News Briefing with Gen. Casey
(Note: General Casey appears via teleconference from Iraq.)
BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): Well, with that, General Casey, thank you for joining us today. Obviously General Casey needs little introduction. He's been the commanding general of the Multinational Forces in Iraq. He's been in command there since July of 2004. He last joined us here via satellite in December. And he's here to give you a brief operational update and then to answer some of your questions. So with that, General Casey, thank you very much for taking the time this morning, and I'll turn it over to you.
GEN. CASEY: Well, good morning, everyone. I know we promised you my British deputy originally. He's younger, better looking and much more articulate, but I'll try to hold up my end of the bargain here.
I did want to give you a perspective, my perspective, on really the last 10 days of what's gone on here in the aftermath of the Samarra mosque bombing. As Ambassador Khalilzad and I said in our initial joint statement condemning the bombings, we saw this as a deliberate attempt to foment sectarian strife at a very sensitive time in Iraq's political development. And while it's been a difficult few days, I can tell you that Iraqis have again risen to the occasion.
Let me give you a couple of data points here. First of all, the Iraqi security forces performed well across the country, generally well, not uniformly well. And I'll give you some examples of both the positive and the negative here later. But we're quite pleased with what we saw both in the Iraqi army, in some of the Iraqi police and with the coordination -- improved coordination that we're seeing between the army and the police.
In general, Iraqi security force leaders took the initiative early on in moving to full alert and to securing key sites. In eight of the 18 provinces in Iraq, there was little to no reaction to the bombing, and this includes Anbar province, which as you know has been one of the most difficult challenges that we've wrestled with. In eight other provinces, there were demonstrations and there was militia activity, but it was quickly contained by Iraqi police and by the Iraqi army. And this demonstrates a maturing capability to cooperate and operate effectively in providing domestic order, and we saw this in several places around the country.
In Baghdad and Basra, where our security response was also strong, it did take the Iraqi security forces a few days to settle the situation, and this with the assistance of the coalition forces in a supporting role.
Now I think it's important to note here that in all cases, Iraqi security ministries and Iraqi security force leadership directed the operations, and the coalition responded in a supporting and assisting role.
Additionally, the Iraqi transitional government reacted to the situation by imposing curfews and driving vans, making public calls for calm, and these also assisted in bringing down the levels of violence.
The second point I'd like to make and to address is the levels of violence themselves.
Candidly, in the initial days following the bombing, these days were kind of a confusing jumble of exaggerated reporting that actually took us a few days to kind of sort through.
What did we find?
First of all, the overall levels of violence did not increase substantially as a result of the bombing. In fact, the levels of violence the week after the violence -- the week after the bombing were comparable to the two previous weeks.
Second, the nature of the violence did, in fact, change with attacks on mosques and civilian killings increasing initially and then gradually tapering off.
We can confirm about 30 attacks on mosques around the country, with less than 10 of those mosques moderately damaged and only two or three of those mosques severely damaged.
There are other reports -- we have sent forces out to check them -- in one instance in Baghdad, we checked eight reports -- visited eight mosques that were reportedly damaged. We found one broken window in those eight mosques.
So as I said, we had to sort -- it took us a few days to sort our way through what we considered in a lot of cases to be exaggerated reports.
On the civilian killings, we do believe that about 350 civilians have been killed as a result of the sectarian violence following the bombing.
This is, obviously, unacceptable and something that we and the Iraqi transitional government and security forces continue to work hard to prevent.
I should note that with the exception of the suicide attacks that took place on the 28th, the number of civilian killings has also tapered off over time.
The third point on the general security situation, as well as the violence, there were numerous demonstrations around the country, varying in size from 50 to 100 to several thousand. There were actually 20 demonstrations around the country where greater than a thousand people participated. There were no incidents -- significant incidents of violence associated with any of these demonstrations. They were, by and large, all conducted peacefully, with the support of the Iraqi security forces.
So, has there been violence and terrorism here in Iraq in the wake of the Samarra bombings? Clearly. Is that violence out of control? Clearly not.
Now, it appears that the crisis has passed, but we all should be clear that Iraqis remain under threat of terrorist attack by those who will stop at nothing to undermine the formation of this constitutionally elected government, a government of national unity and a government that represents all Iraqis.
I also know there's questions on the role of militias within this violence. Now, our estimate is that in the immediate wake of the bombings, in areas like Sadr City, militia did take to the streets. But in the vast majority of the cases, they yielded to Iraqi police and Iraqi security forces without conflict. We do have reports of Iraqi security forces assisting militia movements, particularly in the east Baghdad area, and we also believe that groups of militia were primarily responsible for the attacks against the mosques in the Baghdad area. And we continue to follow up on the information that we have on these with the Iraqi security forces.
This incident and its aftermath has highlighted for the Iraqi government the need to deal with the militia issue in the very near future, and we think that's a good thing.
So, a difficult few days here in Iraq that came at a very sensitive time. And while the danger in not completely past, the Iraqis have again risen to the occasion against the terror that is designed to deny them their future.
I'll close by letting the American people know how their armed forces continue to do a magnificent job here in Iraq and were instrumental in resolving this crisis here over the last few days. I continue to remain impressed with their commitment, their courage, their compassion and their competence. And through their efforts and the efforts of our Iraqi security force brothers in arms, we continue to make progress here in Iraq.
Thank you very much. I'd be happy to take your questions.
MR. WHITMAN: I know everybody would like to ask a question of the general, so out of respect for your colleagues, please ask just one question.
And we'll start with Mr. Aldinger.
Q General Casey, Charlie Aldinger with Reuters. You seem to concede that -- certainly that sectarian violence was fomented by the attack on the mosque. Could this happen again? And if the situation remains as tenuous, possible civil war, will you be able to withdraw troops this year if the situation remains the same?
GEN. CASEY: Charlie, could this happen again? Sure -- yes, it could happen again. As I said, Iraq is not out of danger. There is still a terrorist threat here that is working to foment continued sectarian violence.
I think they tried. They tried to have this the straw that broke the camel's back, and it failed. And the Iraqis, as I said, rose to the occasion. There are still sectarian tensions here now that the Iraqis are continuing to work their way through, and we will all continue to stay on the front foot here as we work our way through this sensitive period.
Will it affect the troop withdrawals? This has been going on for about 10 days, Charlie. It certainly is something that we will consider in our decisions, but I'm not really into the process here of making decisions, and so this -- we'll see how this plays out over the coming weeks and months.
Q (Off mike) -- close to civil war or could it fall into civil war?
GEN. CASEY: Was that you, Charlie, or was that somebody else?
Q Once more, is the country close to civil war or could it fall into civil war?
GEN. CASEY: Anything can happen, but I think as long as there's -- the coalition forces are here in the -- on the ground working with the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi -- the vast majority of the Iraqi people remain committed to forming a government of national unity, which I firmly believe that they do, I think the chances of that are not good.
MR. WHITMAN: Over to Barbara.
Q Barbara Starr with CNN. You said that you didn't think there had been a substantial overall increase in violence and that the crisis was over, but yesterday, General Lynch told us that civilian casualties had risen 55 percent in just the last week. So I'm afraid I don't understand your conclusion. I wonder if you could help me.
And also, you raised the issue of militias and that the Iraqis need to deal with that. What is the solution to the militia problem?
GEN. CASEY: On your first question there, I do believe that the crisis part of this has passed, and most of those -- the civilian casualties took place in the first two or three days following the bombings. I said, with the exception of the 28th, where there were some additional suicide attacks that did claim some civilian casualties. So, as I said -- and I think I was quite forthright in what we think the numbers of civilian casualties were -- it's not acceptable, and we continually work with the Iraqi security forces to prevent it.
I'm sorry. I lost your second question.
Q You mentioned that in your opinion the Iraqi security -- that the Iraqis understand now they have to deal quickly with the militia issue. What is the solution to the militia issue? How embedded are they in Interior Ministry forces, and how do you deal with it? What needs to be done?
GEN. CASEY: It will take a holistic effort to get at the militia issue. There are several aspects to it, and I do not believe that we will ultimately succeed until the Iraqi security forces -- the police and the military -- are the only ones in Iraq with guns. Now, that's a longer-term solution. Shorter-term solutions will involve the disarmament and the integration of those security forces into some of the security ministries. That presents a challenge in and of itself, as you said, and we will -- we continually work with the Iraqi security forces to put the proper leadership in place to deal with the people in the Iraqi security forces.
What we find -- I'm not sure who's asking the question -- but what we find is that with the right leadership, even if someone has been a member of a militia, they generally respond favorably and work to support the unit's efforts. So it's a long-term challenge, a long- term problem, and there's no silver bullet, quick solutions to it.
MR. WHITMAN: I'm sure there's somebody that has a single question.
Q General Casey, David Cloud with the New York Times. You mentioned, I think, a few minutes ago that there were reports of ISF assisting the militias. Can you expand on that a little bit, and how widespread was it? I think you mentioned east Baghdad. Can you just give us a sense of how widespread the problem of sectarian violence within the ISF has been over the last few days?
GEN. CASEY: The reports that we have is that they were allowing the Mahdi militia to pass through their checkpoints. And, obviously, this is not something that we are going to condone, nor will the Iraqi security force leadership condone.
But as I said, this is different than August '04 and April '04. The militias didn't take over anything, or if they did, it was quite fleeting. And when the Iraqi security forces showed up, they, by and large, yielded control.
We have a story of a Mahdi militia that went into a Sunni mosque in Baghdad and intended to remain there overnight. And a brigadier general from -- a brigade commander from the Iraqi army went in and talked them out and let them go on their way. Now, that's an Iraqi solution to an Iraqi problem, but it's Iraqi security forces dealing with the challenges that they're faced with.
Q General, Lolita Baldor with the Associated Press. You mentioned that obviously Iraq is still vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Have you heard any reports of what we're hearing, about a high-profile terrorist attack in Iraq? And what impact do you think something like that would have, considering how the attack on the mosque triggered such a violent reaction?
GEN. CASEY: Yeah, we continue -- as you can imagine, we get continuous reporting about probable terrorist attack. I think it's safe to say that a major attack, particularly on a religious site, would have a significant impact on the situation here coming in the next couple of days. And the Iraqi security forces and us are working to improve the security of those key facilities.
Q To follow up on that, but -- so are you seeing intelligence that is different from what you've been seeing -- John Karl with ABC News, by the way. Are you seeing intelligence that such an attack is in the works, in the planning stages, intelligence that's different from what you've been seeing, this continuous stream, all along?
GEN. CASEY: I'm not going to comment on that, on what we're seeing in intelligence, other than to broadly say we do get these kinds of reports all the time and we take each one of them seriously.
MR. WHITMAN: Tom.
Q General, Tom Bowman with the Baltimore Sun. Could you give us a sense when you'll come up with another assessment on troop levels? And also, we've been told that a brigade of the 1st Infantry Division from Fort Riley, Kansas, half to two-thirds of that brigade will be heading over in the spring or summer as trainers. And as a result, won't we see a slight increase in the overall number of U.S. troops in Iraq?
GEN. CASEY: When I've said -- I've said consistently here I'd make another assessment in the spring, and we're still on that timeline.
I'm not really sure about the specific Army plans for that brigade, so I really couldn't comment on it.
MR. WHITMAN: Let's go over here to Nick.
Q General, Nick Simeone at Fox News. What does the relative ascendancy of these militias and the power they hold, juxtaposed with the weakness of the Ja'afari government, say to you about recommendations for troop levels?
GEN. CASEY: I missed a word in the first part of your question. Can you just say the first part again?
Q Militias seem to have a stronger pull in Iraq, juxtaposed with the weakness of the central government, given the fact that Ja'afari's now having trouble forming a government, and it's taken longer than many expected. How much of a factor is that when you assess troop levels?
GEN. CASEY: I'm not sure I'd agree with the fact that they -- that they have a strong pull throughout Iraq. I mean, the dominant forces on the ground over the last few days here have been the Iraqi security forces and the coalition forces. As I said, they were -- the militias were out early, and gradually and quickly conceded the field to the Iraqi security forces and the coalition, without much violence. And that's a different challenge than we faced from the militias in August and April.
Now I wouldn't -- with respect to the Ja'afari government, as I said, they are reacting to the crisis, have reacted to the crisis, imposed measures, put out calls for national unity and continue to work with Iraq's political leaders to maintain calm.
So how does that react to -- or how does that impact on my troop decisions? All of those factors will be folded in over the coming weeks here as I formulate my recommendations.
Q General, it's Al Pessin from Voice of America. Has the overall security situation of recent months, combined with what happened 10 days ago, made it difficult to pursue reconstruction efforts? Are you just kind of keeping your finger in the dike, or how much attention can you give to reconstruction?
And along with that, can you respond to the story in today's Washington Post that says the State Department's having trouble getting a commitment from the military to provide security for new reconstruction teams that it wants to send into the country?
GEN. CASEY: On the security for reconstruction, that -- I mean, I don't think it's any question that the security situation impacts reconstruction. But if you remember what I said early on here, in 16 of the 18 provinces, the security situation was fairly stable. And while I'm sure that there are normal security impacts on the reconstruction effort, I don't believe it was significantly unhinged by the events of the last 10 days.
Now that said, the reconstruction effort has continually pressed forward here. And we started off, I think, in the 28th of June at about 230- some projects from the IRRF that had been initiated. We're over 3,000 projects now, and that in a tough environment.
I have not seen the Washington Post article, but as you may know, we, with the department -- with the embassy here, are forming provincial reconstruction teams, and we are in fact very much in sync with them in providing appropriate levels of security for those teams. So again, I haven't seen the article, and I couldn't comment on it beyond that.
MR. WHITMAN: Jim?
Q General, this is Jim Mannion from Agence France-Presse. I'd like to ask you about the investigation into the planting of stories in the Iraqi press.
We understand that that investigation has been completed. Could you tell us what its recommendations were? And also, you know, what you think about this, how you're going to deal with it?
GEN. CASEY: Yeah, we're wrapping it up here. I wouldn't say it's completely done. We're wrapping it up, and we should have an announcement here in the next week or two.
I can tell you -- or reinforce what I have already said on this is that we looked hard at it, and the investigating officer looked at all of the things that we were doing, and basically came back and had made some -- it will make some procedural recommendations, but by and large, it found that we were operating within our authorities and responsibilities.
And so you'll have something on that here in a couple of weeks.
Q General, Gordon Lubold from Army Times.
Given that you said anything can happen and you plan for contingencies, can you speak to the role that U.S. troops would play if things do go south a little bit, and there's a civil war or movement toward that? And what are your concerns about the splintering of the Iraqi army under those circumstances?
GEN. CASEY: What are my -- I'm sorry. What are my concerns on the what of the Iraqi army?
Q That the army could -- if a civil war-like scenario played out, that the army could begin to splinter.
GEN. CASEY: Yeah. As I said, while there are coalition forces here on the ground in significant numbers working closely with the Iraqi security forces, I think the chances -- I'm not overly concerned with the chances of the army fragmenting.
I mean, there were opportunities for that to happen here. And not only did it not happen, but the security forces, as I said, performed generally well across the country.
What's -- our role here will continue to be what it has been. We are working with the Iraqi security forces to continue to prepare them to assume the lead in counterinsurgency operations while we are pursuing counterinsurgency operations to bring the insurgency down to levels that these increasingly capable Iraqis can contain, and I think we'll continue that role here over the course of the next year as we move the process forward.
MR. WHITMAN: Tony.
Q Sir, Tony Capaccio with Bloomberg News.
A couple times you said that Iraqi security forces have generally but not universally performed well. You gave one example where they allowed a militia to pass through their alliance. Are there any other examples there were, in the fog of war, there was less than optimal combat performances?
GEN. CASEY: That wasn't just one incident, Tony. That was -- there were several incidents of that. (Pauses.) I'm trying to think of some other instances. I mean, we have numerous instances where Iraqi leaders performed -- as I mentioned that one brigade commander did -- going in, observing the situation and taking charge to resolve it.
And as I said, when the Iraqi security forces confronted the militia, the militia basically moved away without conflict, and I think that's a significant indication of how far the Iraqi security forces have come.
Q Is there any evidence -- who bombed the original mosque? What group? Was it the foreign -- al Qaeda or --
GEN. CASEY: I don't -- the Iraqi Minister of Interior is conducting an investigation of that. We do not have any conclusive -- anything conclusive that would tell us one way or the other.
Our estimates are that it is probably al Qaeda or an al Qaeda- linked organization because it meets the type of event that they have been saying that they were going to do here during this sensitive period.
But we don't have any conclusive evidence one way or the other.
MR. WHITMAN: Will.
Q General, Will Dunham with Reuters. Are you going to or have you already ordered a stop to the practice of paying Iraqi media to run particular stories?
GEN. CASEY: I have not done that. I've said that before. I have not done that, and right now, based on the results of the investigation, I do not intend to in the near term. However, we will continue to evaluate this over time as the situation on the ground here evolves.
MR. WHITMAN: Let's go to Drew and then we might have time for one more.
Q General, it's Drew Brown, Knight Ridder. Are you seeing -- in the wake of this bombing, are you seeing any greater influx of foreign fighters, either coming in to join up with the Sunni insurgents or maybe any sort of fighters from Iran or coming in to join up with the -- or reinforce the Shi'ite militias?
GEN. CASEY: In the wake of the bombing, we really have had nothing that would lead me to believe that there has been an influx of foreign fighters. I will tell you that in the month of February there were 17 suicide attacks across Iraq. That's about half of the previous month, and the previous four months since October there's been an average of less than one suicide attack a day. That compares back to the summer and the spring when we were seeing 60 or 70 attacks, and we believe the majority of those suicide attacks are conducted by foreigners. So by that measure, 60 to 70 down to 17, I'd say the influx of foreign fighters isn't great.
MR. WHITMAN: Someone who hasn't asked a question, go ahead.
Q General, Rosalind Jordan with NBC News. Following up on Drew's question, what about efforts to secure the borders, particularly that with Syria?
GEN. CASEY: I was actually out on the Syrian border yesterday, and I was quite pleased with the operations I saw going on out there. It's a layered approach. Iraqi border guards and they're -- since the 30th of November, we have had Iraqi security force border guards along that entire border from Jordan to Turkey and particularly in that Qaim area. They are backed up by Iraqi army and by coalition forces, and our coalition forces are providing them intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance feeds. And we're using some of the means that we have at our disposal to assist them in mapping how the smugglers and foreign fighters are trying to come across the border. And what I saw -- I was very pleased with what I saw out there because there's a very active program going on.
And so those operations on the border, plus the continued presence in the key towns along the facilitation route down the Euphrates Valley, I think we've made significant progress out there. And so I was quite pleased with what I found out there on the Syrian border.
Q (Off mike) -- impact given this layered approach that's been implemented?
GEN. CASEY: I'm sorry. Your first part got cut out.
Q (Off mike) -- quantify the impact of this layered approach of security along that border?
GEN. CASEY: What is the impact of the layered approach? The impact of the layered approach is a decrease in the number of foreign fighters that -- and suicide bombers that are able to transit that Syrian border and move into Iraq to conduct their missions.
And as I mentioned, going from 60 to 70 in the spring and summer, to 17 last month, I think is an indicator of how that layered approach is working. And I say that layered approach extends all along that border up to the north in Rabiya as well.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, General Casey, we've reached the end of our time. And we know that you're very busy. We appreciate you taking the time this evening -- this morning our time. And look forward to the next time that you can spend some with us.
Let me turn it back over to you in case you have any final comments you'd like to make before we close.
GEN. CASEY: No. I would just close by saying -- reiterate what I said in my opening statement and throughout the briefing; this is a difficult time and there are fairly determined and ruthless terrorists that are out to halt Iraq's movement forward to a democratically elected, constitutionally based government, and what I see here on the ground is great persistence by the Iraqis to deny them that.
MR. WHITMAN: Okay, thank you very much, General.
GEN. CASEY: (Off mike) -- few days. Thanks a lot.
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