BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): Well, good morning and welcome back to the old briefing room here, while we're still getting the new one up. Let's make sure that we have some good conductivity though.
Colonel McCaffrey, this is Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon. Can you hear me okay?
COL. MCCAFFREY: I sure can. I hear you just fine.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, thank you for joining us this afternoon there, and good morning to the press corps here.
This is Colonel Todd McCaffrey, commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, Multi-National Division-Baghdad. He's been in Iraq since January of 2008, although this is his first opportunity to be with us in this format. We want to welcome him.
He is also joined by Ms. Linda Specht who is the Economic Provincial Reconstruction Team leader. Both of them are at Camp Liberty today in Iraq. And as is our custom, we're going to have Colonel McCaffrey give us a brief overview of what his unit's been doing and then take some of your questions. And I think Ms. Specht is going to have a closing statement for us kind of at the end.
So with that, Colonel, let me turn it over to you, to go ahead and get started.
COL. MCCAFFREY: Okay. Well, thank you very much. Good morning. It's a pleasure to be able to spend some time with you this morning discussing our operations here in Northwest Baghdad.
As mentioned, my name is Colonel Todd McCaffrey and I command the 2nd Stryker Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, out of Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. Our brigade is part of Multi-National Division- Baghdad and attached to the 4th Infantry Division here.
We've been operating out of Camp Taji, Iraq, for the last 10 months. Our operating area covers a large area of northwest Baghdad province, covering the four primarily rural qadhas. These are similar to counties, in the United States, and include the towns of Abu Ghraib -- (names inaudible). Our soldiers -- (inaudible) -- entire area of operations and jointly man 15 security stations with Iraqi army units.
This morning, I'm accompanied Ms. Linda Specht, a senior State Department Foreign Service officer and leader of Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team Number Five and a very close partner with our brigade, as we've worked to improve the conditions in our area. I appreciate the opportunity to make a few introductory remarks.
First, I'd like to comment that the trends you've seen on the reduction of violence across Iraq are certainly present here in Baghdad, and especially visible in our area. Enemy attacks in my area are down more than 74 percent since our arrival last December, and over 500 percent since a comparable period last year.
While IEDs remain the enemy's principal method of attack, we've seen them become less and less effective due to the continuing disintegration of enemy cells and the erosion of their resources.
We've seen indirect fire attacks drop over 94 percent since our arrival, and direct fire attacks, which were really never a significant source of enemy activity in our area, are down more than 80 percent.
Sectarian murders have essentially stopped at our area, with over 300 percent drop since a similar time last year.
All in all, security in the area has vastly improved as the result of the great work of our soldiers and their increasingly confident and capable partners, the Iraqi security forces.
An important element of the security equation has been the role played by Sons of Iraq across our area. In our brigade area, we cover, you know, like 1,300 square miles, and we have over 13,000 Sons of Iraq manning checkpoints, providing local security to their towns and villages. They've been doing this for over a year now. These men's sacrifice and commitment to ridding their areas of al Qaeda and other insurgent elements have been critical to the improved security situation the Iraqis in our operating environment enjoy today.
As you know, we are in the midst of transferring these contracts from coalition control to the government of Iraq. Over the last several weeks, we've been conducting a detailed personnel transfer of payroll from our oversight and payment to the payment by the Iraqi government, executed through the Iraqi army. We've successfully worked through the transfer of 97 percent of all the Sons of Iraq in our area to Iraqi army oversight without incident. The professionalism shown by the Iraqi army in this process has been superb, and I am confident the program will continue to be an important aspect of security in the future and ultimately result in the transition of these men into long-term employment facilitated by the government of Iraq. We remain committed to the Sons of Iraq as an important element of local security.
With increased security comes the confidence on the part of the people to return to homes and villages once denied them due to the terrible sectarian strife felt in this area. Over the last nine months, we've monitored the returns of over 6,800 families to their rightful homes across our area of operations. This effort has been coordinated and sponsored by the government of Iraq, and our role has been to facilitate their process. I've been personally and professionally impressed with the detailed cooperation between local leaders, security officials and policymakers as this very emotional process continues.
The progress here is undeniable, yet challenges do remain. Al Qaeda, vastly reduced in their ability to terrorize the people, remains a concern. Economic progress, while clear, continues to be an area we'd like to see more sustainable, and the Iraqi security forces, while vastly improved from the time I've served here as a battalion commander in 2004, 2005, continue to require our assistance to ensure their ultimate success. The efforts and sacrifices of thousands of young American men and women, in cooperation with our Iraqi security force partners, have crafted the conditions for security -- sustainable security and growth.
Both Linda and I are optimistic for the future here and humbled by the service and sacrifice of those with whom we serve. Again, thanks for the opportunity to be here today, and we look forward to taking your questions.
MR. WHITMAN: Courtney, why don't you start us?
Q Hi, Colonel. This is Courtney Kube from NBC News. You mentioned you have 13,000 Sons of Iraq in your area manning checkpoints and that the vast majority of them have now been transferred to Iraqi army oversight. What exactly do you mean by that?
Does that mean that they're now members of the Iraqi army? And if not, what exactly are these 13,000 SOI doing? Will they continue to man the checkpoints in the near future?
COL. MCCAFFREY: Courtney, that's -- yeah, that's exactly right. What's going to happen is they'll continue to man the checkpoints. The difference will be they'll be under the oversight of the Iraqi army and paid by the government of Iraq. We will maintain a continued cooperative effort with them.
The process that's occurred so far in our brigade and across Baghdad has been one of transferring the payroll to the Iraqi army, monitored by the Iraq government. So that process has been very successful to date, and we're very confident it's going to continue. So they're going to remain an important aspect of security in our area. And much of the security improvements we've seen are a result of their standing on these checkpoints for the last year -- year-plus, now.
Q So will these 13,000 who are manning the checkpoint -- will they then go through some kind of an Iraqi army training course? Are they going to then be transferred into other government jobs? Can you give us an idea?
And then also, is there any -- do you have any plans to put these specific Sons of Iraq for the election, to have them doing security during the upcoming provincial elections this year?
COL. MCCAFFREY: Well, let me answer the last part of that first. First of all, I really can't tell you any about how the election process will work. The Iraqi government will work that in time.
In terms of what they're going to be doing on day-to-day, they will continue to work the checkpoints. I don't know of any plans to put them through any extra training than they've already gone through, which essentially is just stuff that's been working locally with the local commanders on the ground.
The Iraqi army has been working with these men now for months. You got to remember that the Iraqi army operates in the same area as these security checkpoints have been operated by the Sons of Iraq. So this is nothing new to the Iraqi army. The only significant difference we're going to see is that the payroll will be executed by the Iraqi army.
As you know, the government has laid out a target to transfer 20 percent approximately of these men into the security forces and the government remains committed to transitioning the other 80 percent to other jobs. That will take some time, but the very important first step is the transfer of payroll to the Iraqi government and the Iraqi army. And that's the process and the step we're in right now.
MR. WHITMAN: Go ahead, Mike.
Q Colonel, it's Mike Mount with CNN. Sticking with that same topic, what kind of guarantees do you have from the government? I know there was some concern the Sunni-Shi'a problem was going to maybe not make this as smooth as possible. What kind of guarantees do you have from the government that these folks are going to continue staying on point or being put into other positions and also being paid?
COL. MCCAFFREY: Well, at my level, I would say I rely on what I hear from the -- the statements that have been put out by the government and the actions I see on the ground. So I think the statements by the government that I've heard have been very positive in their committal to maintaining the Sons of Iraq.
I will tell you, on the ground, the reality is this transition and this transfer is going very, very smoothly. It's frankly smoother than I might have predicted a few months ago. It's been very professionally conducted by the Iraqi army. And the day-to-day operations with the Iraqi army soldiers and the Sons of Iraq is really -- really has gone on without significant issues.
There's always spats at checkpoints here and there, but the fact of the matter is, it's been a very easy transition at the leadership level, where we were most concerned. So I'm pretty confident this is going to continue to be a significant mission area, and a positive one.
As for Sunni-Shi'a, the reality in our area, the -- most of the Sons of Iraq in our area are Sunni. We have a rural area, and most of this area tends to be Sunni. We have some Shi'a in the southern portion, close to Baghdad, but the vast majority of the 13,000 SOIs that we operate with are Sunni.
Q Can I do another --
MR. WHITMAN: I think we'll have trouble getting everybody in, but go ahead. (Laughter.)
Q This is actually for the both of you. You had kind of gone down a list of percentages and numbers showing how violence has dropped there. In terms of that, have -- Ms. Specht, have you actually worked with a number of the government entities there to bring jobs to these folks as well, too? Is that part of the reason things are going down? Or maybe you can explain why violence has been going down and what you all are doing to kind of keep it down.
COL. MCCAFFREY: Go ahead.
LINDA SPECHT (Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team): Well, obviously the Sons of Iraq are a large part of the equation. But as there has been more security, people are starting to open their businesses back up. People are starting to invest their own money again in businesses and employing others. People are able to move about more freely and get to jobs that they may not have been able to get to before. And so life is returning more to -- something that more equates to normal. And yes, I think that comes with a lot of job opportunities.
COL. MCCAFFREY: If I can kind of dovetail on that, I would tell you that I think normalcy is the critical piece here. You know, in this area, for a long time folks couldn't -- you know, a year, year and a half ago, folks could not leave their homes without fear of al Qaeda or being told they couldn't smoke in public; they couldn't, you know, even buy certain types of vegetables. The fact of the matter is, life in the markets and on the streets of our area is very much back to a level of normalcy that these folks have not seen for many, many years.
So the SOIs are an important aspect of what has allowed that normalcy to return. And frankly, the people are very confident in their own local men providing security for their areas. And the level of cooperation with the Iraqi army that we've seen, I think, is a positive step, and frankly I'm much more optimistic today than I might have been several months ago, as we started approaching this process.
Q Ms. Specht, I'm Gerry Gilmore from American Forces Press Service. The Iraqi people you see within your area of responsibility -- what are they looking for most as far as economic reconstruction? What are they -- you talk to a lot of business people and folks, residents. What do they want? What are they clamoring for now that they have the opportunity to reestablish economic vitality?
MS. SPECHT: Well, I think one of the first things they want are the -- is the delivery of certain essential services, primarily electricity, water, but also education, health services and jobs, jobs and economic opportunity. It's not that they want to be handed a job, although that may be part of it, but it's more that they want the opportunity to be able to start their own business, work in a job, get to a job that they had before. It's a number of different things, but it comes to economic opportunity and the services that they expect from their government.
Q They seem to be hopeful for the future?
MS. SPECHT: Well, I can compare it to when I was here in 2004. And I see a lot more hope. I see a lot more expectation about what they can do for themselves. And I think that they're -- you can see that most by the fact that they're willing to invest in reconstructing their own homes, and putting back together their own businesses. The areas with the shops along the roads that were closed are now opening back up. By the day you can see the difference in some towns.
COL. MCCAFFREY: Yeah. I'll just make a comment on that. I'll give you an example. We have a town called Mushada, which is about eight or nine kilometers just north of Camp Taji, where we work out of. We got here last December and Mushada, I guess, could best be described as a truck stop. It is -- you drive through there now, it is phenomenal, the amount of building that's occurring there. And I guess to the degree that construction -- physical construction of shops and then homes and expansion of homes and shops is an indication that people are willing to invest in their own areas, and that takes some level of confidence.
And so if just visible construction in the area is any indication of stability and confidence in what's happening there, then I think we have a lot of it in the area of northwest Baghdad. So we use that as kind of an informal metric as we drive around just looking to see how much building is going on, and it is remarkable what we have seen occur here in the last six months with shops and construction. I think that's indicative of probably some underlying factors that are just causing this place to stimulate in areas we had not seen in the last six, eight, 10 months ago.
MR. WHITMAN: Courtney?
Q Hi, Colonel. This is Courtney Kube from NBC again. As you, I'm sure, are well aware, the presidential election is in the headlines right now here in the U.S. One of the issues in foreign policy is the debate over whether the reason that the violence has gone down so dramatically in Iraq in the last year or so is whether it was the surge or whether it was the Sunni awakening.
You've been on the ground there for awhile now. You're familiar with the operations on the ground. In your opinion, what is the main cause or maybe the several causes for the dramatic reduction in violence in Iraq?
COL. MCCAFFREY: Well, Courtney, I'll tell you, I'd be way out to try to figure out how it applies to the broader piece of Iraq. I tell you, in the area that we operate in, I think there are a couple of significant issues that are in play. Number one, our area is principally Sunni.
What was occurring in our area with al Qaeda was tragic. And the people resent that. And it just was totally counter to their normal day-to-day life. So they were terrorized.
Now, a number of things happened. In our area I think what I've seen, the Sons of Iraq are an important aspect of that, the Awakening of the Sahwa. That was a critical component to what's happened in our area. And these men standing up, and local sheikhs -- it's a very tribal area -- having taken a commitment to not allowing that violence to last in their communities, I think, turned the corner here some time ago, and we've seen the results of that over the last nine or 10 months.
So I really can't equate that in a broader aspect, but I will tell you locally in the qadhas that we work in, it is very clearly a local grassroots rejection of al Qaeda violence that has allowed this area to have some level of stimulus of normalcy. And the degree to which the coalition forces have assisted that, I think, is important. We've done an awful lot of, I guess, what you call shaping operations around that to go after targets, al Qaeda as we've been able to identify them. But ultimately this is about local communities have rejected the dogma and the ideology of al Qaeda, which just went against their basic values.
MR. WHITMAN: Mike, go ahead.
Q Colonel, it's Mike Mount again from CNN. Can you tell us a little bit about operations in your area in terms of how many of your troops or how much is the U.S. involved in your area in the patrolling actually conducting operations as opposed to Iraqi troops or the Sons of Iraq? And maybe tell us a little bit about what your biggest threats still remain in your area.
COL. MCCAFFREY: I would tell you my soldiers do not do a lot of what you just called basic patrolling anymore, in the sense that as I did as a battalion commander. I served here for a year in 2004-2005, at that time principally in Mosul, and in that sense I operated very much on the principle of we had to have persistent presence in the battlespace. We had to be out there all the time on patrol.
That is no longer the case. We now occupy, as I'm sure you're familiar, joint security stations. We have 15 of them in our area spread across our area of operations. The Iraqi army mans checkpoints. They do that jointly now with the Sons of Iraq. So the basic security that prevents the enemy's freedom of movement through the area is really executed by the Iraqi army and by the Sons of Iraq. That is no longer a task that we participate in, and there's no need for us to do that.
We still do deliberate operations when we identify specific targets. More and more those operations are done jointly with the Iraqi army, at least in the sharing of intelligence, which is a significant issue, and often with joint operations physically on the ground.
I will tell you another increasing piece of this is what the sons of Iraq are doing. Just three days ago in our area, we had a significant al Qaeda leader, a local al Qaeda leader who was turned over to us by the Sons of Iraq. They knew who he was. They went out and detained him. They brought him to one of our joint security stations, and he is now in custody and going through interrogation. So that's a success story and the kind of piece that's occurring on the ground day to day. So this is increasingly becoming an Iraqi effort.
We still have an important aspect of providing enabling support for the Iraqis in a number of areas, whether it's route clearance with our engineers -- we still provide obviously aviation support. We provide support in some aspects of intelligence and other areas, but more and more the security aspects on day-to-day ops is really being done by the Iraqis, the army, with the SOIs and now, with the transition of SOIs, I think, more and more, the leadership by the army.
MR. WHITMAN: Okay. Well, Colonel, we have actually a bit of a split operation here at the Pentagon as we are spread out on both sides of the building. So our crowd's a little light today, and we don't -- we want to be respectful of your time. And so as we have reached the end of questions with our small group here, I just want to turn it back to the two of you before we bring it to a close and for any final comments that you might have.
COL. MCCAFFREY: Okay. (Inaudible.)
MS. : No. Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak with you today. It remains an honor and a privilege to serve here in Iraq on this continuing mission. We both remain completely inspired by the great sacrifice and service of all those who serve here, both the men and women in our formations and the civilian professionals who serve with the military. These men and women are making an important and lasting difference here.
We greatly appreciate the support of the American people back home. Their constant and unwavering concern for the soldiers and the civilians out here is incredible. Their daily support reminds us of how much we have to be thankful for.
Finally, we look forward to returning home to our family and friends at home and elsewhere. Everyone's doing an amazing job of caring for us.
COL. MCCAFFREY: I thought I'd just like to thank you all for what you're doing to support our soldiers back there, as well. It's important. The information you pass to our families and our homes is critical for them and they certainly appreciate it.
I want to thank our family readiness groups and the folks back home, particularly in Hawaii, for what they're doing for our soldiers. They're caring for our wounded and they're honoring our fallen. We look forward to seeing them all again soon next spring. And again, thanks.
Linda and I both appreciate the chance to discuss some of the work we've been doing here today in northwest Baghdad. I hope you have a really good day.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, Colonel, thank you for your time this afternoon. And we hope in a couple of months, few months, we get another update from you and see how things are going then.
COL. MCCAFFREY: Yeah, we look forward to it. Thanks.
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