on a day-to-day basis.
STAFF (?): We are out of time, General. Sorry.
COL. KECK: Sir, we're past our time. We appreciate you spending some moments with us today, and we'd like you to give you an opportunity for any final comments before we close.
GEN. HERTLING: Yeah. You know, I was thinking about that, because you always ask me that. I do want to tell a story if you don't mind. I was saying farewell this week to the 325th Combat Support Hospital troopers. It's a Reserve component organization. Their members come from 33 different states in the United States. And I always ask soldiers three questions when they're getting ready to leave, asking them to think about these questions, because they're going to be asked when they go back home.
They're going to be asked by their neighbors, especially in the Reserve: What was it like? How are you different? And what do you think of the Iraqi people? And it was interesting the answers I got all the way around this hospital, which is a very different organization. But what I'm seeing throughout MND North in our soldiers is the same reflection of hope that I'm seeing in the Iraqi people, which is much different than it was during my last tour over here. There is a renewed sense of this will happen. The Iraqis are feeling it, and the American soldiers are feeling it.
But one of the things that this physician at the hospital told me was that over the last year, as a doctor, he had operated on about 700 patients, and it was a very professionally rewarding experience. And just by circumstance, I asked him, how many of those were Iraqis? And he said about 80 percent, which -- I had just come from a report or I had just come from my operations center where I had just gotten a report where a terrorist had just attempted to blow up a school bus.
And it just really was an interesting juxtaposition, where these terrorists continue to try and tear down the fabric of Iraqi society, whereas the Iraqi security forces, police and army, and the coalition forces continue to try and build it up, treat Iraqi citizens and do good things by the security.
So that's a long way of saying that I'm extremely proud of the soldiers, the members of the State Department and all the civilians that we have over here, as well as the other services that are contributing to the fight. And I think they're making some good things happen. But thank you for allowing me to just make that point at the end, too.
I'd also like to thank the family members who continue to support us, as well.
COL. KECK: Well, thank you, sir. We appreciate it. And hopefully we'll hear from you again real soon. Thank you, folks.
GEN. HERTLING: Okay. Thank you, sir.
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