DoD News Briefing with Col. Volesky from Iraq
MR. WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): Well, good morning. Let's go ahead and get started here. Let's make sure we have a good communication link, though.
Colonel Volesky, this is Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon. Can you hear me okay?
COL. VOLESKY: I can hear you great. How are you?
MR. WHITMAN: I'm doing just fine. And I want to thank you for taking some time this afternoon to be with the Pentagon press corps here.
It is my privilege to be able to introduce to you today Colonel Gary Volesky, who is the commander of the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, assigned to Multi Division North -- Multinational Division North.
Colonel Volesky assumed his duties in Iraq about four months ago.
This is our first opportunity to have him brief us today and take some of our questions.
He is joining us from Forward Operating Base Marez in Iraq, and is going to start off with a little overview of what they've been doing for the past four months. So let me turn it over to the colonel and then we'll take some of your questions.
COL. VOLESKY: Hey, thanks for allowing me to talk to you all today. I'd just like to tell you a little bit about my brigade and what we've been doing since we came to Iraq.
I'd like you all to know that this is the third time in the last five years this brigade's deployed as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In fact, many of my soldiers just left the Diyala province 15 months ago.
We assumed control of Nineveh province on the 19th of January. And as all you know, that's when we were really ramping up to start the elections series here in Nineveh.
And our focus was really at that point to build strong relationships with our Iraqi counterparts and really support them in the establishment of secure locations for the elections. And as you all know, the elections went very well and were a great success.
After the elections, we started to look at the problem set in Mosul and rest -- and the rest of Nineveh province. And our predecessors here did a great job, as you can tell, or as you know. The last six months attacks and violence have decreased significantly lower than they have been in a number of years.
But the insurgencies still were able to conduct operations in Mosul, and there are really three reasons why -- more than three, but three primary reasons.
The first was that there was an ineffective provincial government that didn't represent the majority of the population in Nineveh. And they did nothing, really, of any measure to improve the people's quality of life.
The ISF, all the Iraqi security forces, they were still developing, getting more and more capability, but they were unable really to handle the threat that AQI and the other insurgents were able to do while attacking Mosul. And then finally there were fewer coalition forces here in Mosul. When I was here 18 months ago, the focus was clearly on Baghdad, and we had to win in Baghdad. And so there was not as many forces as there are currently in Mosul to get at the problem with AQI and the other insurgents.
So what we've done is we've really done what I would call our own little surge up here in Mosul. We focused on Operation Nineveh Resolve, which is a subset of the division’s Operation New Hope.
And I've got almost twice as many coalition forces in Mosul as my previous -- as the previous unit did. But it's not really how many forces we have; it's really the ability for us to partner with our Iraqi counterparts. And I don't really like using the word "partnering." I prefer "embedding," so that we embed with those Iraqi forces.
As you know, the security agreement changed how we operated here in Iraq in January. We are no longer in the lead. We support the Iraqi security forces, and that's what we're doing here.
The strategy for Nineveh Resolve really focuses on clearing neighborhoods that the enemy has had freedom of movement in and a large amount of influence. But what's different about this operation to past operations is the control and retain or the holding force that we're leaving in these neighborhoods as we clear them. That hasn't really been done before at the level that we're doing it now.
So as we go into a neighborhood to clear it, once that is cleared -- the insurgents are killed, captured or they move out, we leave a holding force there. And we really focus at that point on getting after those drivers of instability in those neighborhoods, which is really the quality of life and the unemployment in those neighborhoods.
So we'll hold it and start immediate projects in those neighborhoods, employing people that live there to do what we're calling "quick wins" in the brigade. And right now, for example, we're doing multiple trash projects, hiring, at times, a hundred people in one neighborhood to collect trash, to give them some employment and get that recruiting pool that the insurgents have reduced.
And how we tie this in to the local government is we brought them in and said, what are their priorities for Mosul? In the past, when I was here in 2004, we just developed the projects on our own and really did not take into account what the true needs of the population were. So we brought in the local officials as well as the director general from the province and had them help us develop these projects so that they get buy-in. And as we move these projects further and further, they take more and more responsibility for them so that we have a sustained system versus just a project that ends and then everyone's unemployed.
In these neighborhoods that we've cleared, we see very rare attacks in those areas, and the people are taking more and more ownership of their neighborhoods. The security forces that are in each of those neighborhoods -- and we've got Iraqi army as well as national police -- they're perceived as the force who's providing security, not the coalition. And that is really what we want to achieve.
However, as we know, the insurgents have retained a capability to conduct some high-profile attacks.
These operations we have done have not come without cost. We have memorialized five of our great Americans this morning due to a suicide vehicle improvised explosive device that occurred last week. They do have that capability. However, overall these attacks and their effectiveness are continuing to decline.
As we continue to clear more and more neighborhoods, what we've seen is the enemy has two choices: They can fight, or flee. And the more neighborhoods we clear, the less freedom of movement they have. Now, we've started this operation on 20 February, and I am cautiously optimistic. There could be bad days ahead, as the enemy realizes that his freedom of maneuver and movement has been reduced, and continues to be reduced, but the -- and the way he is attacking is different. When we first arrived, the majority of attacks were on coalition forces. The vast majority of attacks are now on the security forces that he sees as the threat to his ability to continue to operate.
And that -- (technical difficulties) --
MR. WHITMAN: Colonel, this is Bryan Whitman back at the Pentagon. How can you hear me?
COL. VOLESKY: I can hear you well. How can you hear me?
MR. WHITMAN: Just fine. Thank you for hanging in there while there were some technical challenges there.
We had -- I think we were pretty close to the end of your opening remarks. I don't know if you know where we dropped -- where you dropped off or not, but let me turn it over to you, if you want to finish up before we go to some questions.
COL. VOLESKY: I was told that I got through the projects piece, and that was near the end. So I'm ready to take any questions you may have.
MR. WHITMAN: Thank you. Thank you for that. And we'll get started right here, and we'll start with Daphne.
Q Hi, sir. This is Daphne Benoit with Agence France-Presse. Given the recent acts of violence in the Mosul region, are you still confident that you're going to be able to leave the city by end of June as planned? And are you concerned it might actually worsen the situation?
COL. VOLESKY: The 30 June date that's -- that's out there, we are conducting an assessment right now with our Iraqi counterparts to determine what the way ahead is for security in Mosul.
And based on that assessment, a decision will be made what we will do on 30 June. If the Iraqi government believes we should stay in Mosul to continue the security progress, we'll support our Iraqi counterparts past 30 June and continue to build on the momentum that we've got here. If we're -- if the decisions made that we leave, then we'll go into the Nineveh province at large and continue supporting Iraqi security forces.
But again that, in my assessment, will all be made based on the combined assessment that is currently being collected right now.
MR. WHITMAN: Laura?
Q Hi, Greywolf Six. This is Laura Jakes from the Associated Press. It's nice to see you again.
I was wondering if you could give us a general assessment of the ISF in the province, whether they'll be ready to -- when you all redeploy, and whether they'll really be capable to fight AQI on their own at some point.
COL. VOLESKY: The Iraqi security forces -- again, I was here in 2004 -- and they're 100 percent better than they were. In fact, there are over 25,000 members of the Iraqi security forces in Mosul. And they conduct independent operations every day.
And as I said earlier, these insurgents have focused their attacks on the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqis have not -- have not wavered at all. So we see continued improvement day by day. And as I said, they're conducting independent operations now.
What I really offer them is a lot of what we call enablers -- the aviation, that -- the military working dogs, those kinds of things that really augment their operations. But they're all in the lead right now. I don't own a base and I coordinate all my operations with them. So, you know, they're doing those things today that we expect them to do when we eventually leave.
Q If I could just follow up, when I was doing some of the market walks with your guys, there would be a platoon of 20 coalition forces or actually your battalion and then it would be four or five Iraqi security force officers, whether it was IA or whether it was Iraqi police. It was very clear that it was the American forces that were -- even if you were in a support role, that you were doing most of the security. Do you think that the ISF is going to be ready by the time you-all leave, less than a year from now?
COL. VOLESKY: I don't know who you walked around with. I know that if you were walking with a patrol that was with Iraqi police, that is a challenge, because as I think you heard when you were here, they're about 5,000 Iraqi police short. But if you went up to the northern part and saw 7 Nissan, you'd see an Iraqi battalion there. In fact, that's one of the areas we're calling our model neighborhoods and that we want to transition to the Iraqis, because the security there is really good. Attacks there are very rare, and the Iraqi security forces are doing that patrolling pretty much independently of us.
So my assessment is I am optimistic in the progress that the Iraqis are making, and we'll continue to support them. But again, I see great indications that they are well on their way ahead to take over security when we eventually leave.
Q Thank you.
Q Colonel, this is David Morgan from Reuters. Can you tell us, please, who you think are behind these recent high-profile attacks? Are they former Sunni insurgents who are returning to the fight? Does al Qaeda in Iraq appear to have a role? And what do you think they're trying to achieve? What message are they trying to send?
COL. VOLESKY: Well, the enemy dynamic here, as you know, is -- Mosul is pretty complex. There is an al Qaeda element left, and that's who we believe is tied to the suicide vehicle-borne explosive devices there. And as you see, they want to remain viable and show the people that they are still a viable entity.
But there's not just AQI. I mean, there's a criminal element here that continues. You know, we've seen -- their attacks have continued to get more ineffective, and the means that they use are less effective. We've seen improvised explosive devices -- the big ones you saw a few months ago are now five-pound pipe bombs, we see a lot more hand grenades, because their freedom of movement has been restricted based on the operation. So I believe that al Qaeda still is here. That's who's doing these big SVBIEDs.
But there's also a criminal element that's involved in this as well, that continues to get support because of the unemployment and the quality-of-life issues that we want to get addressed as part of this operation. MR. WHITMAN: Jeff, and then back to Courtney.
Q Hi, Colonel. Jeff Schogol with Stars and Stripes. Can you say when you expect the assessment on whether U.S. troops should stay in Mosul to be completed?
COL. VOLESKY: I can't give you the date. I know that I'm collecting that data right now, working with my Iraqi security forces, and it'll get forwarded up to our higher headquarters in the next few weeks. So when the official assessment's done by our higher headquarters and the Iraqis -- I don't have that date. I just know, you know, from my brigade perspective, we're collecting that data and getting feedback from our Iraqi counterparts right now.
Q And I have a quick follow-up question. My understanding is, Mosul has been cleared several times. If you have to clear someplace more than once, that implies that you're not really holding it. Am I not seeing something?
COL. VOLESKY: Well, that's exactly right. And that's what's different about Nineveh Resolve, is that we've got -- once we clear it, we're leaving, you know, a formation in there to hold that. We are doing night patrolling with our Iraqi counterparts. And as I mentioned, 7 Nissan, you know, that Iraqi army battalion's up there, working with our Steel Dragons that own that or have responsibility to work that partnership with them. And they're -- they are holding that neighborhood.
And again, in the neighborhoods that we have cleared and are holding and have projects ongoing, the attacks are very rare. The enemy has shifted now into going to areas that we have not yet cleared or are going on the main avenues between those because they can't -- they don't have access into those neighborhoods right now.
Q (Off mike) -- of Mosul do U.S. and Iraqi forces control right now?
COL. VOLESKY: I'm sorry. I didn't hear your question.
Q What percentage of Mosul does U.S. and Iraqi forces control right now?
COL. VOLESKY: Well, we have officially -- we have cleared -- include the neighborhoods that we need to get into where the insurgents were the highest -- about 46 neighborhoods. But I'm not fighting nor are our Iraqis fighting to get into any part of the city. We go wherever we want, whenever we want. And again, the effectiveness of the attacks is really the indicator. A lot of people have talked -- well, you've had a high number of attacks. But you know, we'll have three or four hand grenades thrown in an hour that don't do anything, and those are registered as attacks. The effective attacks are the ones that we're concerned about.
And the enemy's movement to go throw hand grenades just shows he's got less freedom of movement to sit and plan these long, thought- out IEDs and the rest.
So when you say "control," I mean, we're operating through the entire city. We're holding 46 neighborhoods right now and expanding that with continuing operations as part of Nineveh Resolve.
MR. WHITMAN: Courtney.
Q Hi, Colonel. This is Courtney Kube from NBC News. Jeff actually just pretty much touched on my question, but I just want to be sure I understand this assessment that you're conducting with your Iraqi counterparts. The end of this assessment could possibly mean that the U.S. combat soldiers will stay in Mosul after June 30th.
Is that correct?
COL. VOLESKY: If the Iraqi government wants us to stay, we will stay. And that's correct. But again, it's the Iraqis' decision; it's not mine. We're just going to give them the information as we see it, work it with our Iraqi counterparts, and that's the assessment that they'll base their decision on.
Q What's your understanding of what that would mean for the status of forces? Would there have to be some kind of a change in the status of forces agreement that went into effect several months ago? Or is that -- because the Iraqis are asking -- would be asking the U.S. to stay, does it fall within the guidelines that were established?
COL. VOLESKY: Well, you know, the security agreement is an agreement that was made way above my level, and I'll let, you know, my higher headquarters figure that out. But if the Iraqis invite us to stay, we're going to stay and continue to support those operations that keep the quality of life improving and the security getting better in Mosul.
Q Let me just ask one more, Colonel. What is the U.S. military assessment of how many Iraqi police, soldiers and what-not it would take to hold Mosul, how many total ISF you would need?
COL. VOLESKY: Well, the -- you broke out a little bit. I'll answer your question based on what I understood. What the plan is, as you know, there's -- to get the Iraqi army and the national police eventually out of Mosul, and let the Iraqi police have primacy for that.
Right now, we've asked for over -- about 5,300 Iraqi policemen to come in to start to, you know, get that police presence in the city of Mosul. That's how we start to get to a return to normalcy. So those are the initiatives that we're working right now.
The national police and the Iraqi army that are there, there have been some discussions about bringing some more forces up to Mosul to continue to focus on holding neighborhoods. As you know, when you got in, clearing is one thing, but leaving a consistent presence there requires a little bit more robust forces. And the Iraqis are working with us on that, to really identify the requirement, and then they're filling that requirement. MR. WHITMAN: All right, we'll go back through, one, two and three.
Q Yeah, this is Daphne Benoit again, with the Agence France- Presse. Are you expecting any extra U.S. troops in your province any time soon to help you clear and hold the area, in Mosul particularly?
COL. VOLESKY: Yeah, again, it's not important to focus on how many soldiers I have. What's important is our partnership and embedding with our Iraqi counterparts. I mean, again, we're not in the lead of these operations. We want to make sure we're partners and support what their operations are. Again, then it will resolve as an Iraqi-led operation. We're just supporting it.
So to say how many more, or do I think more coalition forces will come in, frankly, I've got my brigade here and we're going to partner with as many Iraqi counterparts as we have to get at the solution. And, you know, as I walk through neighborhoods, the people are very happy to see their Iraqi forces in the streets.
And that's what we want to continue to reinforce: getting them more -- out there more in the cities with the people and talk to the people and be recognized as the ones that are in charge of security for their area.
Q And Colonel, it's David Morgan of Reuters. Could you give us, please, a breakdown on the forces that you're working with currently -- how many U.S. troops, how many coalition troops, how many Iraqi army troops and police? (Pause.) Did we cut out again?
MR. WHITMAN: The -- he may not have heard the question. The question was to the -- if you could do a force breakdown in terms of U.S. forces, Iraqi security forces, both army and police. What do you have that you're working with in your area there, in the city?
COL. VOLESKY: Well, I will tell you, for -- with my brigade, you know, I've got about four battalions of combat power, just of coalition forces in Mosul. But I've also got two battalions outside, partnered with Iraqi forces that are in what we call the support zones to the south and to the west, where a lot of the lethal aid has been coming from. And that is something that was not able to be done in the past. So those two battalions really are the ones that are getting into those support zones that the enemy has used to facilitate operations.
There's over 25,000 security -- Iraqi security forces in the city. So if you look at, you know -- I have significantly less forces than the Iraqis do. And so that's really what we're working with. On the east side of the river I've got Iraqi army, primarily, and then on the west side of the river I've got the national police division that we work with on the west.
Q If I can follow up briefly, can you tell us how many U.S. troops you have, though?
COL. VOLESKY: I'll just tell you I've got my brigade and -- plus another battalion.
MR. WHITMAN: Okay.
Q Colonel, it's Laura from AP again. So just to clarify, when you say that you've asked for 5,300 Iraqi police, is that additional on top -- is that in addition to the 25,000 that you have -- ISF that you have now? Or is that included in the 25,000? COL. VOLESKY: No, the -- well, as -- right now there -- the Iraqi police are about 5,300 short of what the provincial director of police believes he needs to take over primacy in Mosul. About 4,000 of those are policemen that have died or have gone AWOL. And, you know, about 1,300 are new hires that he needs. So those -- you know, 4,000 was currently on the rolls; 1,300 are more -- additional police that he needs. So there's really a 5,300-police deficiency in Mosul right now.
Q And then, would you agree that it's fair to say that it's likely that the Iraqis will ask you to stay in Mosul past the June 30 deadline, actually operating in Mosul, living in Mosul?
COL. VOLESKY: Yeah, I'm not going to make any predictions. You know, whatever the Iraqi government decides will be based on that assessment that is being done. So again, if they ask us to stay, we will continue supporting those forces in Mosul. And if we're directed to move out of the city, then we'll continue to support the Iraqi forces outside Mosul. But, you know, a prediction's not helpful, and frankly, I really want the Iraqis to make that decision and not have a prediction from me.
Q I thought that that was all but a done deal. So if I'm mistaken, if you want to correct me, I'm happy to take that.
COL. VOLESKY: Well, I haven't heard any discussions on that except that there's being -- an assessment being done. And again, it's really with the Iraqis, and I haven't had any Iraqis talk to me about it. And again, that decision's made much higher than anybody that I work with in Nineveh province. So I'll leave that to my higher headquarters to decide.
Q Slightly off topic. The -- I'm hoping I'm pronouncing the name of the city right -- the Sinjar mayor has said that he wants to separate from Nineveh and become part of the Kurdish region. What are you-all doing to work with that or to mitigate it?
COL. VOLESKY: Yeah, it is Sinjar. And as you know, there's a Kurdish influence in Sinjar. And it gets back to the point of Arab- Kurdish tension.
And what we tell both of those people, or those groups that we talk to, is the Kurdish solution is not going to be done locally or militarily, it's got to be done at the national level. So what we want to do is be inclusive and not exclusive.
And what we see at the local level -- and I'll use the elections as an example -- when we got here there was a lot of discussion on these disputed polling stations. And I sat in the first combined rehearsal for both peshmerga and Iraqi army generals to discuss, you know, how many pesh soldiers would be compared to how many Iraqi army soldiers there would be at these polling stations. And it was the first time I'd seen peshmerga generals and Iraqi army generals work together. And they solved the problem. You know, we had about a month ago an issue with a checkpoint that was going to be established by the Iraqi army. The pesh came down. There were about 300 soldiers in that vicinity. Both generals got together and discussed it and came together and made a -- created a solution that was acceptable to both.
So at the local level, that's encouraging. But as we continue to discuss with the people we talk to, is, let's leave that to the national-level government and let's just focus on helping the people of Nineveh achieve some of that quality of life and that future that they have not got to see in the past few years.
Q The military right now doesn't have a position on whether or not this would be an issue in terms of security or in terms of diplomacy or whether -- you know, in the bleakest possible terms, whether it should or shouldn't be done, whether or not they separate?
COL. VOLESKY: Again, I'm sure somebody above me does, but I've gone out to Sinjar. I've been there twice. I know that the new provincial governor wants to go out to Sinjar. So I would say that, you know, as new -- as a new government comes on board, there is a rebalancing that goes on. You know, we said we want gracious winners and, you know, really the losing party, you know, be understanding that the democratic process has gone on and be part of a solution for Nineveh and not focused on their own internal issues.
So I know that this is a key issue with the new provincial governor and I know that they want to work through it. And I was encouraged by his comments when he said, hey, you know, the Kurdish contingent on the provincial council is -- demonstrates that democracy works and we look forward to being inclusive for the people of Nineveh and not about parties.
Q Thank you.
MR. WHITMAN: We have time for maybe one or two more. Jeff, and then we'll finish up with Daphne. How's that?
Q Hi, Colonel. Jeff with Stars and Stripes again. Why haven't these 53 Iraqi police been recruited? Is there a problem with paying them? Is there a problem with getting extra police officers?
COL. VOLESKY: Well, the issue becomes the hiring and vetting. I mean, as you know, we want to make sure that the police that come in are ready to be policemen and they have all the qualifications required of them. There has been a vetting program so that we're getting good policemen and rooting out all the bad police. That's the first piece and that takes a while.
The second piece, as you've alluded to, is the oil prices have gone down and so there have been some budget issues. But they're working through that. The provincial director of police was at a meeting to talk to the minister of the interior and they've addressed that. So they understand what the requirement is and they'll work their way through how to get that. That's why the national police and the Iraqi army are still in -- will be in Mosul through national elections, as I understand it. MR. WHITMAN: (Off mike) -- sorry. Go ahead, Daphne.
Q Yes, sir, this is Daphne Benoit again with the Agence France-Presse. Two people were arrested after Friday's attacks that cost five lives among American soldiers. Did you feel like you caught the right persons? Is there -- you know, did -- and are they affiliated with al Qaeda for sure?
COL. VOLESKY: Well, what I would tell you, there's an investigation going on.
I mean, we did detain some people, as you've alluded to. And we're continuing to conduct that investigation. And, you know, we'll pass whatever we find out to our higher headquarters. So that's all to -- to say about that right now.
Q Thank you, sir.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, Colonel Volesky, we have gone past our time, and we appreciate your giving us some additional time due to the technical difficulties. But before I bring it to a close here, let me just turn it back to you to see if you have any final thoughts.
COL. VOLESKY: Yeah, I'd just like to thank you all for letting me speak to you today. This is, in my mind -- you know, this is my third trip here in the last five years. And we say that every rotation we have here in Iraq is an important one, but I really see this one as the most important rotation that I have personally done in Iraq. And frankly, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else in the Army than right here today with the great soldiers that I get to serve with.
We couldn't do this without the support of our families. And I want to tell them back both in Fort Hood and Fort Carson, thank you for all you do in supporting us. And I want you to know this is your army, and you should be proud of it. Every day, our soldiers go outside to make a difference into Mosul. And when people talk about how much time we have left, I just say we have one day tomorrow that -- that we have one day less tomorrow than I do right now to make a difference. And all we want here is a better and brighter future for the people of Nineveh province in Iraq.
And so thank you again for giving me that opportunity to speak to you today.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, thank you. And we hope that in the next couple of months we'll be able to get another update from you, as this is an important region and your insights are very helpful to our understanding back here. Thank you.
COL. VOLESKY: Well, thank you. And I'd invite all of you to come out and see for yourself in Mosul what's going on today. Thanks, again.
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