DOD News Briefing with Maj. Gen. Champoux via Teleconference from Iraq
CAPTAIN JANE CAMPBELL (Pentagon spokesperson): Good morning here in the Pentagon Briefing Room. Good afternoon in Iraq.
I'd like to welcome to the Pentagon Briefing Room for the first time Major General Bernard S. Champoux, the commanding general for the 25th Infantry Division, responsible for the headquarters of the U.S. Division-Center in Iraq.
General Champoux assumed command of the 25th Infantry Division on February 19th, 2010, and December of last year he deployed his headquarters in support of Operation New Dawn. He's been responsible for leading the advise, train and assist mission throughout central Iraq. He is the last division headquarters under U.S. forces in Iraq, responsible for overseeing operational-level detail, command and control needed until the completion of the U.S. force withdrawal from Iraq.
He'll make an opening statement, then will begin taking your questions. And with that, I'll turn it over to the general. Sir.
MAJOR GENERAL BERNARD CHAMPOUX: Jane, thanks. And it's good to join all of you. And I appreciate the introduction, Jane.
Ladies and gentlemen, as Jane just mentioned, on 20 December 2010, as commanding general of the 25th Infantry Division, I assumed U.S. command responsibility in Anbar and Baghdad provinces for the U.S. Division-Center. And on 7 September 2011, I took over responsibility from the former U.S. Division-South for the nine provinces in the south. All of us in the Tropic Lightning Division appreciate having been selected to be the last U.S. division headquarters and organization in Iraq, recently exercising control of eight brigades.
These are historic times, in many ways, and the mission of coming last in this, as in any activity, is distinctively challenging. The task of receding U.S. forces from Iraq in accord with the deadline set by the security agreement has involved drawing down and dismantling bases, organizations, operational structures and capabilities, processes and support functions which we created and refined over many years.
And in order to maintain operational effectiveness as long as possible, we are executing a very deliberate, thoughtful and synchronized plan.
I'm happy to take on any questions, but I would offer you, as the core of what I have to say, a snapshot of the specific missions we planned for beginning in the summer of 2010 and began to execute just before Christmas last year. There are four.
First, strengthening the Iraqi security forces: We have maintained close day-to-day operational contact with Iraq's uniformed security forces, with the Iraqi federal police, and specialized and local police forces, as well as the Iraqi army at levels from multi-provincial to local. This has been honest partnership as we have worked to position Iraqi security forces to deal effectively with violence and terror while respecting constitutional rights and democratic norms.
We've been enablers, acting by, with and through the Iraqi security forces. We have been governed throughout by the concept of what works for the Iraqis. Whatever the eventual outcomes here, whatever subsequent relationships we have with Iraqi security forces, I'm proud of the practical interaction we have had and basis we've created with the Iraqis for securing their society and moving from martial law to the rule of law.
Second, protecting our forces: The safety of our soldiers, civilians and embassy personnel have been paramount. Working with Iraqi security forces, we have acted repeatedly and decisively over the past months against groups which have used force or posed the threat of force against us.
Sadly, we have continued to lose soldiers -- in fact, one earlier this week -- but we have minimized risks by all means available.
Third, transition: Fifteen months ago, we began to identify the functions carried on by previous division headquarters and military units which would have to eventually shift, with our -- with our withdrawal, to the U.S. Mission-Iraq and incoming U.S. government civilian efforts, or to the Iraqi government and security forces, or be discontinued. We gave priority to maintaining relationships with Iraqi tribal leaders built over many years, including in difficult times. And I'm pleased that the embassy is poised to continue these relationships. The embassy's regional security office has progressed strongly in assimilating our knowledge and experience of the threat environment. Our relationships with the leaders of the Iraqi security forces will continue through U.S. military representatives acting under the ambassador's authority.
Fourth and finally, reposturing: We have had previous accounts -- you have had previous accounts of the amazing story of the outflow of U.S. forces and military equipment from Iraq. It has been a very professional and deliberate effort. The execution reflects long months of detailed stock-taking and complex planning. All the missions we took last year are progressing well. Continued force protection and our successful reposturing out of the Iraq -- out of Iraq, faced the earliest and most visible test. There will be no secrets if we fail, and our efforts will be judged over a longer time. But I am confident at this point, and the Tropic Lightning soldiers and the soldiers assigned to the United States Division-Center are proud that we have measured up to the expected standards of professionalism and commitment.
Here I want to stop and invite your questions. Thank you.
CAPT. CAMPBELL: Thank you, General.
Q: General, Dave Woods from the Huffington Post. Would you give us a snapshot of the forces and stuff you've got left in the country that's still yet to come out?
GEN. CHAMPOUX: Yes. I can give you a little bit of a snapshot. I currently, in United States Division-Center, have just under 16,000 soldiers that have to -- that we still have to redeploy. And if you look at that over time, when I assumed United States Division-Center, we were just under 10,000. At one time when we assumed the south, we grew to 23,000. And so now we're down to under 16,000 and on a good glide path to meet all our timetables.
Some of the other statistics: We've -- we'll transition when we're done 34 bases. We started here with just over a half a million pieces of equipment, and of that over half a million, 676,000 pieces of equipment, we still have about 374,000 pieces remaining in Iraq. And that includes, you know, rolling stock, which are vehicles; weapons; SAPI plates; computers. So it's a lot of different things. In terms of just rough order of magnitude, we still have about 3,400 truckloads remaining to haul out of Iraq on external lift assets, and we already have over 2,000 truckloads that are ready -- are already spotted, and that leaves about, you know, 1,400 or so still to spot. So that's -- just rough order of magnitude, that's what we still have left to do.
Q: Hi, General Champoux. It's Courtney Kube from NBC News. Can you -- you mentioned the soldier who was killed earlier this week. I think it was in Kadhimiya. What mission was he on at the time when he was killed? Was he partnering with other Iraqis? And then can you just sort of give us a snapshot of the security situation? I know that you have pretty much the entire country, so could you sort of talk about the areas that are still the most dangerous to U.S. and Iraqis?
GEN. CHAMPOUX: Yeah, thanks, Courtney. It's nice to hear your voice -- I obviously can't see you.
But, unfortunately, we did lose a soldier on the 14th. He was on a combat mission. We still have forces that are partnered with Iraqi security forces, and we still have some of those forces that are still in smaller FOBs [Forward Operating Bases]. He was en route from one base in Taji, en route to another base when he was hit by an IED.
The security situation is still -- honestly, it's still demanding. There's still -- this is still a dangerous place to be. But for the last year, we have advised and assisted the Iraqi security forces in taking the lead, and all the trends have been fairly positive, as you well know.
There still are some areas that cause us concern, unfortunately, because Asa'ib al-Haq is still active. Wherever our bases are, we've been receiving some indirect fire. And the routes that we've been using to move on -- we've been receiving attention from these extremist groups through roadside bombs and those kinds of things.
But in all of Iraq -- and although I don't have Northern Iraq, I do have from Anbar to Basra -- you know, the trends are going in a -- in a pretty positive direction. They've continued in a positive direction under the -- under the security the Iraqi security forces have provided.
Q: Thanks, General Champoux. And Mick wanted me to say hello.
GEN. CHAMPOUX: Right. Thanks, Courtney. Please pass on my best to Mick. Thanks.
Q: General, thanks for talking to us. Charley Keyes, CNN. We're getting reports that as the pace of withdrawal continues, or even amidst orders to pick up the pace, that there is a pretty significant congestion of men and equipment in Kuwait that's causing a variety of problems. Are you seeing that from where you stand? And how do you cope with that?
GEN. CHAMPOUX: Well, I am not seeing that from where I stand. This is -- as has been reported previously, this is just an enormous task and, you know, it is just -- I told someone the other day, this is a logistician's dream come true, but it's also a logistician's nightmare. You can just imagine the amount of people and equipment that have -- that have to move.
But this has all been part of a very deliberate, thoughtful plan. It's been well synchronized. As you can imagine, we have our own equipment that we can move by its own means, and then we've had to cycle trucks from Kuwait to pick up equipment and move it. We've also used different types of airlift assets, both U.S. Army aviation helicopters and U.S. Air Force cargo airplanes.
All -- most all of that, although not exclusively all of it -- some of it has gone directly from Iraq back to the United States, but a lot of the equipment has gone into Kuwait and has been processed there for onward movement back to the United States, or for processing for -- to maintain the stocks there.
It's been an incredible effort. All the reports I've gotten -- we've had our logistics operation settled down at Camp Virginia for over a month. The efforts have been anticipated, and I haven't heard any reports that things are backed up down in Kuwait.
Q: General, it's Mike Evans from The Times, London Times. Can I ask you -- you and some of your colleagues who have spoken to us in the past have mentioned that Iraq is still a dangerous place. The word is "dangerous," as you used. As a military man now about to leave Iraq, do you feel comfortable that the United States has, as it were, completed -- mission accomplished, or do you feel that you're leaving at a time when there is still work to be done?
GEN. CHAMPOUX: I think for this phase, under this security agreement, I feel very comfortable with where the Iraqi security forces are. And that's been our primary task: to strengthen the Iraqi security forces, as I mentioned. I think they're very capable to handle the current threat, and I think they've demonstrated that in the time that -- in the 11 months that I've observed them. And again, that's over 11 provinces, quite a few divisions, two federal police divisions, local police.
I think there's -- I think there's still an opportunity for them to build their capability to address external threats. I think that's a potential role for us in the future, to build that capability. But where we are at the end of this phase of our commitment here with the 2008 security agreement, I feel very comfortable with the effort that we put into it and where the Iraqi security forces are.
I think I will just leave it at that, Mike.
Q: Hi, sir. This is Joe Tabet with al-Hurra. Based on your day-to-day contacts with the Iraqi forces and from your point of view, what are the major challenges that the Iraqi forces would be facing in the near future on a local level?
GEN. CHAMPOUX: Well, on top of the normal -- I guess it's not normal, but on top of criminal behavior, unfortunately, there are still extremist groups. Some of them are Iranian-backed militias. There are other violent extremist organizations that are still operating inside of Iraq. And I think they're still going to be challenged by some of those. I think they've done well to combat -- with our help, the way we've enabled them, to combat a lot of those networks and that capability. But I believe that they -- for as long as they're funded, trained and encouraged to operate inside of Iraq, it's going to be a challenge for the Iraqi security forces.
Q: This is Joe Tabet again. When you talk about extremist groups, would you consider the Sadr movement as one of those extremist groups? And do you think the Sadr movement is a threat for Iraq's security?
GEN. CHAMPOUX: Joe, unfortunately, I'm not familiar with the southern movement group.
CAPT. CAMPBELL: Sir, he was asking about the Sadr group in particular.
GEN. CHAMPOUX: Say again, Jane?
CAPT. CAMPBELL: The Sadr group, versus southern. Sadr's.
GEN. CHAMPOUX: Sadr. Excuse me. The three Iranian-backed militias that we've been dealing with the last year have been Asa'ib al-Haq, Kata'ib Hezbollah and the Present Day brigade. All three of them still have capability, we believe. All of them to one degree or the other receive outside support. And all of them still exist as a capability that the Iraqi security forces have to deal with.
Q: Do you have any information -- do you think that the Quds Forces have a presence inside Iraq? And if yes, how many?
GEN. CHAMPOUX: I don't know numbers. I know they have influence inside of Iraq. That influence may reside primarily in Iran but extends into Iraq. As I said, they train and they finance. And I think they encourage the activity of some of these militias.
Q: General, it's Luis Martinez with ABC News. If I could ask you to clarify the 16,000 number that you provided earlier, is that a reference to all of USF-I?
I only ask because earlier this week, in Hill testimony, they were saying 24,000. The second question for you is how long do you personally expect to stay inside Iraq, for you and your headquarters, and when do you plan on moving out? And third, I imagine that with so many vehicles on the road, there's a lot of congestion on the road south. But does that mean that the highways are closed strictly for your movements? And is that impacting the Iraqi transportation system?
GEN. CHAMPOUX: OK, first, 24,000 is the total USF-I number. Less than 16,000 are the numbers under my command of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marine and -- (coughs) -- excuse me -- under my command in the United States Division-Center. So 24(,000) is right, and those numbers -- the less than 16,000 are those just assigned to United States Division-Center.
When does my headquarters leave? My headquarters leaves when I'm -- when I'm told I can leave. I know that will be before the 31st of December. We have a responsibility to command and control the last movements out, and I was originally doing that from the Victory Base Complex at Camp Liberty, and now I'm -- although I have a small tactical operations center there, I'm primarily operating out of Tallil down in -- down in Camp Adder.
I believe that we'll have most of USD-C forces out well before Christmas, and I'm -- and as soon as those forces are out, then we'll be given the go-ahead to redeploy.
And on the highways, it's a lot of things moving on the highways, but it has never congested the highways.
That even includes going through Baghdad province when we're moving the forces from the north through the center to the south. We pick different times so that we avoid congestion, and we also organize our serials so that there's sufficient space in between those so that there still is freedom of movement for the Iraqis to move and so that we don't have that kind of congestion.
As I said in my opening comments, you know, this has been a very, you know, detailed, complex plan. It took a lot of synchronization. And that operational maneuver, which had forces coming from the north through center to the south and then center through the south and to the south, was all designed to alleviate that and to take advantage of the lift assets. So I mean, if you were out on one of the highways that we're doing most of our traffic, most of the time, I don't -- you know, I've heard the term "red ball express" maybe sometimes, but not all the time.
Q: General, Otto Kreisher Sea Power Magazine. In Anbar Province, you had quite a few people who were part of the Awakening movement that were hoping to get either positions in the police force or in the Iraqi army and some form of employment. There's been -- apparently there's been stories that not all of them have been satisfied with their treatment. What is the situation with the Awakening troops down there?
GEN. CHAMPOUX: I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name, but thanks for that question.
It wasn't just in Anbar Province. The Safwa, the Awakening, was also in some of the other provinces. At a very critical time, they came forward and assisted with -- as you all know, with a -- with a challenge and provided security to the Iraqis.
There is -- there is still work -- some of those have been assimilated into government jobs -- the SoI, the Sons of Iraq. Some, and in -- particularly in Anbar Province, some have been in a formal role, some have still been in a less than formal role. And the government of Iraq continues to work through their -- making sure that they have adequate employment for all of them. It's still a work in progress, though.
Q: Hi, General. Jon Harper with the Asahi Shimbun. In terms of the indirect fire that you're taking at bases and the attacks on your logistics lines, are Iranian-backed militias the primary source of those attacks, or is al-Qaida in Iraq involved with that? Which groups are primarily responsible?
GEN. CHAMPOUX: The best that we can tell, the overwhelming majority of those attacks have come from Asa'ib al-Haq.
There has been some of the violent extremist organizations that are -- that have also claimed responsibility for some of the attacks. And some of the evidence that we've been able to determine after an attack, through the exploitation of the remnants of that attack, have indicated that their -- the signature capability of these other violent extremist organizations. So -- but overwhelmingly, the majority of the attacks we've attributed to Asa'ib al-Haq.
Q: General, it's Mike Evans again. In sort of general terms, the eight years experience of fighting in Iraq, how would you say that has improved the combat effectiveness and counter-insurgency skills of the U.S. military?
GEN. CHAMPOUX: Well, I think it's -- Mike, thank you. I think it's had a huge impact. Yeah, for the last eight years, we've either been deployed or we've been back to improve our equipment or to retrain and to -- and to again redeploy. Now, of course, the entire force has transitioned over time. Some have left the military, but a huge majority have continued to serve through those eight-plus years.
And in terms of our -- of our capability to go into a difficult situation, to be able to think creatively about it, to be able to apply some of our doctrine, to be able to work with all the other stakeholders inside of that environment, I think it's just made us an incredibly stronger, more resilient, more battle-proven force.
It's also had a tremendously positive impact not just on our training and our formations but also on our equipment. Like I said, over these years we've been able to take the lessons that we've learned on these many battlefields and these -- you know, and these many environments and we've used it to improve our kit and our equipment.
So I've been doing this for 34 years, and you've probably heard this before, Mike, but this is the best force that I've seen in my 34 years of serving.
Q: General, David Wood again from the Huffington Post. When you redeploy your headquarters, where will you redeploy to, or will you evaporate? And will there be some follow-on organization that's set up in Kuwait to take over the administrative duties?
GEN. CHAMPOUX: Thanks, David. You made my heart skip when you said "evaporate." The 25th Infantry Division couldn't possibly evaporate. But physically my headquarters will go back to -- will be forced to go back to Hawaii. But there will not be another division headquarters to replace us inside of Iraq.
And my division headquarters will, as all the other division headquarters that have redeployed, we’ll reset our people and equipment. We'll be given the opportunity to train for our next task, and there will be a task for us to -- another mission for us to assume in the not-too-distant future. But we are the last U.S. division headquarters in Iraq.
CAPT. CAMPBELL: We'll just take one more.
Q: General, Karen Parrish, American Forces Press Service. Can you tell us, as you're preparing troops psychologically to redeploy, combined with the end of mission, are you taking any additional steps to the usual pre-redeployment training, counseling, briefing sessions?
GEN. CHAMPOUX: What -- thanks, Karen. Just like I told Mike, this has been a familiar cycle for us. Over time we've learned what some of the emotions are involved in reintegration with our families and loved ones. We've learned some lessons from that, and we take the time to make sure that those lessons that we've learned over time are shared with the entire force. If someone has been challenged by their experiences here, you know, we make sure that there are dedicated behavioral health professionals that are available to them, there are chaplains available to them and there are experienced warriors that are available to them to help them through that.
But, you know, this is -- this is who we are. This is -- this is what we do, and this is what we are called to do, and we do it all in simple obedience to duty. So this is where we want to be, and this -- the -- as we talk about it, the final phase of this operation will be exactly that: preparing ourselves to go home, the reintegration when we get back home and then to reset ourselves to get ready for the next task.
CAPT. CAMPBELL: Sir, I've got a couple more hands; so if you don't mind, I'll try to finish those out here.
Q: Charley Keyes again, sir, from CNN. Very quickly. What difficulties are you experiencing with contractors not evacuating bases in a timely fashion as you want to manage this withdrawal?
GEN. CHAMPOUX: Thanks, Charley. No major challenges. That's the beauty of the contract. There have been some unforeseen challenges in terms that we had a fire on Victory Base where some visas were destroyed. It took, obviously -- you know, there's a little challenge for that contractor to be able to redeploy those third-country nationals that were here providing the services that they provided.
But, you know, my experience has been just the opposite. The overwhelming majority of the contractors that have been working with the U.S. military over these many years are extremely responsive. We didn't just spring this plan on them. We've known for some time that we were going to draw down. We didn't know the details, necessarily, throughout that, but we knew we were going to draw down. And so they've had time to prepare. And my experience has been they've been very responsive, very professional. And, you know, this is not about perfection. There have been some cases where we've had, you know, a couple stumbles here and there, but that's been on the same side of the military. Nothing that has -- that's not -- you know, that we haven't been able to deal with.
CAPT. CAMPBELL: All right, sir, I promise this is the last one. Jon.
Q: (Inaudible.) Jon Harper again. A minute ago, you said that there will be another mission for you to assume in the not-too-distant future. Did you mean another mission in Iraq?
GEN. CHAMPOUX: No -- thanks, Jon, thanks for clarifying that. No, not another mission in Iraq. And I -- and I don't know what that mission is. That could be, you know, having to do with, you know, a presence in the Pacific theater; we are America's Pacific Division. But I don't know if it'll be a training mission. No, I don't -- you know, we're -- we'll prepare ourselves to be ready for the next mission, is probably a better way to put it. But, no, we are not missioned to come back to Iraq.
CAPT. CAMPBELL: General, with that I'd like to turn it over to you for any closing comments you may have.
GEN. CHAMPOUX: Thanks, Jane. And for everybody, thanks for talking with me. I hope -- I hope it was useful. You know, some of you have worked in Iraq from the beginning in 2003, and some of my soldiers are on their fourth or fifth deployment. And these have all been experiences which have affected all of us.
You know, I don't want to try to describe how anyone feels about the departure of U.S. forces from Iraq. That's really a media role, and you're pretty good at it. But I do want to stress the professionalism and exacting standards which your soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines and the many committed civilians that are part of this effort have applied to getting this final mission done correctly and on time.
And the experiences we're turning over to enduring organizations in the Iraqi security forces and U.S. Mission-Iraq are solid and substantial. And I sincerely hope that the way we are executing this task honors the sacrifices of the many that came before us, and also honors their legacy of selfless service -- all in simple obedience to duty.
So, wish you all a great Thanksgiving, and thank you for your time.
CAPT. CAMPBELL: To all -- to you, to all the men and women of the Tropic Lightning Division, mahalo nui loa for the work that you have done. Godspeed as you continue with the drawdown of forces.
Thank you, sir.
GEN. CHAMPOUX: Aloha, Jane. Thank you.