(Note: General Hertling appears via teleconference.)
BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): Well, looks like we have good audio here, and video. This is -- let's just make sure that General Hertling can hear me.
This is Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon. Can you hear me, General?
GEN. HERTLING: I can, Bryan. How can you hear me? All right?
MR. WHITMAN: Well, very good. Well, thank you for joining us again. You don't know it, but as you're making history out here, you're also making history back here in the Pentagon, as this is the last briefing that we're going to do from this room. And so you have the honor of conducting the last press briefing in this particular room. After we're done here, the curtains get torn down, and we go to the other side.
So thank you again for being with us. This is the commander of Multinational Division-North and 1st Armored Division, Major General Mark Hertling -- no stranger to us in this room. This is the sixth time that he has briefed us in this format since he assumed responsibility for his area in October. This -- he last spoke to us in August and, I'm sure, will be giving you an update from the last time that he had the opportunity to address some of your questions.
He is speaking to us from Contingency Operating Base Speicher, which is outside of Tikrit, Iraq. And again, he's going to give you a brief update and then take some of your questions.
So, General, thank you again for being with us this morning.
GEN. HERTLING: Well, thanks, Bryan. I thought you were going to say I was going to make history because this was going to be the last press conference I did. I was getting excited there for a second, but you put a caveat on there.
Well, good morning to all of you in Washington. Thanks for having me again. You know, we're right now in our 13th month of this deployment, and it's more and more apparent to me that we measure progress in Iraq not by wins and losses but by gains and regressions, steps forward and then steps backwards.
When we first arrived in the north last September, we saw progress, but it was usually two steps forward for every one step back. Now most days are marked by three steps forward, one step back, and on a good day, we sometimes even experience four steps forward. But there's always that one step back, to be sure. And that's usually pretty frustrating, but it's progress and, most importantly, it's their progress.
But the actions of the coalition forces, the improved capability of the Iraqi security forces and, most recently, the emerging actions of the provincial governments in our area of operation, along with the central government, has contributed to the advancements that I just talked about.
We can talk about any of that and any particular area that has to do with the northern provinces when you have your questions. But before I give you that chance, I just wanted to give you an operational update from the north, an area that many of you know still sees the highest number of attacks in Iraq.
Since we talked a few months ago, we had begun Operation Iron Pursuit. We began that at the end of July. We had just started it when I talked to you. And we're doing it to go after al Qaeda fighters further out in their support zones as we had -- as we had chased them from the cities, a few key areas they had -- we had identified in each province. We were also partnering with the Iraqi security forces in major operations in both Diyala, in the south, and Nineveh Province in the north. And Iraq’s forces showed new signs of independence, competence, professionalism and, above all, a national commitment.
Basha'er al-Kheir, the operation which means "glad tidings of benevolence" was going on in Diyala. We were seeing significant security gains during the month of August, but during the month of September, quite frankly, because of the Ramadan holidays and the holy period of Eid, the tempo of operations began to wane a little bit towards the end of the month. We'll continue to partner with the ISF as operational tempo increases in the next few weeks now that the holiday's over.
Umm Al-Rabiain, Operation Mother of Two Springs, in Mosul and Nineveh Province, continues. We've executed some extremely successful operations in the north in the last few weeks and some even this weekend. And those have resulted in reduced violence in the key city of Mosul. There's also been an interruption in the foreign fighter flow from Syria, although it's critical to note that al Qaeda is desperately trying to hold on to that city of 2 million Iraqis. Our assessment is that the insurgents have become fractured -- certainly still capable and lethal -- and they are increasingly relying on intimidation to garner support from the local populace.
If you talk to the Iraqi citizens in any of our four provinces, which I do quite a bit, they will tell you that security has improved.
And that's true because across the board in our north, we have seen almost a 60 percent reduction of attacks since we arrived last year.
The Iraqis will also tell you that the economy and the government functions are also improving, but each province is proceeding at a different rate. While we've seen improvements in infrastructure repair and employment figures rising, there are still anywhere between 40 and 50 percent unemployed or underemployed, as we sometimes call it, in every one of the provinces. And much is yet to be done in the area of schools, hospitals, electricity, water and industry in the four northern provinces.
What's different today than when we arrived here over a year ago is the contributions of both the provincial government and the central government. Provinces are slowly executing their budgets and finding ways to pave roads, get improved electricity and water supply and meet the demands of the people. The central government is also helping with a variety of programming and just today, in fact just a few minutes ago, I came back from Diyala, where I met with Deputy Prime Minister Al-Asawi, who had brought a bunch of his GOI ministers to talk to the governor and the director generals of the province to talk about things like the drought, electricity, repair of different infrastructure, all in Diyala province.
We'll do the same thing in Nineveh province within the next few weeks. He's going to go up there and begin something we're calling the Mosul Reconstruction Center.
I can talk about any of these if you're interested, but there are some fascinating things going on right now in this historic time for Iraq. But perhaps I just ought to let you all ask the questions. So those are my opening comments.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, General, thank you for the overview and the update, and we'll get started with Courtney.
Q Hi, General. This is Courtney Kube from NBC News. There were several clashes over the weekend along the Turkish-Iraqi border up in the north. Can you talk a little bit about what your understanding is of what happened? Are you concerned about this increase in violence along there? And is the U.S. planning or the coalition planning any kind of an increased effort in that area?
GEN. HERTLING: Courtney, you were coming in and out. I think what you asked was -- you mentioned that there were several incidents of violence between the Turkish and the northern Iraqi border, which there was, as the Turks continue to attempt to target the PKK in some of what they think are their enclave areas.
I know for a fact that the president, President Talabani, who has just returned from the United States, has had conversations with various officials in Turkey to talk about those things.
I didn't hear your question, though. Could you please repeat it?
Q Are you concerned about this recent increase in violence, and can you talk a little bit more about any U.S. or coalition efforts in the area that may be forthcoming?
GEN. HERTLING: Okay, again, you're coming -- you came in a little bit broken, Courtney. I think you said was I concerned about violence. I'm always concerned about violence in the north. I think, though, that this is an opportunity for the government of Iraq and the government of Turkey to discuss these things. I know the Kurdish Regional Government has also been involved in those conversations.
We are monitoring these actions, as Turkey attempts to, to attack areas which they believe are enclaves for this terrorist group. And that's continued pretty much the entire time we've been here.
There have been times over the past 13 months where, there have been select periods when there have been more attacks than others. And I think it all just has to do with the targeting process in Turkey and what their finding in terms of those areas and the intelligence that they're receiving.
MR. WHITMAN: Maybe I can help with the second part of that question, General, was that, are there any plans, given that your forces are operating in the north, are there any plans for U.S. forces, with respect to this activity along the border?
GEN. HERTLING: I think we've lost him.
Bryan, can you, can you repeat that again? I'm sorry, but you are coming in and out. And it's breaking up a little bit.
MR. WHITMAN: We'll try to fix the audio problem here as we go. We're hearing you fine still.
The second part of the question was with respect to any plans for U.S. forces in dealing with the border associated with Iraq and Turkey there.
GEN. HERTLING: Well, there are not because, in fact, what you'll find, most of those attacks are occurring in Dahuk province. That's part of the Kurdish regional government-controlled area. And we don't have any forces in that province.
We monitor that. And sometimes I go up there to engage with the governmental officials. But quite frankly that's an area where the peshmerga forces are. And it is, it's, it's linked obviously to the government of Iraq. And they are talking through the government of Iraq to Turkey.
But no, it does not concern me all that much right now, in terms of our forces being involved. It does concern me significantly in terms of the government of Iraq and the government of Turkey discussing the issues that are occurring in the area.
MR. WHITMAN: Let's go ahead to David.
Q This is David Morgan from Reuters.
You said that the insurgents have become fractured. Can you talk a little bit about the nature of the threat as it stands now and how it has changed in recent months? What is it that has led to this fracturing, as you describe it?
GEN. HERTLING: Bryan, Bryan, I'm sorry. I'm only getting about every three words, and then it's cutting out. Can you repeat that question too, please?
MR. WHITMAN: We'd be happy to. Let's see if I can get it close.
You spoke of fractured insurgents. How -- can you speak to the nature of the insurgency as you see it, in your area? And what has changed recently?
GEN. HERTLING: Okay. I'll try and answer the question although I'm getting only part of it.
I think the question was, I mentioned the fractured insurgency in our area and what has changed. I think what's changed is a couple of things. There are contributions from both the Iraqi security forces, the people of Iraq, who are tired of the insurgency. This -- both those things have been recurring themes that I've talked about before and that I think all the other commanders have talked about. But also in the north what you're seeing is a combination of the increase in the capability of the Iraqi government, both at the provincial level and at the central governmental level, reaching out for the -- reaching out to the provinces in the north.
So I think there is a feeling, first of all, that the Iraqi citizens are certainly sick of the insurgencies. Over the last year we have killed or captured several hundred -- and, in fact, in the thousands -- of insurgents of different insurgency groups, not only al Qaeda but also Jaish al-Islami, Ansar al-Sunna, Jaish al-Mujahideen, several of the insurgent networks in the northern provinces.
So I think it's a combination of continuing to pursue the enemy, making the cities more secure, allowing the people to get back to work and the governmental outreach to help the people feel like they're being secured by a newly evolving government of Iraq. So I think all of those things continue to fracture the insurgencies more and more.
But having said that, there is still a desire by al Qaeda and other extremist groups to hold on to key areas. We have seen that most of all in Mosul. As they have lost Baghdad, for all practical purposes, there have been other areas which they've tried to hold on to. Mosul is one of those. And because of the proximity to the Syrian border, the proximity to the port of Rabiya, the ability to gain safe havens in the desert around that city of 2 million people, the fact that they can blend in very easily in that very cosmopolitan city, which has quite a few different populations within the city -- Sunnis, Arabs, Kurds, Yazidis, Christians, Assyrians -- they continue to try and control that city. Because of the focus on Baghdad over the last few years, I think the government is now turning its attention to some of the other major cities in Iraq to help provide the infrastructure, repair and damage -- the things that have caused the citizens to be disenfranchised. And I think that's coming around and helping us to further fracture the insurgency.
Q (Off mike.)
GEN. HERTLING: Some of the actions by al Qaeda in these cities, as evidenced by the attack this weekend, where a couple of al Qaeda senior operatives were being targeted in Mosul and instead of being captured, they exploded a suicide vest and killed several innocent women and children in that area -- I think that has also furthered -- further drove a wedge between al Qaeda and the people, and has caused the continuation of that fracture.
MR. WHITMAN: Why don't you ask your question? If I need to repeat it, I will.
Q Okay. General, how much are your forces involved in civilian affairs and reconstruction as compared to security operations? Are they capable of doing that sort of civilian work? Is it the best use of the force? And what's the impact of that mix of duties on your ability to eventually draw down forces?
GEN. HERTLING: Bryan, again, I'm going to have to ask you to repeat the question. I'm only getting about three words and then it's cutting out for about three or four seconds. Can you repeat that question? I seem to be hearing okay from the podium, but I don't -- I'm not getting the questions from the crowd.
MR. WHITMAN: No problem. I am an excellent filter for these questions. (Laughs.) Al's four-part question had to do with civilian reconstruction and civilian -- civic affairs type activities, and how much you find your forces involved in that and what the implications might be into the future for --
STAFF: (Off mike.)
MR. WHITMAN: General, let me see if you can hear me right now, because we're hearing very good here.
GEN. HERTLING: Bryan, I'm not hearing anything. So that's why I had the blank stare on my face. If -- we may want to try and reconnect, if that's a possibility.
STAFF: (Off mike.)
MR. WHITMAN: Yeah. Yes, we will see if we can't do something. We're going to give a call to your folks to see if we can't have them reinitiate, because we believe the audio is probably -- the audio problem is probably on your side. I realize you didn't hear any of that, but we'll --
(END OF AVAILABLE AUDIO.)
NOTE: Briefing was concluded due to loss of satellite signal with Iraq.
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