News Briefing with Lt. Gen. John R. Vines
BRYAN WHITMAN (Pentagon spokesman): General Vines, can you hear me?
GEN. VINES: Yes, I can hear you very well, thank you.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, General, again I want to thank you for joining us. I think it was early September last time that you spoke to us here in the Pentagon and the Pentagon press corps. Welcome this morning.
I think you all know Lieutenant General John R. Vines. He's the commanding general of the 18th Airborne Corps, but he's been in Iraq since February of 2005, where he's serving as the commander of the Multinational Corps, and as such, is in charge of coalition forces operations in Iraq.
He is prepared to give you a brief overview on a few things and then is going to take some questions.
So, General, with that, let me turn it over to you. Good evening, for you.
GEN. VINES: Well, good morning to all of you. And let me wish you and all our families back home a happy and safe Thanksgiving.
I must tell you that I believe that the heroic efforts of our men and women over here have helped contribute to the relative peace and security that we enjoy back in the United States, and I believe it's because of the efforts of the men and women here, as well as our security forces back in the United States that can be directly attributable to that peace that we do enjoy at home.
I'd like to talk briefly about what's happened over the last couple of years as we look back in the over two years since the regime of Saddam Hussein fell, particularly since January of this year; a national election was held and a transitional government assumed responsibility; an assembly was seated; a constitution was drafted; a national referendum was held and the constitution was ratified. And here, in just less than a month, a national election will be held in which the people of Iraq will pick their own representatives, in which to proceed along the path toward a democratically elected government, a government that provides for the security and protection of each Iraqi citizen; a government that is able to not only secure Iraq, but to make sure that Iraq is not a threat to its neighbors or to others. So enormous progress has been made in the governance line.
In security, about a third of the Iraqi army battalions, about 36 of them right now, are responsible for their own areas of operation and the operations that are conducted in those. And they are doing, in some cases, extraordinary work. In all cases they are in the fight. We've got about 80 percent of the Iraqi security forces at any given time that are in the fight and participating in combat operations around the country. Increasingly, the police are participating, some in greater numbers in urban areas; other police are being developed. So the police are doing some extraordinary work.
In the referendum in October, Iraqis voted in numbers that exceeded the participation levels in Western democracies. And so they clearly wish to be able to determine for themselves their own form of government. The security enjoyed by our citizens is something sometimes we take for granted. Iraqis don't take it for granted because they recognize that people such as the jihadists and Islamic extremists wish to impose their worldview on Iraq, and they recognize what's at stake.
Iraqi soldiers and policemen are in the fight; they're risking their lives and they're fighting, in some cases dying for Iraq, for that security of their fellow citizens. They've been conducting operations particularly in Anbar province recently, the Western Euphrates Valley, with the purpose of denying sanctuary to foreign terrorists that have been operating there, and to establish control of the borders so they can control what comes in and out of their own country. And so they have made extraordinary progress in that area and we expect that they will establish control over their borders prior to the election, and that is enormously heartening.
The bottom line is, there is a lot of progress being made. Sunnis are being brought into the political process. They're choosing the ballot box rather than violence to influence their government and what goes on in the country, and that is very heartening. And we see that in a variety of ways, not only in terms of the polls, but the leadership of the greater Sunni populace is committed to attempting to have a say in the outcome of their government.
So overall, there is an enormous amount that remains to be done, but the progress that's been made in the last couple of years, and particularly in the last year, is absolutely extraordinary.
I'll be happy to take your questions at this time.
MR. WHITMAN: Let's open it up with Charlie. Go ahead.
Q General, Charlie Aldinger with Reuters. Two quick questions if I may. Number one, what would you say the prospects are now for pulling all U.S. troops out of Iraq within six months? And are you and other military leaders there disturbed at the bitterness and the vitriol of the tone of the battle that's going on here, the political battle that's going on here over Iraq, and has it hurt morale?
GEN. VINES: The decision about force levels, of course, will be made in our national capitals, and it will not be made here. Recommendations will be made here based on conditions on the ground. Those conditions are the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces, the capability of the government to support those forces in the field, the state of the insurgency, and a whole range of conditions. So we'll make recommendations here. The ultimate decision, of course, will be made as a policy level decision in Washington and other capitals.
Of course the debate and the bitterness is disturbing. But after all, we are a democracy, and that is what democracy is about is people will have differences of opinions.
Q And morale?
GEN. VINES: Well, certainly soldiers are concerned about whether or not they enjoy the support of their -- not only their elected representatives, but the people, and they know that they have their support.
Q Thank you.
MR. WHITMAN: Lolita.
Q General, Lolita Baldor with the Associated Press. You all keep saying that enormous progress is being made. But where would you say the greatest challenge lies? Is it with the political structure -- the ability to support the Iraqi security forces, or is it with the actual equipping and training of the Iraqi forces? And which do you think is going to take longer to accomplish that goal?
GEN. VINES: That's a great question. I believe ultimately the stability of the government and its ability to support its security forces and provide for the basic functions of governance is the greatest long-term challenge. But that is central to the success of the operation here. And that -- the good news is -- we have had an interim government and a transitional government in just the last year. This government that will be selected in this national election that takes place in about three weeks is expected to be in power for about four years. So it will provide a level of stability that to this point has not been there.
MR. WHITMAN: Let's go over to Brian here and then to Tony.
Q Sir, General, Brian Hartman with ABC News. As you know, there's this conference that had been going on in Egypt, and on the wires here they're saying that the Iraqi leaders have called for a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S.-led forces and said Iraq's opposition had a legitimate right of resistance. How do you react to that statement that these are Iraqi leaders, you're there -- your soldiers are there to -- are risking their lives to defend these folks, and they're saying that there is a legitimate right to resistance against what you're trying to accomplish there?
GEN. VINES: The coalition is here at the request of the Iraqi government. And I'm not familiar with the specific leaders that you're alluding to, so I can't comment on that. But we are here at the request of the Iraqi government.
MR. WHITMAN: Tony?
Q Sir, Tony Capaccio with Bloomberg News. I want to go back to one of the earlier questions about the political debate here. One of the constant themes is that if the U.S. pulls out, they would be obviously less targeted by the insurgency. Mr. Murtha of the House here says that the U.S. being there -- they're being targeted, so we need to pull out; the insurgency would collapse; Iraq could get on with its own life, so to speak. I mean, can you speak to that? What would be the military impact of pulling out within six months, at this point, thinking ahead?
GEN. VINES: I certainly am not going to comment on Representative Murtha, who's visited over here numerous times since I have been here. And he also visited in Afghanistan while I was there.
Currently, although Iraqi security forces are able to conduct operations in a large portion of their area with only limited or -- coalition support, they do require our support at this time. That support will be increasingly less over a period of time, but a precipitous pullout, I believe, would be destabilizing.
Q (Inaudible) -- in your words -- in your thinking it'd be six months versus like six weeks from now? Would that be more in the range of precipitous?
GEN. VINES: I'm not going to get into a timetable. It will be driven by conditions on the ground and keep in mind when the election is, and it will take a bit of time for the government to stand up and assume its responsibilities while we continue to develop the capability of the Iraqi army as well as the police, and it will be driven, of course, by the actions of insurgents on the ground as well. So I'm not going to speak to a specific timetable.
MR. WHITMAN: Let's go to Tom.
Q General, Tom Bowman with the Baltimore Sun. General Abizaid said last summer that the Iraqis could take the lead in the insurgency fight by next spring or summer, and the Senate resolution that passed envisioned the Iraqis assuming the lead in 2006, so American troops can start a phased withdrawal. I'm just wondering, you're talking about Iraqis being in the fight, but can they take the lead in 2006?
GEN. VINES: In a large part of Iraq they're in the lead already. They will -- it will be on an area-by-area basis depending on where those armed forces are. So in a big portion of the area they're already in the lead.
Q (Off mike) -- they won't be able to take the lead in the whole country in `06 is what you're saying?
GEN. VINES: Well, again, it will depend on a large range of things. And I think the single determinant will be the ability of the government to support its forces in the field, and they will require support in that area for some time in all probability. The Iraqi battalions, brigades, divisions, the ones that I interact with, are making excellent progress, however.
Q General, Tom Shanker from The New York Times. As you enter the final months of your tour there as MNC-I commander, I'd like for you to reflect back and tell us whether you think events on the ground required you to emphasize the security mission more than the democratization-reconstruction-political-development mission that you might have wanted to do. And as you prepare for TOA [transfer of authority] with General Chiarelli, when you have him into your office there at the palace for that handshake and handoff, what advice will give him about balancing or rebalancing the mission along those various lines in the year ahead.
GEN. VINES: Well, that is a great question. Keeping in mind that the responsibilities for governance and reconstruction are not uniquely military. This is part of our -- the overall coalition effort, the various nations that are present and the embassies. And the armed forces of the coalitions have responsibility in specific areas, and there's been an enormous amount done by them with regard to reconstruction, with regard to development of the functions of government. And the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which you may be familiar with, Tom, from Afghanistan, which some of us have some experience with, are an example of some of that. But there have been governance teams throughout the country. So there's been an enormous amount of work and effort done by our armed forces already, and the United States country team as well as other embassies are deeply involved in that, and will be increasingly so over the coming months and years.
MR. WHITMAN: Pam.
Q Thanks. General, this is Pam Hess with UPI. I was over there for two months this summer, but unfortunately, we didn't get to hook up. So consequently, I have a couple of questions, and hopefully we'll get to them.
On the matter of withdrawal, what's obviously more likely than a total withdrawal is a phased withdrawal that you talked about. Over there, the concerns that I heard from brigade and battalion commanders was we're finally at the point with Iraqi forces that we have enough boots on the ground to actually deny territory to these fighters. So they were very concerned that even a partial withdrawal would eat into the progress that they're starting to make now, particularly with clear-and-hold operations -- you need bodies for that. So could you address that issue? Many of them brought up to me the example of Mosul. And I understand that the change between the 101st and the next brigade that came in had a great deal to do with the maturing of the insurgency, but it also had something to do with the diminished number of troops there holding onto security. So can you talk about that and what risks you run with a partial withdrawal, and if these are valid concerns?
GEN. VINES: Well, certainly there's a requirement for security forces. But what is different is the capability of the Iraqi armed forces. Their capability is growing on a monthly basis. And there's no question that we need security forces, but what -- in my mind what we need are Iraqi security forces, and they're being fielded and they're increasingly capable. And they need to be in the lead. They are in the lead in a large part of the area, and they will continually -- continuingly, increasingly be in the lead.
So, yes, there is a legitimate concern about having enough forces. The question is not whether the forces are needed, the question is whose forces and what type forces. And I'm absolutely convinced that Iraqi security forces are the right forces because they are accepted by the Iraqi people as legitimately protecting their security interests. And so the Iraqi army, police and the various organs of their security forces are where we're moving increasingly.
MR. WHITMAN: We'll come back to you, but let's go to Bret, and we'll see if we can't get a few more of your questions after others have had a chance.
Q General Vines, Bret Baier with Fox. Can you give us an update on Operation Steel Curtain, and what's happening right now along the border, and if that clear-and-hold operation is really working in those towns that it seems so important to hold.
GEN. VINES: Well, as you know, Steel Curtain is still ongoing, although it is -- we believe that we've accomplished the vast majority of what needs to be done, with the exception -- we're still in a reconstruction phase in terms of some of the things that will -- to repair some of the damages that were inflicted by terrorists and insurgents, as well as the combat operations there.
But we -- indicators are that it is not a sanctuary for foreign fighters -- in some parts of it, they had sought to create a sanctuary; they'd -- they had sought to create their little area or their caliphate -- that we have killed a large portion of the leadership of the foreign fighters and terrorists that were out there; that it is no longer a line of communication where they can move along the Euphrates River Valley into the areas such as Hadithah, Hit, Ramadi, Fallujah, on toward Baghdad. And so we believe that there has been a great deal of success there.
There is a presence of Iraqi armed forces, the Iraqi army, in areas that they have not been before, an enduring presence. And we believe that that will provide for the stability and security of those areas, as well as areas to the east of it. So the initial indications are that it was very successful.
Q If I could follow up, sir, just some housecleaning: There was this raid in Mosul Saturday. We've heard from officials all over the place that Zarqawi was not inside. One, can you just sum up if there was a thought that he was there? Two, do you have a way to determine whether he has been killed, once you have a raid, that possibly he is there?
GEN. VINES: I am told that there is a DNA database of some of his relatives that is able to be compared against the -- some of those who were killed there. So my expectation is, were -- if he had been in one of those houses that were part of the objective, we could confirm that. I have no -- absolutely no reason to believe that he was one of those that were killed, however. It is possible, but I have no reason to believe it.
Q Are you closer today -- sorry. Are you closer today, or is the hunt more intensified, or can you just describe the hunt for Zarqawi?
GEN. VINES: Well, we follow up relentlessly every possible lead, because Zarqawi's shown absolutely no remorse about killing his fellow Jordanians, by claiming credit for attacks on a wedding party, for goodness sakes. He has shown absolutely no remorse about slaughtering his fellow Sunnis in Iraq, Shi'a. He will attack mosques and assemblies, and certainly he will slaughter security forces of Iraq and the coalition, if given the chance. So we follow up relentlessly every lead.
Q General, I wonder if you could speak to equipment issues. We hear a lot from Marines and the Army here that they're scrambling to make sure Iraq has the best equipment possible, leaving, sometimes, shortfalls in the U.S. Can you just speak to what specific challenges there are equipment- wise as you see it in Iraq? What's missing? What's low? What are you short of?
GEN. VINES: Well, a few of the things that we'd like to have more of are some of the tools that -- and unfortunately, because of their nature are classified and I can't talk about them specifically. But, obviously, we want the tools to be able to protect every soldier and Marine as they conduct their operations. We want to provide them the protection from improvised explosive devices which are, as you know, the primary tool by which the terrorists attack their own citizens as well as the Iraqi security forces and us. So the appropriate vehicles to protect our soldiers and Marines from that, as well as any measures to defeat these improvised explosive devices, we could use more of those. More are being fielded and they're being rapidly distributed.
Some of the folks on my staff were over here during the early phases of combat operation, and they're struck by the complete transformation of the equipment that's used now based on how the threat has changed. And so it's been an incredible effort by industry and the Department of Defense to ensure that our forces have the best available equipment. And so overall, they're doing a great job at that.
Q But in terms of, you know, maintenance of helicopters and humvees and that kind of thing, that's what I'm kind of -- was hoping you could just speak to us; how successful would you characterize the commanders there at maintaining that equipment?
GEN. VINES: Incredibly successful. I am struck by the young men and women out pulling maintenance out on the ramps in the cold and the dark and the heat and the dust, 24 hours a day. And they do it at a tempo that is about -- less than half -- it takes less than half as long to do it over here as it does in the United States. We're flying about four times as many hours per month with helicopters. And the fact that they're keeping them going at operational ready rates that exceed those in the United States is absolutely extraordinary. So it's a great effort by the Department of Defense, by industry and certainly the young men and women who are doing a heroic job under tough conditions here.
MR. WHITMAN: Bradley.
Q General, Bradley Graham from The Washington Post. One of the features of your command there this year has been the growing emphasis by U.S. forces on trying to attack the foreign fighter problem and the Zarqawi network in -- both in Anbar province and in the Northwest. Some people, as I'm sure you're aware, have questioned whether the military's putting too much emphasis on the foreign fighter and extremist element given the relative small number of them in comparison to the rest of the insurgency. Could you speak to that issue, please?
GEN. VINES: We do a very careful analysis of what we think the elements of the insurgency are, and certainly, one of the things that's heartening is the fact that Sunnis in increasing numbers are choosing the ballot box, rather than violence to pursue their objectives. And so it is clear to us that Sunnis, as a group, cannot and should not and must not be the targets of military operations. What we're trying to do is ensure that Zarqawi and the jihadists and Islamic extremists don't hide among elements of the population and attack the population as well as the security forces. And so we're attempting to defeat those jihadist elements, al Qaeda in Iraq, so that the Iraqi people can provide for their own security, and we think we're having success at that, Brad.
Q (Off mike) -- your measures of success at this point?
GEN. VINES: I'm sorry. I didn't catch that question.
Q What have been your measures of success, I mean, numbers of foreign fighters captured or killed?
GEN. VINES: No, we don't get into body counts and the like. Now, what we do see indicators of are the numbers of foreign fighters that are showing up in a variety of venues, and we believe those numbers are significantly less, perhaps is less than half as many as they were in the summer. So we see evidence that we're making considerable progress in that regard.
MR. WHITMAN: Kyle, go ahead.
Q General, along those lines, you talked about the progress that's being made, the Sunnis involved in the political process, large numbers of people voting, and now these statistics you just gave. But why haven't we sort of hit a turn around or a tipping point yet? The insurgency seems to be thriving with attacks, both large and small, almost every day. Why aren't more of the people turning against them and preventing them from operating? And did the invitation to former mid-level officers to rejoin the Army have any impact at all?
GEN. VINES: Well, I think it's certainly -- to take your last point first -- I think it's certainly too early to tell. In terms of Sunnis who were -- previously served, they're turning out in very large numbers, volunteering to serve in their armed forces, which is very heartening. They have skills that certainly are valuable. And beyond that, they need to feel like that they have an opportunity to participate in not only the day-to-day political life of Iraq, but also help provide for security. So I believe that is a step in the right direction.
And I think it would be a mistake to mischaracterize the fact that there has not been progress. I mean, the fact that the election in January had a level of violence that was a bit higher than what had been the norm; the referendum that was held in 15 October, the levels of violence were less than half of that. So I think that there was a significant change in the security climate in that period of time.
Q Do you have numbers? You mentioned large numbers -- numbers on the former officers applying to re-enlist?
GEN. VINES: I mean, it was in the thousands is the number that I have. I can ask our folks to go run it down for you. That is not -- I'm not involved in the recruitment of them when they -- I only use them as they -- they're assigned to the units. But I can have someone check that for you.
[According to the Multinational Security Transition Command -Iraq As of 20 Nov 2005, 3,769 officers of the former Iraqi military have applied at the six national recruiting centers and the Iraqi Ministry of Defense had accepted 2,662 of them for return. The recruiting drive is continuing into December and the expectation is that the goals will be exceeded. The recruitment effort is for officers of the former Iraqi military in the ranks Lieutenant to Major, who were not members of the Special Republican Guards or level 4 Baathists and above. Experience and professional competence, not ethnicity, are the focus of the recruitment effort.]
MR. WHITMAN: Let's go back to Pam for a minute.
Q Pam Hess again. You said that Sunnis are by and large not the target of your military operations, but that's all I actually saw when I was over there, and I was out pretty much every day with them. And could you also address the notion of the troop withdrawal being a question of policy, which automatically gives it some political overtones? There are lots of pressures here in Washington to bring back troops that have nothing to do with whether or not it's militarily recommended. The White House would like to bring some back to prove progress. Anti-war folks would like to bring some back to prove that they influence over this. The military would like to bring some back because it's putting a lot of stress on the troops. So how do we know when the policy comes out to withdraw, if it is, that it's based on military judgment rather than the political question?
GEN. VINES: Well, I will leave it to the people in Washington to explain that to you. I know that our recommendations will be based on conditions here in country, they will not be based on the things that you alluded to. So I'll leave someone else the responsibility to explain that one to you.
Earlier this year when you were here, the -- a sizeable portion of the insurgents were out of the Sunni populace. To say that they were, quote, "the only ones that you saw --" I mean, if you'll think back, in Najaf last year, for example, they were -- I mean, we were fighting some factions of Shi'a. I mean, the reality is further out west in Tall Afar there were elements that had a Turkomen flavor to it, and also -- as well as there were some Shi'a out there that were involved. So perhaps you did see elements or combat operations that were primarily directed against areas that had a -- predominantly Sunni. But they're not directed at Sunni as a sect, it is against insurgents.
MR. WHITMAN: Jeff, go ahead.
Q Hi, General. Jeff Schogol with Stars and Stripes. Can you say if you've war-gamed what would happen if an elected government asked U.S. troops to withdraw after December 15th elections? And if you have done such a war game, can you tell me what the results were?
GEN. VINES: Well, I could tell you whether or not we've war- gamed it, but I won't. It is our job to consider all the options. And I would be professionally derelict if I didn't attempt to provide my boss, General Casey, with courses of action and consider all of those. But to discuss it, I think would not be appropriate at this time.
MR. WHITMAN: Courtney?
Q General --
MR. WHITMAN: And Courtney, I think you're going to have to be the last one here.
Q General, it's Courtney Kube from NBC News. I just want to go back to this conference in Cairo. It was deemed a reconciliation conference. It was backed by the Arab League. There were about a hundred members of Iraqi leaders who were there at this conference, including Kurds, Shi'ites and Sunnis. And one of the things that they decided when -- their closing statement was that they're looking forward to the day when foreign forces will leave Iraq.
My question is, is this one -- a statement like this from Iraqi leaders -- is this something that you'll take into consideration when you're making these recommendations for troop withdrawal?
GEN. VINES: That -- I'm sure that recommendation will be made -- or will be considered by our policymakers. It will not be part of my calculus. My calculations will be based primarily on the threat on the ground, the capability of the Iraqi security forces and the ability of the Iraqi government to sustain them. Others will take that into consideration, as they should.
Q (Off mike) -- comment to these leaders who are asking for a timetable for withdrawal?
GEN. VINES: I don't give advice to elected leaders about policy issues. I'd -- my advice focuses on conditions here in the country.
MR. WHITMAN: And we have one clarifying comment from Charlie Aldinger, and we'll close.
Q General, I'd like to ask -- there's been a lot of publicity, negative publicity, given to the sad deaths of members of an Iraqi family apparently killed by U.S. troops this week. And I was wondering -- it's a very difficult situation for these troops to know or not know, when a car's approaching them, you know, whether or not there's danger involved. Has there been any talk this week about changing the rules of engagement or clarifying the rules of engagement, or have any advisories gone out from you and your staff on being more careful or how to be more careful on this?
GEN. VINES: The loss of any innocent life -- indeed, any life -- is tragic. But we continually evaluate and investigate those, the loss of each life, to determine whether or not the rules of engagement were applied correctly, whether or not the rules of engagement are still valid, whether additional training would have precluded the loss of innocent life, whether additional equipment will do that. So we continually assess that.
What we must never do is deprive a soldier in harm's way of the ability to protect himself and his fellow soldiers. And so we're not going to deprive them of that right, to make the decisions based on the threat they believe they have on the ground. So we will continue to do everything we can to provide them the best training that we can, the best equipment that we can and the rules of engagement that allow them to operate with maximum safety. And every incident is investigated, and we analyze whether or not we have done that. And we'll continue to do that.
Q Thank you.
Q Bryan, can I ask --
MR. WHITMAN: No, you can't, actually.
General, we've already surpassed our time here. Let me turn it back to you, see if you have anything you'd like to say before we bring this to a close.
GEN. VINES: I am struck, in this holiday season, by the enormous sacrifice of the young men and women over here -- the things that they're doing on a daily basis on our behalf, as a nation; the complexity of the task of helping develop the Iraqi security forces fighting an insurgency, helping development -- develop a government, helping to reconstruct a country devastated by over 30 years of war and oppression. And they are absolutely magnificent.
And I believe, in a very direct way, they're helping to provide for the security and safety of our fellow citizens back in the United States. And I believe there's a direct linkage between the security of our citizens back in the United States and what goes on here in Iraq, because those jihadists, those terrorists that seek to impose their will on Iraq -- the U.S. is an archenemy, and they would like to use Iraq as a base from which to strike us. And those young men and women in harm's way here recognize that, and I think they are committed to the fight. And we owe them a debt of gratitude, and it is my high honor to serve with them.
Thank you. Happy Thanksgiving.
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