Moderator: Bryan Whitman, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs
MR. WHITMAN: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and thanks for joining us today.
Once again we have the privilege of having Lieutenant General Lance Smith, who's the deputy commander of U.S. Central Command, here in town for a few meetings, and he's been kind enough each time he's been here to spend a little time with you. He's going to give you a brief update of the Central Command AOR and take some of your questions.
So with that, let's get right into it.
GEN. SMITH: Good morning, everybody. Good to see you all again.
Q (Off mike.)
GEN. SMITH: (Laughs.) No, this is important stuff. And actually, I think we've -- you know, there's some good news out there, which isn't always out there, so this one is not so painful, unless you all make it really painful.
We do have some good things that have happened in the last several months in our area of responsibility -- I mean, you know, from the peace treaty between Sudan, the north and the south, and we'll see how that gets implemented. But you know, that's a step in the right direction. No resolution on Darfur; we still worry about that, but certainly that's good for Sudan.
Some movement on the transitional government into Somalia, which is important to us because it's ungoverned space right now and it's a ready safe haven for terrorists, and we worry about that.
There are some tensions between Eritrea and Ethiopia right now as far as the border control and who owns Bodme and some of the other areas up there, and that is yet to be resolved. And we are hoping that they will sit down and talk and come to some resolution on that, but we don't see anything, any immediate action.
In the central Asian states, Pakistan continues its efforts, even though the weather's very bad, to at least -- to go after al Qaeda on their side, and we see them moving into north Waziristan region as well as some other areas. And as you know, they've been very effective in south Waziristan, and so we're looking for good things from them through the winter and into the spring when activity starts to increase.
Afghanistan continues along the -- I think the good road they've been going on since the election. Not much going on in Afghanistan right now because the weather's been so bad for the last couple of weeks, currently hindering the rescue and recovery operations with the Kam aircraft, or (Kam) Air Number 904. I think last night they put another meter of snow on top of that wreckage, so we don't know when we're actually going to get in there and start recovering bodies. But we're trying to provide as much support as we can to the government of Afghanistan and to ISAF, who is doing a lot of the rescue operations.
So -- but Afghanistan is doing well, and they prepare for elections, parliamentary elections. Probably early summer is about the earliest they'll be able to do them. There was some conjecture that they'd do it in April/May time frame before. It now looks like probably not earlier than June. But that's for the government to determine.
A lot to be done as far as identifying procedures and getting those procedures out and getting the boundaries drawn in all that. So -- but we hope to see something this summer in the way of elections.
We still feel very good about the elections in Iraq. We -- our commanders in the field are telling us that they have seen some level of attitude change within the country, all very positive.
That's not to say, as you all know, that violence has stopped. We see violence sort of at the pre-election levels right now, although the focus is -- appears to be right now on the Iraqi security forces and civilians, and the civilians in many cases are not just civilians in the street, but those civilians that are around Iraqi recruiting stations, either in lines to sign up -- which we have seen a good surge in after the elections. So that appears to be who they're focused on, not so much the coalition forces right now.
And we -- I understand today there has been a delay of some sort in announcing some of the election results, because they're going to go back and do some recounts on some of the ballot boxes. I don't have details on that and what's causing that to occur. But we still hope that some level of announcement will come out by the middle of the month, by the 15th, but nothing firm on that.
But we think that the attitude change that we've seen is twofold in Iraq. And of course it's not totally across the board. But the Iraqi security forces acquitted themselves very well during the election. I think they feel good about it. So there is a level of self-confidence out there that maybe they didn't have before. And then, at the same time, I think there's a -- we see some pride on the part of the Iraqi people for the performance of the Iraqi security forces. So there is some, you know, beginning levels of mutual trust between the security forces themselves and the people. And that's critical to our ability to get in and make sure that there's a viable Iraqi security force so that we can at some point in time draw down our forces and come home.
I'm ready to take any questions.
Q General, when do you think you'll get down to 135,000, back down to the -- there's some question about -- that it's doubtful it will be in March, like you promised, but probably in early summer.
GEN. SMITH: Yeah, I suspect -- I won't tie it to a number. But you know what we did was we extended two brigades through the March time frame to get through the elections, just like we did in Afghanistan during the elections last year. And we expect those folks will come home. We're in the middle of a turnover of authority right now. And the numbers -- there's always a bad -- you get in a bad thing when you get into numbers. But we are on our way down to pre- election numbers that measure between 17 and 18 brigades. So I can't tell you an exact date, but there's no reason for me to believe that that's not going to occur as planned.
Q Well, what's the total number today? You were at about 130 --
GEN. SMITH: Today it's 153,300-something, or maybe 153,800, but between 153,000 and 154,000 today. I mean, yesterday it was 151,000- something; tomorrow it could be 151,000. It's -- you know, you got people going in and people going out in large numbers. But a little over 150,000 now.
Q Sir, just to clarify -- sorry. You said you expect to get down to the pre-election numbers. Is it safe to say in the springtime or are you looking --
GEN. SMITH: I'd say springtime. There's no reason for me to believe that those two brigades that we extended won't come home on time, which was about the March time frame.
Q Sir, when you mentioned earlier that Iraq violence is, roughly, at pre-election levels now, do you mean that it's gone down or that it stayed the same as what it was before -- during the elections?
GEN. SMITH: It's about what it was prior to the elections. Although if you look at the numbers in the last couple of days, I think yesterday it was somewhere between 30 and 40 significant activities. And, you know, we've been averaging about 40 post- election, the way we count them. I mean, people count them different, but the numbers are about where they were before we got into the pre- election violence. That's probably a better comment.
Q It went up and now it's gone down?
GEN. SMITH: It went up significantly and -- election day there was -- you know, it was painted in many cases, because we were so focused on the election, that the activity did not increase. But the fact is, activity did increase during the elections and --
Q How many attacks were there?
GEN. SMITH: In the neighborhood of 200 to 300. And so it was, you know, again, it depends on how you count and what period you count, but there was a significant amount of activity on election day.
Q It's too early to establish a trend, of course, but the U.S. casualty figures have been remarkably lower since the election. Are U.S. forces as aggressively pursuing insurgents, or are they moving over more to a training and advisory role?
GEN. SMITH: We have not moved over to a training and advisory role in significant numbers that would impact a trend like that. I mean, certainly our goal, as we're able, as conditions permit, is to move more towards training and mentoring, but we're not at that point yet. We continue offensive operations to go after these guys. We are getting a significant amount of help from Iraqi citizens, where they're pointing out IEDs. We have done some mitigation of convoy traffic by using aircraft to move goods that might otherwise be on the road and vulnerable to IEDs. So there's a whole lot of things that are coming together that hopefully will help us defend against the IEDs.
Q You talk about the attitude change of the Iraqi people or perhaps the Iraqi security forces. Have you seen any change -- it doesn't sound like it -- in terms of attacks with the insurgents since the election? Do you feel like you made a difference or the elections made a difference? Do you think --
GEN. SMITH: I think so. You know, that'll be hard for us to gauge, but it's not just the elections that made a difference. We have very aggressively gone after the insurgents, and we've been very effective in taking out leadership and in rolling up some of the bad actors that are out there. It's hard for me to throw numbers at you, but because -- we capture, you know, almost 100 -- and please, this number is really soft -- you know, 100 or so folks every night. Some of those we release and others we -- you know, we retain, and that's part of the insurgency.
We have been very effective against senior leadership of particularly Zarqawi network, who's taken credit for a lot of these significant suicide attacks in the last couple of days, and we have taken out some former regime element leadership. And so we think we've been effective in that regard, and now we're hoping that the attitude of the people is such that the recruiting base for the insurgents is diminishing. And if we can continue with that momentum, which is no small task, we think they are going to have some problems continuing the operations tempo that they had and that they'd like to continue.
Q Can you talk about that recruiting base and how they were recruiting? What was attractive to people, or was it largely intimidation?
GEN. SMITH: I think it's --
Q Or how were they gaining any kind of popular support or still are?
GEN. SMITH: I think it's a combination of all of the above. There is a segment of society out there -- and again, this oftentimes depends on who we're talking about, whether it's the former regime elements or the extremist elements or what you might call the Islamists or the Muqtada Sadr kind of folks. And all of them have different reasons for doing the things that they're doing.
But in many cases -- in most cases it's some feeling of disenfranchisement, whether it's because they're former Ba'athists and don't see a role for them in the future of Iraq; or whether it's the extremists, who have this vision of grand caliphate, a turn back to the old days of a Taliban-like society with Sharia law. We're not sure what motivates Muqtada Sadr's folks.
But there's also a large criminal element out there that is just out there doing things for money. And their motivations are mixed. Some are ideologues. Many, we think, are doing this for money. You know: Here's 200 bucks, here's an RPG, go out and shoot somebody in a coalition or something like that.
So, very mixed. But there is a large -- I mean, you know, until we get the economic engine going in Iraq, we're going to continue having some problems and giving them an obvious recruiting base to recruit from.
Q Just one tiny follow-up. Might not the Ba'athists -- might not the elections have exacerbated the problems with the --
GEN. SMITH: It depends, doesn't it. I mean, the elections themselves, I think not. I think what happens in the aftermath of elections will be what tells them whether or not they're going to be included or not. And so as the National Assembly is put together and the presidency is appointed and the prime minister, the Sunni are going to have to take a look at that and see if they feel like they're going to be included and if they have a future in the planning of the constitution. And so the people that are out there doing that are the ones that are going -- or that are in the elected positions or appointed positions are going to have to be the ones that decide that.
Q Sir, you touched a little bit on this before. You said that you're getting a significant amount of help from the Iraqi people in finding IEDs. Are you getting other tips, intelligence tips? And are the folks in the Sunni Triangle coming around and delivering those tips?
GEN. SMITH: Yes. Now, all the information we have when we say that is anecdotal. But in Fallujah, for instance, there are Iraqis that are Fallujans, that are clearly Sunni, that are pointing out caches, some significant ones, of weapons. There are people in Fallujah and Samarra and other places that have pointed out bad actors of some sort, whether they're extremists or former regime elements. And then there are others that are pointing out IEDs and taking us to IEDs. To try and compare that before election and where it is now would be difficult, but I think the commanders feel that they're seeing more of that than we saw previously.
Q Can I switch gears to a different country for a minute? We've seen so many statements out of the government in Tehran in recent days and weeks about their leadership warning the United States not to attack Iran or its nuclear program, and certainly we've seen a number of statements from this administration, including the secretary, about military policy regarding that. What can you tell us about to explain and clarify the planning work that goes on at the U.S. Central Command vis-a-vis military options for Iran? Are you in a heightened state of planning?
GEN. SMITH: We are not.
Q What can you tell us?
GEN. SMITH: What we are doing right now, our focus is on the day-to-day operations, the tactical operation, and I'm talking in regards Iran. Our focus is on what are they doing, you know, to try and influence what's going on in Iraq. And we are seeing, you know, mixed activity there; some support, we think, for Muqtada Sadr, some support in the political regime for their favorites that they hope will be in the National Assembly and those folks that they hope will influence the future government of Iraq. We're seeing the same thing to a smaller degree in Afghanistan.
As far as the planning efforts, we simply go through our normal mode of updating whatever war plans we have for all parts of our region. And you know, although I haven't paid particular attention to the Iran piece, we are in that process, that normal process, of updating our war plans.
But I'm not spending any of my time worrying about the nuclear proliferation in Iran. At this stage, it seems to me that the diplomatic efforts that Secretary Rice is engaged with and what she's doing in her discussions with the European allies is adequate for our needs.
Q And I'm so sorry, but just to make crystal clear, when you say we are updating our normal plans, you would be doing that anyhow?
GEN. SMITH: We would be doing that anyhow.
Q Do you mean for the entire region, sir? I'm sorry, just --
GEN. SMITH: For the entire region. I mean, you know, we're the military. We plan everything. And you know, and we do that. We have a requirement on a regular basis to update plans. We try to keep them current, particularly if -- you know, if our region is active. But I haven't been called into any late-night meetings at, you know, 8:00 at night, saying, "Holy cow, we got to sit down and go plan for Iran."
Q But you're updating that war plan, as well as the rest of them?
GEN. SMITH: That -- I would say yes. And my specific knowledge on exactly what we -- what our planners are working on in our long- term plans on a day-to-day basis is certainly less than it is on our current operations.
GEN. SMITH: Yes, sir?
Q Yeah. I have two questions, please. My first question is, the interior minister in Iraq said yesterday that the Iraqi troops have captured eight militants from the Hezbollah. And he said that the biggest danger now is not from Syria, is from Iran. That's my first question.
GEN. SMITH: I'm unaware of that particular Hezbollah attack -- I mean capture. But we have always been concerned about Iran's intentions in Iraq, and we have also had some difficulty following them. I personally do not believe that Hezbollah has suddenly become a bigger threat than al Qaeda or former regime elements. If we were going to try and characterize the threat that we'd concern ourselves with in Iraq, I think General Casey would agree that his biggest concern in the long term is the former regime elements and their ability to --
Q But don't you think that this is the first time we have an official statement from Iraq saying that we captured eight from Hezbollah? I mean, this is the first time since two years on --
GEN. SMITH: I can't -- I don't know that to be a fact. I mean, I think we've gotten other Hezbollah folks or some people with a relationship to Hezbollah. But I just don't know.
Q Okay. My second question is, what do you have -- where do you think that Ibrahim Douri, the number two in the former Iraqi regime, is now?
GEN. SMITH: I don't know --
Q And we have some reports say that he's in Syria.
GEN. SMITH: Yeah.
Q I mean --
GEN. SMITH: The report you get on that is as good as the report I have on that. I don't know. As you know, you know, he is high on our high-value target list. We would like to get a hold of him. We've heard -- we have anecdotal information as well that he's in Syria. We've also heard, you know, reports that he's elsewhere. I don't think it's an Elvis reporting, but I mean, there -- but these guys don't just necessarily sit still. So it's very possible that he could be going back and forth between Syria and some safe haven inside Iraq. And not only is that possible, it's probably likely.
And I shouldn't even say Syria. I mean, he could be going back and forth, you know, into Iran as well. I just --
Q Do you think it's easy for him to cross the border from Syria to Iraq?
GEN. SMITH: I don't think it's easy, but I think it is doable. You know, we have not shut down those -- the borders, you know, so that it is absolutely tight. We're working on border patrol, special training for the border patrol. We've got one battalion of Syrians -- I mean of Iraqis that have moved out on the Syrian border. We have our own troops out there that are patrolling.
But this is an area where they've been smuggling through there for 2,000 years, and there's lots of wadis and all that other stuff that you can -- I mean, remember we tried to shut down Fallujah, and we still had people going in and out of Fallujah using covert means. So a very difficult problem, but he can probably move.
Let me get over here. Yes, ma'am?
Q Could you go back to IEDs for a minute? Secretary Rumsfeld says that by February 15th, you expect to have all of the vehicles operating off of bases armored. What, exactly, does that mean in terms of --
GEN. SMITH: It means some level of armor; not the level of armor that we would necessarily like to have right now. We would like and we are shooting for a situation in Iraq where everybody has either level one or level two armor. That means that it is either built into the system when the vehicle is produced, whatever the vehicle happens to be, or it is the major addition of armor that includes putting a generator on the engine, putting air conditioning in, protecting on top and underneath, the 360 kind of stuff. But the February 15th number includes a certain amount of level three armor, which is the add-on armor, which is less effective than some of the other. And I think we will meet that goal. Every indication I've got is we will meet the goal.
This, by the way, is not so new. Well before the press conference, a month before the press conference that generated all the interest in this, our primary logistic support agency, up in LSA Anaconda, was already not letting any of their trucks off the installation without being armored. And General Schoomaker and the land component commander down in Kuwait had already instituted procedures that nobody going out of Kuwait up into -- up-ranges, as we would say it, into Iraq, was going to go without some level of armor.
Q What about getting armored vehicles for Iraqi security forces?
GEN. SMITH: They do have some. We continue in the building of training and equipping, and we continue to move level three kind of armor up there to armor the vehicles that they want to have armored. But I can't give you exact numbers right now because I don't know. But we're going to have to go --
Q They're driving some -- (off mike) -- stuff too, right?
GEN. SMITH: Oh, yeah. They're driving stuff, some of it, that, you know, we're going to have to go look at how you roll the steel and how you add it on and do the other things where it's necessary.
Q Once the election results are announced in Iraq, what sort of security concerns do you have for the members of the 275-member National Assembly? And what security is planned for them, both individually and as a group that will be meeting to select the president, the vice president, prime minister, and start drafting the constitution?
GEN. SMITH: I can't give you the specifics that you'd like because it's a -- it is an Iraqi problem. They are going to pick up responsibilities for the 275. We, in turn, once they appoint and announce what we call the level-one leadership, the same folks who we're providing personal security for right now -- the prime minister, the president, two vice presidents -- we will have some responsibilities there as well for the new leadership. How long we're going to have those responsibilities is really up to how we negotiate between us and the Iraqi government and when they think they have capable enough people to take on that responsibility themselves, which I fear will -- you know, that's a very difficult job and we've got some folks who are very good at it, and so there is a reluctance to let us walk away from it. But we will continue to do it until they are ready.
Q How big of a concern is their personal security, given the history that --
GEN. SMITH: I think significant. And when they meet, we will do the same things that we did before in trying to provide, you know, an Iraqi face on it so -- and I shouldn't say it that way. It's not an Iraqi face; it is, no kidding, Iraqi capability that would provide whatever rings of security you need to protect the National Assembly as they meet. And then we would provide appropriate quick-reaction forces if it were needed.
Now I'm getting a little ahead of General Casey on this. You know, he's got plenty of time right now to -- not plenty of time, but he's got plans. He's working with the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense on how they're going to do it in that particular instance.
Let me get -- yes, sir?
Q General, can you tell us anything about the crash of the British C-130?
GEN. SMITH: Yeah, I wish I could.
Q More broadly, can you speak a little bit about where you see the trend lines with attacks on coalition aircraft, particularly using shoulder-held weapons? Where are we going with those?
GEN. SMITH: Yeah, I don't see anything particularly new in the Man-Portable Air Defense Systems -- MANPADS -- thing out there. I'm not -- you know, this is strictly personal opinion; they're going through the process right now. I don't believe that that airplane went down from a missile. I personally do not, simply because an SA-7 is a very small warhead. You know, the airplane has four engines. It goes after a heat source on the engine. And if it took down -- took out one engine, there's no reason for me to believe that the airplane should have crashed. He should have been able to land.
Now it was in a critical stage of flight, so I may be wrong, but we believe pretty firmly -- I ought to have our intel guys doing this, but I'm pretty confident that the tapes that they showed on Al-Jazeera were bogus. It just didn't -- nothing looked right in it. I've never seen anything like this light thing that you punch a button and all of a sudden a missile comes off of a -- you know, a trans -- or trans- loader -- yeah, transporter-erector.
Q Could you just clarify what you said when you said you don't believe it went down from a missile? Are you specifically saying from a shoulder-fired missile, or are you ruling out all missiles --
GEN. SMITH: I am saying I personally do not think that a missile took it out of the site.
Q I'm asking, sir, just to make sure we understand when you say you don't think a missile -- certainly there are other things besides shoulder-fired missiles. There could have been a radar --
GEN. SMITH: It could have been --
Q -- a radar-guided missile --
GEN. SMITH: That would be a more likely scenario if we had seen indications that there might be radar missiles out there. And --
Q So you have looked at all your radar tapes, all your SIGINT, all your telemetry, and you see no -- nothing on any of those that indicate a missile --
GEN. SMITH: I'm not part of that investigation, and so the investigation is ongoing. And they will make those determinations.
All I'm saying is that my experience with -- particularly SA-7s and stuff, make it unlikely that it was a shoulder-fired SAM. If they had an operational radar-fired SAM -- I mean, that is in the realm of possibility, I suppose. But there are other likely scenarios, whether it's a small-arms fire that hits something in the rear or, you know, a lucky shot from an RPG -- there are just so many scenarios. The one that seems least likely to me, because I think it would have been seen, is the MANPAD one.
Q May I just ask you then: Has the U.S. government now shared with the British government all the relevant information it has?
GEN. SMITH: I'm sorry, you're asking the wrong -- I just don't know. But I cannot imagine that we have not -- that U.K. particularly -- we don't hold anything back, especially in these sorts of things.
Q And again, your personal opinion, since you're offering it -- do you have any reason to believe it was some sort of mechanical or accidental failure? Do you believe it was hostile action?
GEN. SMITH: I think that the qualifications of the crew, the place that they were at, some of the reporting that we have from people that may have observed this -- and that's a big "may," by the way, because you never know who the folks are -- I personally think that there may have been either hostile action or something could have happened inside the aircraft, but I doubt that it was mechanical in nature, if you know what I mean.
Q Are you suggesting an on-board explosive?
GEN. SMITH: I just don't know. There are more likely scenarios to me than an SA-7 going after the engine, but I've been surprised before. I was surprised the DHL aircraft that took the hit took the hit in the wing, not the engine. So I sort of back down on my credentials on -- on this stuff.
Q And the reports of ground fire are from U.S. military personnel who were there?
GEN. SMITH: I'm not sure, but there are reports of ground fire that I believe the investigators are now looking at.
Q Thank you, General.
Before you have to leave, you said earlier that offensive operations continue; the military hasn't taken on a greater training or advisory role at this point. So is it safe to say that the role of the U.S. military today is the same as it was January 29th? And if that's the case, when do you expect to start seeing this next phase that President Bush talked about?
GEN. SMITH: Yeah, I'd say that probably the role of the U.S. military today is about the same as it was on 29 January, as long as you're not going to quibble with me about small numbers. You know, a battalion could have moved over into the training mode and away from something else.
I don't know. You just need to know that our goal is to turn over more and more of the responsibilities, particularly inside the cities, to the Iraqi security forces and move more in the training and mentoring role, and the enemy has a vote in that effort. And so it's conditions based -- just like any thoughts of drawing down the force or withdrawing will be dependent on the conditions that exist out there.
MR. WHITMAN: Okay. Thank you, sir.
GEN. SMITH: Thank you all.
MR. WHITMAN: Thanks a lot.
Q Thank you, General.
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