BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary for Public Affairs): Well, I do have the top of the hour, so let's go ahead and get started.
Good morning, everybody, and good morning, General Nash. This is Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon.
We are privileged and I'm honored to introduce to you Major General Richard Nash, who is the commander of Multinational Division South. He assumed his current duties in Iraq in May, and this is his first opportunity -- or our first opportunity to have General Nash in this particular format. He's talking to us today from Basra, Iraq, and he's going to start with a few opening comments, give you an overview of what his forces have been doing and the situation on the ground and then take some questions from you.
So, General, thank you again for joining us and let me turn it over to you.
GEN. NASH: Hey, Bryan. Good morning. As you said, I am Major General Rick Nash, and I command the Multinational Division South and the 34th Infantry Division. It's also known as the Red Bulls. The 34th Infantry Division is a National Guard unit based in the suburban St. Paul community of Rosemount.
I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you today about our operations here in southern Iraq. Since May 20th, the 34th Red Bull Infantry Division has been responsible for the command and control of Multinational Division South. Headquartered at the base near the Basra airport, we provide the command and control for over 15,000 U.S. soldiers operating in nine southern provinces. Prior to our arrival in Iraq, this area was commanded by the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division, who took over when the U.S. -- or the U.K. forces departed Iraq.
Our mission here in Iraq is to build civil capacity and transition security to the Iraqi security forces. We do this through partnerships with three subordinate brigades and their Iraqi Security Force counterparts.
It's been just over one month since all U.S. combat forces have been out of the cities. No combat forces in the cities has been the norm in the southern nine provinces here for quite some time. And the Iraqis are fully in the lead to secure their country and their population. My forces are in a supporting role.
I've noticed that the ISF is proud of this new responsibility. The Iraqis have stepped up to the challenge and have faced threats head on. While my troops still have an inherent right to protect themselves, I personally have observed the Iraqis as they pursued criminals who have launched attacks against U.S. forces here at Basra, and I am impressed with their professionalism.
Our two sovereign nations have made great progress in carrying out the security agreement in order to build a stable and democratic Iraq. We are in the middle of a full transition to Iraqi responsibility and to a comprehensive partnership between our nations built on mutual interest and mutual respect.
Thank you. And Bryan, I look forward to your questions.
MR. WHITMAN: Okay.
Who would like to start us off?
Go right ahead.
Q General, this is Leo Shane from Stars and Stripes.
You mentioned it's been a while since U.S. troops down there have been in cities. How far ahead of the transition were you guys, in phasing U.S. troops out? And did you see -- are you seeing any of the conflict that we've seen, in other places, some of the -- (inaudible) -- Iraqi forces and U.S. forces try and figure out what their new roles are?
GEN. NASH: Leo, the nine southern provinces that we assumed control of in May have been working with this two-way partnership that we have with the Iraqi security forces.
I did a recon back in November of 2008. And the 10th Mountain already was well under way of working hand in hand with the Iraqis. And so there was very little transition when the 34th assumed responsibility from the 10th here in the south.
The relationships had already been built. There was only a few locations that according to the June 30th agreement that we turned back over to the Iraqis and left those, if you will, in the cities.
But the relationship we've had -- with the Iraqi security forces, Iraqi police, the army, department of border enforcement and the port of entries -- has just been fantastic in the south. So it wasn't a great adjustment, for either the U.S. forces that we assumed the mission from or for the Iraqis, once we came in and replaced the 10th.
Q General, I'm Carl Osgood with Executive Intelligence Review.
This sort of, for me anyway, begs the question. Just what combat or military-specific missions do you have, I mean, aside from working directly with the Iraqi security forces?
GEN. NASH: Right.
We still provide security and stability for the people of Iraq. We are on our bases, as I mentioned -- (inaudible) -- cities. So we still train with our military partners. We advise them. We assist them. We provide them enablers, whether it's medevac or ISR capabilities.
We share information and intelligence. So that military partnership is still going on. We also still have the capabilities of going to full-spectrum operations, if required by our Iraqi security partners.
So from the military aspect, we still have those capabilities here in the south, as all -- and throughout all of Iraq. But at this point, everything that we do is in support of the Iraqis with -- our training teams, the military training teams, are out with our Iraqi Army partners.
And it goes all the way from our associations we have here in the Basra province with the Basra operations center, Major General Mohammed (sp); as well as up in the Karbala operations center with Lieutenant General Ousman (sp). Each one of those have a division associated with them: the 8th Division with General Ousman in the north; the 10th Division throughout the center portion of our area of operation; and then the 14th Division here in Basra. So we maintain very close ties with our military partners.
Q Three members of the -- this is Eric Roper with the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Three members of the 34th were killed last month in a rocket attack. Is that emblematic of the environment out there, or is that sort of an anomaly for what you're seeing?
GEN. NASH: That's a -- that's a great question, because I spent time last week with our Family Readiness Group back -- communicating with them back in Minnesota, with the loss of our three specialists, Specialists Wertish, Wilcox and Drevnick -- and explained to them that we still live in an environment that we cannot totally control: indirect fire. And that's what killed these three great Americans.
We've taken precautions, if you will, at this point, additional force-protection measures. But again, we've seen the Iraqi security forces really step up to this particular issue, because here in Basra we're also sharing this base with the 70th Reconnaissance Squadron, an Iraqi Air Force squadron, and so they have a vested interest in our protection as well.
After this attack on COB Basra last -- two weeks ago, the Iraqi security forces immediately were looking at all of their human intelligence that they can gather. And they were able to, within a day or two, capture three individuals of a network that were involved with this indirect fire on COB Basra.
So I think what we're seeing here is, once we're out of the cities and we're -- we spend our training time back on the bases with our Iraqi partners, there's an opportunity for those extremist groups to use that method -- not any longer the IDF methods and EFPs that we've seen in the past, but now they've gone to a different technique, and that is using indirect fire against bases.
But again, I must let you know that here in the south, they have an aggressive campaign with the Iraqi security forces going after those networks that are trying to do harm to not only coalition forces but the Iraqi Police, the Iraqi Army and the border enforcement officers.
Q General, this is Shin Shoji from NHK Japan Broadcasting Corporation. Of all the extremists working within your region, how much of attacks can you attribute to al Qaeda or to Muqtada al-Sadr or some of those Shi'ite elements?
GEN. NASH: I really missed a good portion of that question, and I think you asked about Shi'a elements conducting attacks and Sadrists? I'm not sure. If you could repeat that, I would appreciate it.
Q Well, I just -- I wanted to know like if the attacks are being conducted -- can you estimate what proportion are by al Qaeda or what proportion are by Shi'ite elements?
GEN. NASH: In the south, the AQI, unless it's up in the northern borders of northern -- northwest Babil, northwest Wasat province and the southern belts of Baghdad, that's where -- if there is an AK -- AQI cell working -- cells working, that's where they would predominately be, and not necessarily here in the south.
The violent extremist networks that we look at come from all walks of terrorism, if you will, that are still trying to disrupt the government of Iraq and the sovereignty of the government of Iraq and cause doubt in the minds of the Iraqi people about the Iraqi security forces.
But the atmospheric that we've taken here in the south is that the people feel very well secure with the Iraqi security forces, with the police and the army. And we're seeing tip lines being used to the Iraqi police for suspected extremists that are attempting to move back, especially back here into the Basra province. So we're seeing the locals really reinforcing, if you will, now the Iraqi security forces across the southern portion of Iraq here in our nine provinces.
MR. WHITMAN: You haven't asked yet. Why don't you go ahead.
Q General Nash, I'm Gerry Gilmore with American Forces Press Service. I would imagine the Iraqi security forces feel pretty good now that they're taking the lead in security affairs there in southern Iraq. How would you characterize that? Are you observing -- they seem to have more -- they feel good about it?
GEN. NASH: That's a great -- great question.
I'm glad you asked that, because I think we're probably not getting out the story enough about how well they've stepped up to the plate and taken over responsibility for the security in each one of the provinces that we have responsibility here as Multinational Division South.
I spend considerable amount of time doing key-leader engagements with the provincial directors of police, the governors in each one of the provinces, as well as the senior military leadership in those three divisions I mentioned before. As I travel and talk to them, they're all very proud of how far they've come, but they've also realized they need more training. And they require that from -- you know, when we talked about being out of the cities, they were hoping that we were not abandoning them, and they were still going to ask for that assistance, that training, the expertise that we bring from our law enforcement professionals, from our military police, to engage with them and to allow them to professionalize and get better each and every day.
But they are taking their lead. As I drive around here in Basra in the evening, going to meetings, I see them at checkpoints and doing a very professional job and very courteous job to the local Iraqis. And so I feel very good that they're well on their way of being a professional force, both the army and the police.
And certainly by the lack of attacks that we've had in the south, we're finding -- they're finding a lot more caches, they're finding a lot more IEDs themselves and taking care of those. So that's a good feeling for us, to know that they're out there doing that across the southern portion of Iraq.
MR. WHITMAN: Let's go back to the Minneapolis Star Tribune -- (off mike).
Q Eric Roper here with the Minneapolis Star Tribune again. Just on that note, with, like, logistics, can you describe sort of on a day-to-day basis how you guys are -- like, you know, are you working hand in hand with Iraqi security forces or do you touch base with them throughout the day? Do you go on patrols with them? I mean, is it sort of separate and along the same lines, or are you guys working completely together?
GEN. NASH: Again, I'm glad you asked that, because each one of the provinces that we have is different, and sometimes it's difficult to explain that to folks, that each one requires a different level of training, commitment, and so we really tailor what we provide to the Iraqi army and Iraqi police at the port of entry, the border enforcement.
And it's -- we go in, we've worked with our partner, do an assessment as to what shortfalls they have, and then we've worked to train on that, whether it's a noncommissioned officer academy, whether it's sending officers over to be trained on military decision-making process to do better joint operations. Logistics is a big piece that we spend time on, working on their logistical reporting and acquiring the parts to maintain their equipment that they have.
And so we really -- it's sort of a menu that we allow them to work with us and provide them what they need when they need it. And so in the past, where it was more directive, now it's more partnership. We go in, do that assessment. We have teams that are there each and every day. Other teams go out once or twice a week, maybe to a district police station and train them on certain events that they'll be experiencing. But they really are looking for us to continue to help them where they've done their own assessments across the board to professionalize their force.
And so as we tell our soldiers here in Multinational Division- South, we have to be adaptable and flexible and have agility. And so we'll respond to that in each and every case.
MR. WHITMAN: Luis.
Q General, it's Luis Martinez with ABC News. You mentioned that Iraqi security forces didn't want you to abandon them, as you said, in the cities. What's the dynamic between the Iraqi security forces and political leadership with regard to maybe them trying to minimize these -- their level of reliance on U.S. forces? Are you seeing that down there in your area?
GEN. NASH: Well, I would have to answer that -- that is the case. Again, each province in different. Each one wants some degree of help. A lot of them have become independent, if you will, and we respect that. We do joint patrols with them when required. We'll respond to an event, an IED event, if you will, to do site exploitation of things that may be there left as residue that we can work together as a crime scene and be able to work out those networks -- so somewhat more of that, somewhat less of that.
And again, we're working with two ministries, the minister of defense, with the Iraqi army, and the minister of interior, with the Iraqi police, and then the minister of border enforcement, again with our border force. So we have to be able to work with each one of those ministers, what they're looking for. And again, they're in the lead, and we want to be sure that they're taking full credit for all the great things that we're doing, and if we can support them in any way, we'll do that.
We back off when they think that they want to do it on themselves -- by themselves. And they're certainly capable of doing unilateral operations, and we acknowledge that.
Q Sir, of the number of incidents where they're asking you to back off, has that risen in the last few months or so?
GEN. NASH: I think since June 30th, "out of the cities," I think they've -- in some localities they've asked us to do that. And we're certainly in compliance with the security agreement and "out of the cities" mandate. And I think they're just somewhat fearful at the beginning of this, if they do see U.S. forces back in. They don't understand that we're there to advise and assist and train; and so they're a little leery of that, if you will, of having us show up so soon after "out of the cities" has been announced throughout Iraq.
And so I think time will allow that to be overcome, and we'll be back in doing more and more of that type of training. But right now, I think they're a little -- a little cautious, if you will, to make sure that there is going to be no bad press and that the -- those that would take advantage of this, with an information operation campaign against us that we're not abiding by it, would take advantage of that. And so that's the reason I think there was a little bit of pushback after June 30th.
Q And if I could ask one more, does that mean then that you have actually reduced the profile of training engagements with Iraqi security forces to a level lower than it was prior to June 30th?
GEN. NASH: I think -- I wouldn't say lower; I think it's different. We -- we don't do freedom of movement like we used to, driving through the cities to a training site. What we'll do now, we'll ask for an Iraqi security force escort -- Iraqi Police, Iraqi Army. We'll meet at a location, and then we'll be escorted to wherever that site's going to be, to provide that training to them; so that the local populations in and around the cities will see that the U.S. forces are in compliance, that we're working with our Iraqi partners like we said we were going to.
I think there's probably a little less of that training going on right now, because we're working through some of those logistics yet -- really, just been into this about a month and -- but they still see the need for our training and assistance, and they're asking for us to be able to provide that yet.
MR. WHITMAN: Go back to you.
Q Eric Roper again. How do you expect your role to be different in early 2010, as compared to now? And how do you expect that transition to take place? I mean, what -- what's going to be the biggest difference, do you think, between now and then?
GEN. NASH: Well, I -- as we look ahead, you know, we've got some issues that we're going to be dealing with on the short term before we get there. Ramadan is just around the corner.
And we're working with our Iraqi partners, because this will be really the first time they'll be providing unilateral security, if you will, with us partnering with them and supporting them, since 2003.
We'll be coming up to national elections, parliamentary elections, which will happen sometime around January 26th, and then the seating of the new government. So as we go into the new year, as has been announced, with the drawdown, all combat forces out by 2010, August 2010, as we set the stage for the responsible drawdown, that's what we see happening here in the short term -- going through the elections, seating of the new government and then preparing for that 2010 eventual responsible drawdown.
Q General, this is Carl Osgood with Executive Intelligence Review again. And I'm actually surprised no one else has asked this question yet. You have, in your area of responsibility, a considerable length of the Iranian border.
I was wondering, what is the state of play of relations along the border? Do you have any responsibility still to that area? Or is it totally taken over by Iraqi security forces? And are you seeing anything that might be attributed to Iranian activities?
GEN. NASH: Thanks for that question.
Again we've worked with their department of border enforcement at the border ports. We've worked with them at a number of ports of entry. And obviously now during the Shabaniyah holy time, in Karbala, there's a lot of traffic going through the port of entry up in Wasit.
And so we continue to train with our border enforcement partners, with those border training teams. But that's really an Iraqi responsibility, out on the borders, protecting their borders, protecting their ports against -- you know, they're backstopped by the Iraqi army and then more internally, into Iraq, with the Iraqi police.
We really leave the border situation up to the Iraqis. And they take a keen interest obviously in all the border crossings, especially times -- now with coming into the holy season, with Ramadan and the number of pilgrims coming into the country, and for security and searching and safe movement in and out of Iraq for them.
Q General, Leo Shane again from Stars and Stripes.
Wanted to ask you, following the attack that killed three of your soldiers, you spoke about the Iraqi response. But I don't know what the U.S. response was and if you'd gotten a chance to talk to any of the guys about their morale following it; whether or not, with all the changes, they feel handcuffed in their ability to respond and defend themselves against these sorts of attacks.
GEN. NASH: Thanks, Leo. Absolutely, we've spent a lot of time with our 34th MP Company. All these soldiers came from basically one locality around Rosemount-Stillwater area. And as a matter of fact, these three soldiers were part of a Quick Reaction Force, a QRF, that -- their job that evening was to respond to indirect fire or any point of origin of indirect fire. So that was their job, and they were killed doing their job.
But we did spend time with the MPs and the leadership and their families back home. And to understand that they're not handcuffed -- we have a right by the security agreement to do self-defense. And the Iraqi security forces -- Major General Aziz, the Iraqi 14th Division army commander here in Basra; Major General Mohammed (sp), the (Baya ?) commander; and the provincial director of police, Major General Adel (sp) -- I met with them yesterday, and again they confirmed the capabilities for us to go out and do operations as self-defense and with them as total partners. And they feel and grieve as much as we do.
MR. WHITMAN: Would the hometown newspaper like the last question?
Q I'm all right.
MR. WHITMAN: I'm not going to put you on the spot, all right ? (Laughter.)
Yeah, it looks like we have kind of exhausted the questions here, and we want to be respectful of your time. But before I bring it to a close, let me just ask you if you have any thoughts that -- final thoughts that you'd like to make before we wrap it up.
GEN. NASH: Sure, Bryan. Thanks. And thanks again for this opportunity to talk about the great things that are happening here in southern Iraq, and the way ahead for us and, more importantly, for our Iraqi partners and the Iraqi citizens.
I just want to let you know that citizens throughout the U.S. should be proud of the great work that our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines and Coast Guardsmen are doing each and every day, whether it's here in Iraq and Afghanistan or around the world.
And I'm especially proud of our citizen soldiers, who have left their families, employers, schools and communities so they could serve on behalf of our nation. And I'm confident that through the partnership that we've developed between the U.S. and our nine provinces here in Iraq and our partners, that we will continue to work through any issues that may arise. And we share the same goal of all, and that is the safety and security for all Iraqi people.
Thanks again, Bryan.
MR. WHITMAN: And the good news for us is that you're only on the front end of your deployment, and hopefully we'll get an opportunity to speak to you in a few more months.
GEN. NASH: Absolutely. I'm looking forward to it, Bryan.
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