MODERATOR: All right, everyone. Welcome. It is a Monday morning in the Pentagon, and we have the privilege of having with us today Colonel Dick Francey, the commander of the 41st Fires Brigade, from Fort Hood, Texas. And Colonel Francey assumed his duties in Iraq in June of last year. And his brigade operates in Wasat province, which I believe is south of Baghdad.
This is his first briefing with us, and he's coming from Camp Victory.
So with that, we won't waste any more time, and go right over to Colonel Francey. Can you hear us okay?
COL. FRANCEY: I can. And thank you.
Good morning. And it's great to be with you. And I especially appreciate your time.
I'd like to take a brief moment to discuss where we are and what we've been doing since arriving at FOB Delta last June. First of all, FOB Delta is just outside Al Kut in Wasat province. It borders with Iran. It is just to the southeast of Baghdad, home to about a million people.
Conditions here continue to improve. Security situation here is very stable, under the quality of leadership of my security partners and the Iraqi army brigade led by Brigadier General Abid (sp), the Iraqi police, led by Major General Rahd (sp). And we have a border enforcement team responsible for the security along the Iraq-Iran border led by Major General Rasheed. The Iraqi security forces have been in control of security responsibilities since the province was turned over and during provincial Iraqi control on 29 October of last year.
Our close partnerships with our Iraqi security force brothers before Iraqi -- provincial Iraqi control resulted in a nearly transparent hand-over of the security of the province.
We've continued -- (audio break) -- counterparts ever since. The people of Wasit rightfully have confidence in their security forces.
The latest indication that things are headed in the right direction here was the successful execution of the provincial elections last Saturday. The security was planned, rehearsed and executed by the Iraqi security forces. And the elections were run by the Iraqi high electoral commission.
The electoral process was handled smoothly and professionally. Most atmospherics indicate that the populace believes the election to have been safe, secure and legitimate.
Conditions as a whole are good. Security is stable; essential services improving. And with day to day freedoms of democracy recognized, a new normal is being embraced. I'd be happy to take any of your questions at this time.
MODERATOR: All right, let's go ahead.
Q Hi, Colonel, this is Courtney Kube from NBC News.
You classified several times the security situation, in your area, as very stable. And you mentioned that you got through the elections last week, a week or so ago, without any problem, a major potential security situation.
Why is it that the U.S. is still needed, in that area, if the situation is so stable and the Iraqis seem to be capable of taking care of it themselves?
COL. FRANCEY: Just to give you a brief background, when we got here, my brigade replaced a much smaller organization. And we weren't sure what we were going to find when we went outside the wire. What we found were that the Iraqi security forces were out in the lead and doing some good things.
Now, we've since partnered with them, as I stated. They're making great strides. It's not real pretty. It's not -- (audio break) -- situation at this time.
They still have some weaknesses. We continue to work on their logistics, and simultaneously we're moving our Provincial Reconstruction Teams around. So there are still some requirements that still go -- that are needed here.
Q Is -- if I could just follow up, the U.S. military -- are you providing security for those PRTs? And then also, can you talk about any U.S. involvement in the border security with Iran? Is that a solely Iraqi mission, or are you still there as an overwatch?
COL. FRANCEY: Yeah, first question, yes, we provide movement teams for the PRTs. Everywhere they go, the U.S. forces are providing that -- the transportation.
The border force -- I have a force out -- (audio break) -- Colonel Ken Downer (sp) leads the Border Transition Team, works up there on a daily basis with his team, with the border enforcement. Additionally, I have a small portion of my brigade that works with different sections of his organization. An example is, I have one platoon that's training his commando battalion as a strike force, a mobile strike force that can move in between the forts and increase the border protection.
Q Good morning. This is Daphne Benoit with Agence France- Presse. Following Courtney's question, let's imagine that the conditions remain stable in terms of security and that the Iraqi security forces continue to make progress. How long do you think the U.S. presence will be required in your area? (Pause.) (Off mike) -- ask.
MODERATOR: Repeat --
COL. FRANCEY: Yeah, I think that got that. That was -- (audio break) -- I think you asked me how long that I can forecast that we'll be required in the area. That was accurate?
Q (Off mike.)
COL. FRANCEY: Okay.
Yeah, I think we're moving to a point to where we can start downsizing in my area. As long as the PRT is there, I'm sure there will be continued requirements for moving them. I still think there's partnership requirements, but at a smaller scale. Where I've had a battalion covering down on other battalions, now a battalion can maybe start covering down on a brigade-sized element.
And so I definitely see that the opportunity exists, at least in my area. I can't speak for the rest of the country, but in my area I think the conditions are very close to where we can start reducing the force structure within Wasat province.
MODERATOR: Let's just go around the room.
Q Colonel, this is Nancy Youssef with McClatchy Newspapers. There has been some concern that the bad actors that were perpetuating the violence in the past are still there, and that they are laying low until the American forces leave. What evidence do you have about where those, for example, former Sadrists were? Have they left the country, or left your province? Are they laying low? What intelligence do you have about some of those people who were perpetuating violence in the past?
COL. FRANCEY: Yeah, and, well, just let me apologize if I misled anybody. Things are stable, but there are still some bad people out there, and we continue to work to kill or capture them every single day. It's an ongoing condition. But let me just try to give you an example of what it is that I face every day.
When I got here I -- (audio break) -- were pretty good shape. I saw it as a window of opportunity to try and win the hearts and minds and start to work with the Iraqi government to start the reconstruction effort, and work in schools, water projects -- all of those types of things. And the results were a population within Wasat that started tasting freedoms that they had never tasted before. And they enjoy those freedoms.
So now what we are seeing, as some of the bad actors start returning, these people don't want to give up those freedoms and don't want to return to what -- the way it was. They are calling on the tip line, they're coming to the front gate, and they're saying, "So-and-So is back. Follow me. I will lead you to them." It's exciting to watch it.
Q A follow-up, please. Do you have a sense, though, that the same numbers of those, for example, Sadrists are in Wasat province? Do you have a percentage of how many you think have left, versus how many have stayed and are trying to push back in?
COL. FRANCEY: I'm sorry, I really don't have that. I would say in the last month we had an uprising. That was defeated. Most of the big players decided to leave the area because it was very unsafe for them. And it remains very unsafe for them, because -- (inaudible) -- that are watching.
And I would say that -- yeah, I don't know. I think there are a lot of thugs out on the street waiting to become criminals or take terrorist acts. It depends on whether somebody wants to pay them to do one or the other. But the real bad actors -- (audio break) -- top- line special group leaders, AQI guys, there are very few of them around, if any, within Wasat. We pretty much stay on top of where they are running. And they're pretty much staying on the run between Iran and Syria.
Q You said groups -- the big players have decided to leave. Where have they gone?
COL. FRANCEY: I really apologize. I did not get that.
Q You said most of the big players have decided to leave. Where have they gone? Most of the big -- (inaudible) -- actors who have decided to leave, you said earlier, where have they gone?
COL. FRANCEY: Well, we've tracked them pretty much on the run. They will go to Iran. They'll go to Syria. They'll go to other parts of Iraq. They don't -- (audio break) -- with each other. They know that we are actively pursuing them.
Q Colonel, it's Jim Garamone with American Forces Press Service. You mentioned that -- you mentioned earlier that essential services are improving. Can you quantify that? How much are they improving?
COL. FRANCEY: Not enough. The -- you know, you just look across, there's still plenty of places that are -- don't have fresh drinking water, clean drinking water; many places that the sewerage is in very, very bad disrepair, if there is any sewerage.
And trash is a rampant problem in most of the bigger cities.
You see some of the projects ongoing. And do I think there are enough? No, and it's the party line that I continue to preach, to the provincial government, every time I have an opportunity.
I think they can do more. And we saw some movement, over the last three-four months. Don't know if it was tied, as part of their electoral process. But we have seen quite a few projects over the last three or four months. Hopefully that will continue, once we seat the new provincial governments as well.
Q Colonel, it's Ken Fireman from Bloomberg News.
You said that there were a lot of thugs, on the streets, waiting to either become criminals or terrorists basically, depending on who pays them to do what. Is there a long-term solution to that problem, in terms of draining that pool of potential criminals and potential terrorists? And if so, what is it?
COL. FRANCEY: I think it's way too complex a question for us to look at during this short session. I think a lot of them; what we have to start working on is making sure that these people do have hope.
I have a fairly high unemployment rate within Wasat. Wasat is primarily an agricultural province. The Iran-Iraq War of the '80s; you have the war in the '90s, early-'90s, and then the sanctions.
So we're working on about 30 years of neglect of the agriculture. That coupled with droughts and the implementation of certain bans -- (audio break). Wasat is in very bad shape.
So I have a province full of farmers that can't farm right now, so they're unemployed. We need to turn around the agriculture within Wasat. And that is, again, one of the ongoing talking points whenever I get anybody visiting from Baghdad on the GOI side.
Q (Off mike) -- primarily Shi'ite or Sunni, or is it a mix?
COL. FRANCEY: Was the question is my population Shi'ite or Sunni?
COL. FRANCEY: Predominantly I'm about 94, 95 percent Shi'a across the province. In the northwest I have one city, Suwayrah, is about 60-40 mix -- (audio break).
Q Thank you.
MODERATOR: Courtney, back to you.
Q Hey, Colonel, this is Courtney Kube from NBC News again. Do you see any -- given the fact that your province is primarily Shi'a, do you see a lot of influence from Iran in any way? Are they -- is Iran trying to help out with its agriculture problem, try and come in and provide infrastructure to curry favor with the local Iraqis in the area or anything?
COL. FRANCEY: Mm. Yeah. You can imagine being the -- one of provinces that borders with Iran -- every time I get a visitor, that's the number-one subject everybody wants to talk to me about. Iranian influence is in Wasat. You got to recognize, if you were in southern Texas, Mexican influence would be in Texas. It's something that's there. It's always been there and will always be there. (Audio break.)
What is the malign influence that we want to balance or defeat? The Iranian influence will be there. You can see it both in non- kinetic -- I see certain projects that will start popping up in different areas, and I know it's not GOI money, and I know it's not U.S. money. So I can -- and I now there aren't any outside investors coming in quite yet, no.
I would say I'd love to have some come in any time.
So, yeah, I think there is a lot of Iranian influence that's ongoing. To what degree -- I think it's still very manageable. You talk to the people on the street and they don't want it there. And there seems to be a pretty strong push across the -- with Iraqis for -- (audio break) -- nationalism. And I think they'll be okay.
MODERATOR: Go ahead, Nancy.
Q Could I follow up on that, please? You said that the Iranian influence is manageable. Could you elaborate one what manageable Iranian influence looks like?
COL. FRANCEY: You know, if I have people in Wasat that don't have food, but Iran is importing watermelons or fruits and vegetables, is that Iranian influence within Iraq? If I have them importing other construction materials that are being used, because it's not coming in from other -- (audio break) -- influence that's not all that bad.
I see -- if you move up to some of the towns up around the border, you'll see some clinics or schools that are being worked on and, no, it's not our money but it's a pretty good project. And not saying that I can definitely attest to that being Iranian money that's building that school, but if it is, is that such a bad thing? I don't know.
Is it -- what's manageable? If the people have their individual freedoms and they're allowed to be Iraqis and not be leading down a path of Iranian support, then I think it's okay. But people will -- the people will speak, when I talk to the people -- (audio break) -- official positions, they'll tell you, we see it out there. We don't like it, and we're going to get rid of it. We just need time.
Q Colonel, this is Jim Garamone again. How has the SOFA agreement affected your brigade?
COL. FRANCEY: Yeah. Since the security agreement went in on 1 January, I will tell you, very little. We have been working in close concert with my security partners. You know, everything we do is combined operations. There is not -- it is no operations we do -- resupply operations we do independent, but all the patrols, all the -- any missions that we -- (audio break) -- always partnered with the Iraqi police or the Iraqi army. So it's very, very little significance to us.
MODERATOR: Well, it looks like we have exhausted the pool of questions on this end, Colonel Francey. So with that, we will turn it back over to you for any final comments or observations you'd like to give to this group before we close.
COL. FRANCEY: Okay. Well, again, I appreciate all of your time. I know it's exciting times back there -- especially three days from right now, pitchers and catchers report to spring training. So thank you for taking and giving me this time.
In closing, I'd like to thank each of you for the opportunity to speak today about what the superb soldiers of this tremendous brigade are doing every day to help the people of Wasat and the people of -- (audio break) -- discipline and high standards remain the cornerstone of their numerous successes, and they amaze me every day.
I'd like to send a special thanks to our families and our good friends back at the great place, Fort Hood.
Their continued support, coupled with the caring efforts of the brigade rear detachment, has allowed me and the rest of the soldiers to focus on the mission at hand.
Our families are a testament of what makes our Army great. Their continued sacrifices in this long war cannot go unheralded. For they have the toughest job of us all. And I would like to thank them for their continued sacrifices. I promise we'll be home soon.
Thank you very much.
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