DOD News Briefing with Lt. Gen. Helmick via Teleconference from Iraq
GEORGE LITTLE (Pentagon press secretary): Good morning. I'd like to welcome to the Pentagon Briefing Room for the first time Lieutenant General Frank Helmick, the deputy commanding general of operations for U.S. Forces-Iraq.
General Helmick has served in Iraq during three campaigns. He was the assistant division commander of the 101st Airborne Division during the initial 2003 invasion. He subsequently served as the commander of the Multinational Security Transition Command in Iraq from 2008 to 2009. During that tour, he was responsible for recruiting, training, equipping and sustaining the Iraqi military and police forces.
Today, as deputy commanding general of operations for USF-I, he is responsible for the oversight of stability and redeployment security operations as USF-I completely transfers the training and advising functions of the U.S. Mission-Iraq by the end of the year.
At this time, I'll turn the microphone over to General Helmick for his opening statement, and then we'll come back to Washington to take your questions.
With that, General, over to you.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL FRANK HELMICK: Well, good morning from Baghdad, Iraq. I'd like to thank all of media in attendance today, and I appreciate this opportunity to update the American people about our men and women in uniform bravely serving in support of Operation New Dawn.
With less than one month remaining, we are poised to complete our mission to successfully honor the terms of the 2008 security agreement between our government and the government of Iraq.
The significance of this day, December 7th, does not escape me, for today marks the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. That infamous day, and the attacks on 9/11, galvanized our nation. While World War II is credited for spawning the "Greatest Generation," I believe over the course of the -- of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn, America discovered the next "Greatest Generation." Words cannot begin to describe the pride I feel about America's military performance and service in Iraq.
What I hope to accomplish today is answer what I believe are the three burning questions people have with regards to U.S. troop presence in Iraq. Number one: What is the status of our redeployment efforts? Number two: Are the Iraqi security forces ready? And number three: Has this war in Iraq been worth the sacrifice by the United States?
First of all, let me talk about the drawdown. The magnitude and scale of what we are doing here in Iraq is simply historic. We just didn't begin this a few months ago. We began this drawdown 18 months ago. But to kind of give you a frame of reference of what we had to deal with, I have to go back to 2007 and illustrate the magnitude of the challenge that we -- that faced us. For example, we were responsible -- and still are today -- to the security of the nation. And Iraq is -- is about the size of California.
In 2007, the number of uniformed personnel, civilian DOD personnel and contractors was about 300,000, all those combined. That equates to the size of the city of Cincinnati, Ohio, the population of Cincinnati. Today in the country, we have 8,000 military and only 5,000 contractors.
Back in 2007, we occupied 505 bases, dotted around the country. If you put those bases together, that size equates to the size of San Jose, California. Today we have about five bases -- no, not about -- we have five bases that we're responsible for. And if you put those bases together, it's the size of the Bronx in New York City.
Now, since we have really made this effort a priority about 18 months ago, we have moved a mountain of equipment, personnel throughout the country, and our drivers have driven over 16 million miles, and that equates to about 482 times around the Earth. So this reposture effort has been a deliberate effort, has been operationally focused--it's been done very, very quietly and in a professional manner.
Question two: Are the Iraqi security forces ready? As was mentioned in the introduction, this is my third time in Iraq. I was here early on, in 2003, with the 101st Airborne Division. And during that time, the Iraqis did not have an army. They did not have a navy. They did not have an air force. So we didn't rebuild anything; we built their military.
And we helped professionalize and build the Iraqi police, because they did have some Iraqi police forces. They didn't have a special operations forces; today they do, which, by the way, are the best in the region.
Today there are about 700,000 Iraqi security forces in country; that's their army, their navy, their air force, their marine corps and all the different police forces, to include the federal police forces, about 700,000 total. They are equipped with some very, very good equipment. Much of that equipment is United States equipment and some of the best we have. For example the M1 tank, some of our artillery pieces, our different types of personnel equipment for the soldiers. And they've taken charge of operations. Since 2010, the Iraqis have been in the lead in operations for the internal defense of their country.
There are challenges: external security threats, Iranian-backed militias, al-Qaida, other violent extremist organizations; that the Iraqis must continue to put constant pressure on those groups. Lingering ethnic tensions; Sunni-Shia, Arab-Kurd relations aren't what they need to be, and the Iraqis continue to work on that as well.
And the government still is not completely formed. As you know, the elections occurred in March of 2010, and we still do not have a permanent minister of defense or a minister of the interior. The prime minister is heading up both of those organizations. We do have an acting minister of defense.
And then there are some -- still some security gaps that exist: their air sovereignty, their air defense capability, the ability to protect the two oil platforms, and then the ability to do combined arms operations for an external defense, synchronizing their infantry with their armor, with their artillery, with their engineers. They're not quite there with that capability.
Third question, has it been worth it? That is a personal question that, if you ask a number of soldiers that have served here, a number of Marines that have served here, any member of the service that have served here or the Iraqis, for example, you may get a different answer. But from where I sit, I have to say it was.
We enabled and facilitated elections. We've built a military. Violence in Iraq is at an all-time low. In 2007, as I mentioned, at the height, we had 1,600 attacks a week in this country against the United States, against Iraqi security forces and against the Iraqis themselves. Today we have less than 50 attacks per week. And we provided the Iraqis an opportunity for a sovereign country to choose their way ahead.
And I just have to cite two other reasons why I think it has been worth it. And one is -- when I was back at Fort Bragg, I had an opportunity to attend some funerals for soldiers that have died in Iraq, who were killed in action.
And I went to one funeral, and the father whose son had been killed in Iraq came up to me and said: “General, thank you.” And I thought he was thanking me for representing the chief of staff of the Army at the ceremony, but that wasn't the case. Because I asked him why was he thanking me, and he said: “Thank you, because you allowed my son to do what he loved to do, and that was to be a soldier.”
Another example of why it's been worth it for me is, there is a program called Operation New Exit, where we bring a select group of service members back to Iraq who had to be evacuated because of injuries. And till the day I die -- there is a Marine who was on one of those events that came back here -- Operation New Exit program, that came back here -- a double amputee, and he was blind. And he said to me: “General, I had to come back here. I had to leave here and get closure in a proper way because, you know, General, I wouldn't do anything differently.”
So for those reasons, I have to say for me this has been a worthy endeavor. So with that opening comment, let me take your questions.
MR. LITTLE: General, thank you very much. And now we'll go ahead and take questions from the Pentagon.
Q: General, it's Mike Evans from the Times of London here. Because of your experience, and the fact that you were there in 2003 as well as currently, what do you think are the main lessons that the American military have learnt from their campaign in Iraq, in terms of development and doctrine and all that?
GEN. HELMICK: Well, number one, Mike, thanks for that question. Our military is an incredible organization. We have performed really beyond expectation, in my mind. And I've seen it, again, early on, steady state and now at the end.
Early on, our military did things that they weren't trained to do. We weren't very good at being adviser to some farmers that were trying to harvest wheat, but we did that. We weren't very good about how do you talk to a refinery manager on how to improve his processes in a oil refinery that was dotted around the country, but we did that. We weren't very good about oil distribution, benzyne distribution for the country of Iraq early on, but we did that.
So the military had to branch out through all different portions of a -- of a government sector and take lead, because at that time, early on, there wasn't anybody to hand the ball off to. Since then, the Department of State, USAID, other countries have come online. And this integration, this synchronization of the interagency is a big lesson that we've learned. If anyone wants to see how the interagency is supposed to work, come to Iraq and see how it works now between United States embassy and the United States Forces-Iraq. That's one lesson we've learned.
Number two, I've learned that the United States military is absolutely phenomenal. I scratch my head every day and find out where we get the people who volunteer in our military. Their talents have no bounds, really, to be honest. Any mission, any time, with a positive attitude.
And then number three, I think we've learned about the culture of this country. Early on I think we thought the only way to do things was the way we did in America. Well, we found out that wasn't the case. We need to enable the processes and procedures, in some cases, of Iraq and not have them templated on an American system. We need to enable the Iraqi system.
So those are three things, I would say, I take away from this and what we've learned.
Q: Hi, General. It's Courtney Kube from NBC News. One quick question about your opening statement. When you said that the U.S. military has driven more than 16 million miles, just to be clear, do you mean that was over the last 18 months, or is that just in this most recent increase in the number of drawdowns?
And then on another note, recently there was a warning from the embassy there in Baghdad that -- they called it a severe risk of kidnapping within the international zone. What do you attribute that to? And can you talk a little bit about have there been any specific incidents recently that have brought on this warning?
GEN. HELMICK: Yeah, Courtney, the data that I have is 16 million miles just in the last 18 months, to answer that piece of it.
And the second piece you talked about is kidnapping, the warning and threat of kidnapping. We have some intelligence that could indicate that there are -- there is a possibility for some -- one of the Iranian-backed militias to do kidnapping in or around Iraq. So as a prudent military and the embassy personnel as well, we've shared this information with each other, and we're just taking the appropriate precautions as we move in and around the IZ, and in and around Iraq.
Q: General, Tom Bowman with NPR. Could you just do a little cleanup on what's left to do so far? You said you have 8,000 soldiers there. You know, how much more equipment do you have to take out? How many trucks do you expect to head to Kuwait? And also talk about what's being left behind: how much equipment, how much stuff do the Iraqis want.
GEN. HELMICK: Well, as I mentioned, we have 8,000 soldiers that remain inside the country. We're on glide path to get it done in accordance with the security agreement of -- that says we'll have to be out of here by 31 December, and we will do that.
The number of truckloads, I think, is less than a thousand right now, and that's really -- we are in very, very good shape for the number of truckloads of equipment. We have a very, very deliberate plan; a very, very detailed process of how we go about doing that.
As far as the equipment that's being left behind, I have to tell you that every piece of equipment that is left here goes through an agonizing process to determine, number one, can we legally leave it here? Does it enhance the security acceleration capability for the Iraqi security forces? Is it more cost effective to leave here, or is it more cost effective to take it with us and ship it either to Afghanistan or back to the United States?
Rest assured that every piece of equipment that we leave here has been through that process, and there are thousands of pieces of equipment that are here. And rest assured that the American people can sleep OK at night, because we've gone through a very, very deliberate, well thought-out process to make sure that the America's -- America's taxpayers' money has been spent wisely. As a matter of fact, there is a significant savings on transportation costs alone, by making the decision to leave some of this equipment here.
Q: Can you give us a range of the equipment that you are leaving behind, and then just give us a range of what you would not leave, what you would be taking out?
GEN. HELMICK: Yeah. For example, we would leave a desk and a chair. A flat-screen TV in some cases we would leave here.
What we wouldn't leave here is any type of armored equipment, any type of a military vehicle, any type of ammunition. All of that will be sent back to the United States, or, if required, sent to Afghanistan.
Q: Hi, General. Justin Fishel with Fox News. As you know, Vice President Biden just got back from Baghdad, and during a meeting there with Prime Minister Maliki, he talked about working on a security arrangement in the future that could involve U.S. assistance. Do you believe the Iraqis will want more assistance? And is there a feeling there amongst military leadership that you could be leaving more responsibly, with at least some small force presence, leaving that behind?
GEN. HELMICK: Yeah, Jeff (Justin), thanks for that question. The vice president did come here last week. I thought it was a great visit.
He was here really to attend a ceremony where the Iraqis thanked us for all we have done for this country, but also he was here to chair -- as a co-chair for the strategic framework -- the high committee of the Strategic Framework Agreement.
As you well know, Jeff (Justin), there are two guiding documents that we have used in this country since 2008. Number one is the Security Agreement -- that has an expiration date of 31 December 2011 -- where it states all U.S. forces will leave Iraq.
Number two is a Strategic Framework Agreement. This is more of a Department of State lead. In the Strategic Framework Agreement, it talks about relationships between the United States and the government of Iraq, specifically economic development, educational development, cultural development, environmental development, agricultural-type things, but also embedded in that is a clause that talks about security cooperation.
Security cooperation is one of the mil-to-mil agreements that the Central Command with General Mattis will propose to the government of Iraq, and embedded in that are things -- for example, possible exercise exchanges, port calls with Navy ships down at Umm Qasr -- those type of mil-to-mil agreements.
And the sensing that I get from the Iraqis that I deal with, they want to have a strong relationship with our government. They are a sovereign country, and they want to make sure that their relationship with the United States becomes stronger in the future.
MR. LITTLE: Joe.
Q: Sir, this is -- (off mic) --
MR. LITTLE: Sir, are you ready for the next question? (No audible response.)
Q: This is Joe Tabet with Al Hurra. I want to go back to your opening statement. You have talked about the readiness of the Iraqi forces. Can you give us an idea or if you could emphasize if the Iraqi forces of the air -- if the Iraqi forces or if Iraq has the capability to defend its air sovereignty.
GEN. HELMICK: I think your question is -- again, you're broken up. Let me make sure I understand the question: Does Iraq have the capability to defend its air sovereignty? Is that what you asked, Joe?
Q: Yes, sir.
GEN. HELMICK: OK. The answer to that is no, not completely. You know, to defend air sovereignty, you have to see what is coming across the border, and then you have to be able to react and defend your sovereign airspace.
Right now, there's no problem at all with commercial air traffic inside the country.
The government of Iraq controls all the airspace. But if there is someone that wants to breach the airspace that doesn't have any kind of transmission capability in their airplane or does not want to transmit, to not be seen as they cross the border, Iraq cannot see them. And Iraq doesn't have an advanced jet fighter yet to be able to react and defend their airspace.
They understand that. We have helped them with that. As all of you know, they have signed an agreement with the United States government through the Foreign Military Sales process to purchase 16 F-16s, and there are discussions to purchase more. That takes time for those airplanes to be built; it takes time for us, because we will train the Iraqi pilots.
So in the meantime, the Iraqis understand that they have a gap. They have a gap in being able to defend their airspace if someone wanted to come in inside that airspace that didn't want to be seen. How they deal with that gap is really up to them.
MR. LITTLE: (Off mic) -- follow up?
Q: Let me follow up, sir. Talking about that gap, do you think the United States would be able to assist Iraq if they ask for an American support in this matter to face this gap?
GEN. HELMICK: Well, that's not up to me to decide. What we have done is we have set the foundation and put in place as much as we can put in place to minimize that gap. And again, how the Iraqis choose to address the gap -- they could take risk and not address it at all.
So, again, they have options that they will -- they will have to decide with. So it's up to the prime minister and the minister of defense -- the acting minister of defense, Minister Dulaimi.
Q: Sir, Richard Sisk from the War Report Online. Have there been any attacks, any harassment of the convoys leaving Iraq recently?
GEN. HELMICK: Well, again, Richard, thanks for that. Again, every convoy that leaves this country, it is not just guys getting on the road, driving down south; it is a deliberate military operation with route clearance, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. And you know, our soldiers are ready if -- with -- are ready to go if there is a problem on the road.
Recently -- knock on wood -- there have not been many incidents. But, having said that, we are just as detailed. We are making sure that we are doing the checks, we are coordinating the convoys, every convoy is a military operation, every soldier is briefed, on the last convoy that leaves this country as we were when the first convoy left the country. It is a very deliberate process that we go through.
MR. LITTLE: Follow up, Richard.
Q: Sir, do you have any incidents of people coming out on the road, in the way of harassment, demonstrating, waving signs, protesting against the American -- against the American troops as they leave in these convoys?
GEN. HELMICK: Richard, I have not been told of anything about that. Again, we've had thousands of trucks on the road, as you can imagine, every week, not only moving down south into Kuwait, but also, don't forget, we still have to resupply the soldiers that are here. So we have them coming north. So they're not only going south, but also coming north. And I have yet to be told about any kind of incident like that.
Q: General, thanks. Chris Carroll from Stars and Stripes. Are you confident that the Iraqi security forces are going to be able to preserve the work that U.S. forces have done as far as internal security in Iraq in the coming months? I guess another way to say it is, do you think that violence will drop or stay the same or potentially increase?
GEN. HELMICK: Chris, I wish I knew the answer to that question. We really don't know what's going to happen. But we do know this: We do know that we have done everything we can in the time that we have been here for the Iraqi security forces to make sure that they have a credible security force to provide for the security -- the internal security of their country.
As I mentioned, there is a -- you know, a question mark right now for external security. But for the internal security, we've done all we can do. And as I mentioned, since 2010 the Iraqis have been in the lead in these operations.
Additionally, what we've done is we've ensured that the diplomatic presence that's here -- the U.S. embassy, the two consulates, one in Erbil, one in Basra, and the diplomatic presence in Kirkuk -- we have transitioned and transitioned much of our equipment for force protection to them. And Ambassador Jeffrey has been working very, very diligently to ensure that the force protection of those diplomats and contractors is the best that he can make it.
MR. LITTLE: Phil.
Q: You guys still have one detainee: Mr. Daqduq. Can you give us an idea of where he is, what's the status of talks with Iraq about that? And how -- what facilities -- or how will -- do you plan to hold him till the end of the year?
GEN. HELMICK: I'm sorry, I didn't hear the last question.
Q: How do you plan to hold onto him till the end of the year? Will he stay where he is, wherever that might be? Can you give us an update?
GEN. HELMICK: Who are you talking about holding? Again, I didn't hear your whole question.
MR. LITTLE: Can you repeat the question again? Thanks.
Q: Yeah. You have one detainee: Mr. Daqduq. Where is he now? Where will you hold him till the end of the year? Can you give us an update on talks with the Iraqis about his possible transfer?
GEN. HELMICK: Yeah, I am not involved in any of those discussions. And of course, I'm not going to say where he's being held. The ambassador and General Austin are working all those discussions with the government of Iraq.
MR. LITTLE: Viola.
Q: General, Viola Gienger from Bloomberg News. What would you say are the two or three primary issues that the Iraqi police need to work on right now in terms of elevating their skills and capabilities to the next level? What are the most critical elements they need to work on?
GEN. HELMICK: Well, that's a -- that's a very, very good question. As you know, there are a host of different police forces in this country. You have station police, patrol police, water police, electricity police, oil police, facilities protection police, and of course the federal police. Those are just some of them. And they're the largest security apparatus there. So a very, very large, large organization, very, very diverse mission sets, for all those police. Don't forget the Department of Border Enforcement, which is required for the borders and the points of entry.
So I would say the two biggest things that I can think of: Number one is logistics and the ability to sustain a force of just their vehicles, for example. You know, in the United States what we have, our police force goes down to the local Chevrolet dealer or local Ford dealer to have their maintenance done. Well, there are not very many Ford dealers or Chevrolet dealers in Iraq right now. A lot of the vehicles that the Iraqi police have are Ford F-150 pickup trucks. So the ability to sustain their maintenance capability is one thing.
And the other thing I would think they need to work on is the intelligence-sharing piece of their organizations.
One thing I'm very pleased with -- and I see this from afar, quite honestly -- is their crime scene management, which has really taken some very, very positive steps, where they go to a crime scene, they isolate the crime scene, they get the evidence, they take the evidence to one of the forensics labs, and now they are using evidence from the crime scene to convict someone vice a confession from someone to convict a person. So that's kind of a positive thing.
But the two things that I think are going to be a challenge for them are the logistical -- the logistics sustainment piece for their police force, just because it's so big and they have so many different types of vehicles to maintain, and the other piece is the intelligence-sharing piece.
MR. LITTLE: I'll -- I said two final questions, but I'll do one more and then we'll wrap it up.
Q: Thank you. Nathan -- General, Nathan Hodge at the Wall Street Journal. How confident are you in the ability of Iraqi security forces to provide both a security backup in that outer perimeter of security for U.S. diplomatic facilities that will remain in Iraq, for instance, when it comes to things like policing the international zone?
GEN. HELMICK: Yeah, Nathan, that's a great question. You know, right now -- when we had, you know, 50,000 troops in here, the United States did the patrols in and around our operating bases. And where the consulates are, where the diplomatic presence is and also here in the international zone where the embassy is, we are going to have to rely on host nation forces to do this.
We have no option. So my gut tells me that they will be capable to do this. They're doing it today.
As I mentioned, we only have 8,000 people -- 8,000 soldiers in this country. We have a diplomatic presence in Erbil. We have a diplomatic presence -- we have a diplomatic consulate in Erbil. We have a diplomatic presence in Kirkuk. We have the embassy here in the International Zone, and we have a consulate down in Basra.
So today the Iraqi security forces are doing it. And as I mentioned in my earlier comment, we have seen the lowest level of violence since 2003. So if you want a short-term answer, they're doing it today; yet to be determined longer term. But I -- I'm fairly confident that they'll be able to do it tomorrow and in the future.
MR. LITTLE: General, thank you very much. That's the end of time that we have for questions. I will turn it over to you in just a second for any final thoughts that you'd like to share with the reporters here. Before I do so, I would simply note that this is a milestone. This is likely to be the final briefing here at the Pentagon from United States Forces-Iraq.
General, back to you.
GEN. HELMICK: Well, thanks again to all of you.
Before I sign off, I just want to emphasize my firm belief that there's no other military in the world that can do what yours did in Iraq. For eight years, all the U.S. armed forces committed to helping the Iraqis build their military while providing security and stability for its citizens.
We have achieved this feat despite incredible odds. And we are presently on track to honor our commitment and have all U.S. forces leave this country by December 31st.
If I had to define what our greatest legacy is, it would be the concepts of professionalism, competence, esprit de corps that we've instilled inside the Iraqi security forces, and also the friendships and relationships we've forged with them. We've worked very hard, side by side, with them daily. We're proud of the efforts made by those here, those who paved the way before us, and especially the nearly 4,500 service men and women who have given their lives for this worthy cause.
In closing, I want to thank every American who supported us in ways large and small as we built the country's military and we gave 28 million Iraqis really the greatest gift anybody can give, and that's their freedom.
Thank you very much. I enjoyed this session.
MR. LITTLE: Well, thank you for taking the time and for sharing your insights, thoughts and observations. And I'd like to thank my media colleagues here at the Pentagon as well. Have a good day. Have a good evening.
GEN. HELMICK: OK. Thank you very much.