(Participating was Brig. Gen. David N. Blackledge, Commander, 352nd Civil Affairs Command.)
STAFF: Good afternoon. We appreciate you being with us.
This afternoon we have the privilege and opportunity to hear from Brigadier General David N. Blackledge. He's the commander of the 352nd Civil Affairs Command. General Blackledge has agreed to give us some details regarding civil military operations and civil affairs here in Iraq. He will focus specifically on the use of the Commander's Emergency Response Program, otherwise known as CERP. This is a program that involves investment of money at the local level by senior commanders, largely under the tutelage of General Blackledge.
I want to focus on the fact General Blackledge is here for humanitarian reasons. He works the humanitarian reconstruction piece of building Iraq. Therefore, I just want to make that aware, but he is not prepared to answer questions regarding specific combat incidents. And he is not a politician; he's not part of the CPA. So we would ask you to refrain from asking questions of a policy nature, of a combat nature, and direct combat ones to CJTF-7 or the appropriate command, or political questions, policy questions, to the CPA. I would also remind you, please, as a courtesy to your fellow journalists and as a courtesy to General Blackledge please turn your cell phones off.
And with that it is my pleasure, my distinct pleasure, to give you -- present to you General Blackledge. Thank you.
GEN. BLACKLEDGE: Thanks, Bill. Good afternoon.
As coalition military forces conduct offensive operations to confront the enemy throughout Iraq, our civil affairs forces continue to play an equally vital role in civil military assistance and support operations to improve the lives and futures of Iraqis across the country. The coalition military is rehabilitating schools, providing clean water and improving medical care.
Although much attention is given to the large reconstruction projects that are currently under bid, one of the primary tools for improving the lives of average Iraqi citizens has been the Commander's Emergency Response fund, called CERP. This program was initiated in May to allow commanders to make an immediate impact and address local issues. Since then, CERP has provided a means for commanders to rapidly allocate resources to meet local needs.
Since CERP's inception, commanders have spent over $126 million to directly improve education, health care, electricity, water and security. Each major command has been allocated CERP funds based on the geography, population and needs of their respective region. CERP projects are the grassroots effort by local commanders to quickly deal with short-term needs and are conducted in concert with large-city and nationwide projects headed by USAID and the Corps of Engineers.
CERP has been tremendously successful because it is administered by the local commander who is actually living and interacting with the citizens in his area of responsibility. There is no bureaucracy; rather, commanders work directly with local citizens, through civil affairs experts, to identify and respond to immediate needs with low- cost, high-impact projects.
As an example of how CERP funds are helping to transform Iraq, all major cities now have city councils, which never existed under the former regime. Nine hundred and ninety-one CERP projects, totaling over $6.8 million, have been completed to support these newly established local governments, as well as Iraq's legal system. For the first time in 30 years, an independent judiciary is functioning, and nearly all of Iraq's 400 courts are open. Iraqi citizens, through their neighborhood and city councils, are assisting local commanders and civil affairs teams to identify and manage CERP projects. The people of Iraq are enjoying this new sense of freedom and empowerment in very particular ways. Baghdad now has 88 neighborhood advisory councils. The citizens of Iraq stay informed about developments in the country through more than 200 independent newspapers. Further, 35 percent of households now receive news via satellite TV dishes, which were illegal under Saddam's regime.
Public health continues to improve. Health care spending has increased to 26 times what Saddam spent. With the help of $6.4 million in CERP funds, all 240 hospitals, and 95 percent of Iraq's 1,200 clinics have reopened, and the neglected health care facilities are undergoing rehabilitation and reconstruction; 856 health projects have been funded, over 22 million vaccinations have been administered, and pharmaceutical distribution has increased from 700 tons in May to a total of 12,000 tons through today.
Commanders continue to use CERP funds for school rehabilitation. To date, over $29 million in CERP funds have been invested in education; 5.9 million students are registered and attending school, which exceeds prewar numbers. During the prior regime, only one in six students had access to textbooks, most of which were outdated and filled with Ba'athist and pro-Saddam messages. Today, 51 million textbooks, free of propaganda, are printed and distributed. All 22 universities and 43 technical institutes are open.
Students are optimistic about educational opportunities in the new Iraq that are now open, regardless of gender, ethnicity or party affiliation. Under the new nondiscriminatory college admissions process, college applications are running at a record pace. Ninety- seven thousand freshman applications have been received by the Ministry of Education, compared to 63,000 last year.
To date, over $22 million has been spent on over 2,100 CERP projects to increase the security of the Iraqi people. Over 230,000 Iraqis now provide security for their fellow citizens, and Iraqi security forces now account for more than half of all forces in Iraq. Nationwide, over 68,000 policemen have been hired. An additional number are currently in training. The new Iraqi Civil Defense Corps has over 17,000 personnel operating and another 3,800 in training. Fifty-one thousand five hundred Iraqis are in the border police force. Ninety- seven thousand are in the Facility Protection Service, protecting vital infrastructure from sabotage and terrorist attacks.
Before the war, nearly three-quarters of Iraq's 27,000 kilometers of vital irrigation canals were weed-choked by years of neglect. Coalition commanders have spent nearly $9 million in CERP funds on over 1200 water and sewer projects. Today over 18,500 kilometers of irrigation canals have been cleared, bringing water to tens of thousands of farmers, creating jobs and revitalizing the Iraqi economy.
In Baghdad, commanders have used CERP funds to make emergency repairs to a sewer and water system that had collapsed due to neglect and looting.
The coalition continues to work diligently to complete reconstruction projects, both large and small, and the impact can be seen throughout Iraq. Construction has begun on over 1,000 new houses, and as anyone who has driven in Baghdad knows, the number of privately owned vehicles has doubled from 500,000 in April to over 1 million today.
The Iraqi people see the improvements and are optimistic. Seven out of 10 Iraqis expect their country and their personal lives to be better five years from now. Together the United States, its coalition partners and the Iraqi people have begun the process of rebuilding the nation of Iraq. Our work, although not complete, has produced tremendous results. We look forward to working with our coalition partners and the Iraqi people to continue this process.
Thank you, and I'll take questions now.
Q (In Arabic.)
GEN. BLACKLEDGE: Thank you. The focus up to this point have been to rebuild the local infrastructure that existed prior, versus building new schools, new hospitals or clinics. It's to fix the ones that were there.
Again, the way the CERP program works, the commanders, through their Civil Affairs folks, work with the local Iraqi leaders and their community to identify what the important projects are, to use those funds are -- on. And it's for lower-cost, high-impact projects versus the big contracts with USAID, Corps of Engineers, the type of things that I think would more fit the kind of things you're looking for.
Q (In Arabic.)
GEN. BLACKLEDGE: I agree; we all want the public services to be back again.
The -- in reference to the schools, the textbooks are being issued. You're right that now we have three students sharing a textbook versus -- prior we had six students sharing a textbook. And that's because we're still distributing textbooks, getting them reprinted, eliminating the reference to the Ba'athist Party and pro-Saddam messages.
The process for distributing those textbooks -- we'll have those all complete by the end of -- by this spring, and all the textbooks will be out there. We understand that there's not as many as we would like right now, but they're continuing.
The sewer project that you mentioned -- the sewer concerns are very difficult projects. And from a CERP standpoint, local commanders try to work with their advisory councils to identify areas that can be addressed in sewer and water with those funds. Many of the sewer projects that you're probably referring to, that need fixing -- the sewer problems are quite extensive problems that need major work, and I know that programs, through Corps of Engineers and USAID, are working to address those. But again, it's not -- none of it is as quick as we would like to have it happen, but I do feel things are improving, not getting worse.
Q (In Arabic.)
GEN. BLACKLEDGE: Thank you. Just to clarify on the electricity piece, the task force for restoring Iraqi electricity is a Corps of Engineers' effort, and it's a much bigger project.
The focus for my discussion was on the Commander's Emergency Response Program, which is the CERP funds which are for smaller projects. So in the area of electricity, the local commanders can impact with their CERP money is for -- for example, in Fallujah, the commander, through the civil affairs teams, bought two one-megawatt generators for the brick factory, and as a result, the brick factory is back in operation and will be able to employ 800 employees at that factory. And that's a smaller project, putting generators in to provide electricity for that particular factory. The bigger electrical problems in the country are quite extensive, and there's quite a bit of effort that's going on. But again, that's not in my area and I can't really comment specifically on that.
Q (In Arabic.)
GEN. BLACKLEDGE: Yes, I understand the concern and the frustration. The CERP funds -- out of the $26 million -- just to give you an understanding, there's been $3 million of that has been spent on electrical projects. And again, those are small projects; specifically, buying generators for hospitals, clinics, in some cases factories, to get them back in operation, not to fix the electrical problems for the electrical grid throughout the country. That falls under the other task force that the Corps of Engineers is working. And I know that that's quite a complex problem that they're dealing with.
So, the other reference to the neighborhood advisory councils: what I would encourage you to do, if you feel that they're not representing you, is that you go to the council meetings and you talk to the council members and explain what your issues are, what your priorities -- they are there to represent you. So if your neighborhood advisory council is not representing you, you need to speak up with them and tell them, "Here's the problems in our neighborhood. This is what we want you to address."
Q General, I'm Steve Franklin from the Chicago Tribune. I recently visited a civil affairs unit based in Balad. And they're not being replaced. Is this the overall situation? Is there reduction in civil affairs officers in Iraq? And if this is true, what is the reduction and why is that taking place?
GEN. BLACKLEDGE: That's a very good question. There will be in the follow-on forces a slight reduction in civil affairs forces. Each maneuver unit will have civil affairs assets available to them, so there will be civil affairs coverage throughout the country.
Unfortunately, we've had over 80 percent of the civil affairs forces that are available in the United States military committed between Afghanistan and Iraq. We're running out of civil affairs experts. And the civil affairs experts are -- 97 percent of them are from the reserve component, because we tap into the civilian skills that they bring. But there's been a high demand for civil affairs experts, and many of the folks that will be coming here for this next rotation will have already spent a year in Afghanistan, for example. So they're being mobilized again.
But what you can be rest assured is that a particular civil affairs team may not be replaced in a particular location, but that area will be covered by civil affairs forces that will be coming in and be responsible for that area.
Q When you say "slight reduction," what does slight mean?
GEN. BLACKLEDGE: Well, what we've got is there's approximately 70 percent of the current level of forces will be coming in. We will have basically the same number of civil affairs battalions on the ground. What we won't have is the brigade headquarters, which bring functional teams that work at the higher level. What we wanted to focus on was having the tactical-level teams that work with the maneuver commanders, having enough of those there.
Q I just apologize, just two questions on that. Seventy percent of what number? Of the 130,000 troops here, what percent of these are civil affairs?
GEN. BLACKLEDGE: We've got 1,600 civil affairs, U.S. civil affairs forces here now.
Q Okay, thank you.
Q (In Arabic.)
GEN. BLACKLEDGE: Yes, again, there are various levels of effort being done to assist homeless and to get people employed. Much of the work by the commanders with the CERP funds are to find immediate impact projects that help the local community, but also put people to work while they're fixing -- whether it's a sewer water problem, whatever, that we're having people get back to work.
The project that I alluded to in Fallujah for the brick factory, again, by spending the money on the generators to get the factory back in operation, allowed the factory to bring 800 people, employees, back to work. Those kinds of things are happening all through Iraq on a small scale. But we recognize that it's a very big problem. We have many people who we need to get back to work. The ministries are all being stood up and reinvigorated. And again, that's beyond my scope; that's a broader CPA effort to assist the ministries. But I understand.
On the homeless issue, again, there are many of the CERP projects that are being done by local commanders to provide housing for the people without homes. I know that in the northern sector, in the 101st area, for example, they have quite an extensive project where they've built a whole village with homes to allow people that are homeless to move into them. I think it's called Project Hope.
Q (In Arabic.)
GEN. BLACKLEDGE: You're right, a capital of a country is important, but we can't neglect the rest of the country also. As far as rebuilding structures, I know that on many small-scale areas that fall under the CERP funding, such as refurbishing, rebuilding police stations, clinics, the patching up of schools, that type of thing are happening.
The bigger construction projects, again, that falls under the much broader context, which is not what local commanders can impact with their CERP funds; that's for smaller projects. But I certainly share your concern and understanding for wanting to repair those buildings.
Q (In Arabic.)
GEN. BLACKLEDGE: Just to clarify, you're talking of people that don't have other housing and are currently occupying government buildings? Is that --
Q (In Arabic.)
GEN. BLACKLEDGE: I'm afraid I have no information on that. That's out of my area, and I don't know anything about that.
Q (In Arabic.)
GEN. BLACKLEDGE: I have not. And again, that's not something that falls under my area of responsibility, so I can't comment one way or the other because I have no knowledge of that.
Q (In Arabic.)
GEN. BLACKLEDGE: I'm not aware of the typhoid problems. But again, that would be a question for the health personnel. We've done quite a bit to improve the hospitals and clinics that are all now functioning in Baghdad, as well as the distribution system for pharmaceuticals to those hospitals and clinics. I can't comment specifically on any concerns about typhoid. And I'm not sure on the dirt question.
Q Sam Dagher with AFP. General, just could you please recap the amount of CERP funds spent so far, and sort of a breakdown of the main expenditure categories, if you could, please? Thank you.
GEN. BLACKLEDGE: Sure. Again, we've spent a total of $126 million in CERP funds. That's since May of last year. Approximately $2 million is in support of operations; $29 million, almost $30 million for education; $3 million for electricity -- and again, that's the small generators for specific applications; $8 million for Facility Protection Service -- payments for those individuals that are providing those services; $6.4 million for health-related items; $1.5 million for humanitarian efforts, which would include things like housing for people that are homeless; $24 million for other public services, and that includes a pretty broad range, including things like getting fire departments back up and running, getting fire trucks, communications for the fire (sic); $14.7 million for police and other security, and that includes local police as well as border police; $16 million for reconstruction, and that's to rebuild key buildings, key government service buildings; $6.8 million for rule of law and government-related issues -- that's anything from establishing places for advisory councils to work and operate out of; $2.2 million for social programs; $900,000 for transportation, things like getting buses and that type of thing, fixing major -- or smaller items for road work; and $8.9 million on water and sewer projects.
Does that help?
Q (Off mike.)
GEN. BLACKLEDGE: Okay.
STAFF: Okay, two more questions here.
Q An important part of the reconstruction is telephones and communications. And since October, we kept hearing that the Egyptian company that won the contract to build the mobile system in the central part of Iraq should function. But it was only last week that it started to work, and it is not very properly working. They just say that now it is just for the businessman; you have to pay like $766. If you pay $250 more dollars, you can make international phone calls. There are a lot of conditions they have put.
So, are the coalition forces aware how this company works, or they are separately working -- I mean independently, on their own? And is there any monitor, because the ordinary people are not yet sure when they will be able to get telephones.
GEN. BLACKLEDGE: Yeah, that's -- again, that's not covered by my particular area, although I am aware that that service has started. There's actually three different contracts to three different companies, depending on where in Iraq you are, that are being covered by mobile cell phone service. I'm not aware of the details, though. Again, those are being done by those particular companies, and they are rolling that out. I'm sure service will expand as they get established, and hopefully the rates will come down as they expand. But again, they're working that independently. We helped identify people that could come in and provide those services, but they are on their own to do that.
So -- did you have a follow-up on that?
Q I mean, there should be some sort of monitor so that maybe they try to exploit. Because we have this company somewhere in the north working very properly and progressing very quickly. But this should not be exploited; I mean, they should avoid exploitation. And it needs some sort of monitor from the coalition forces because they will try to squeeze or get as much money as possible out of the people from the business companies or businessmen, then they will try to provide it for the normal people.
GEN. BLACKLEDGE: I understand. I will take that back to the appropriate folks in CPA to ensure that that's being monitored.
Q I'm Ali Shaq (ph) from Iraq Today newspaper. We all know that there is $18.6 billion came from America to Iraq, and there is a Program Management Office that handles that 18.6 (billion dollars). And they say that there are 17 prime contractors. So when the money will come to Iraq? And who are the 17 prime contractors, and are they only American companies or another countries?
GEN. BLACKLEDGE: Again, that whole piece is managed by the Program Management Office, as you identified. What I do know is that they are in the contract bidding process right now. It's an open bidding process for all companies; it's not restricted to American companies at all. In fact, companies that will be able to hire more Iraqis as they bid on the contract have a preference or they get additional points in the bidding process if through their application of the contract they can show that they'll be hiring more Iraqis, because the focus is to try to get more people to work.
But again, I don't know the details. I know they expect to have those contracts let here over the next couple of weeks. But it's out of my area.
I thank you very much for your attention today.
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