(Participating were Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy director of operations, Combined Joint Task Force 7, and Dan Senor, senior advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority.)
Senor: Good morning. Welcome to free Iraq. We're going to keep this kind of loose and just answer your questions. I don't know if you have any opening statement you want to --
Kimmitt: Why don't we just jump right into Q&A. We're happy to answer any of your questions.
Q: Can you tell us anything about, apparently there is a story in the New York Times this morning that the Iraqis, and I'm sorry I don't know exactly who, are now saying they will not sign anything in terms of an agreement to keep U.S. forces here after I guess the June 30th transition. And bring us up to date on where you go now that the caucus plan essentially is dead.
Senor: There are a few key pillars of the November 15th agreement that included handover of sovereignty on June 30th, which is intact. It included the passage of a transitional administrative law by the end of February. That appears to be on track. Our discussions with the Governing Council have indicated they're making a lot of progress and they believe by February 28th they will have a document, which will include a bill of rights and address a number of these other issues about an interim constitution, if you will, address issues such as federalism, separation of powers and all the other structures going forward until there's a governing constitution.
The caucus system is certainly subject to change at this point. I saw the New York Times report today about the Governing Council expressing interest in addressing the future status of U.S. security forces once there is a sovereign government in place. We'll look into it. We'll have discussions with them. But I don't think anybody should have any misunderstandings here.
The Iraqi Governing Council, whether they want to negotiate the status of U.S. forces here now or later I think there's a pretty strong consensus that they want U.S. forces here going forward.
As one Governing Council member, Jalal Talibani said at the signing of the November 15th agreement, he at the time was the President of the Iraqi Governing Council. He said basically that the status of U.S. forces post-sovereignty, post-June 30th, would shift from being occupiers to invited guests. The point was he wanted them invited.
Now whether you're talking to Iraqi political leaders or you're talking to Iraqis on the street, the consensus is there's a role for U.S. forces here.
My understanding is that Secretary Rumsfeld has said that he doesn't want U.S. forces anywhere where they're not welcome, and Iraq is certainly a place that they will be welcomed.
It's interesting, if you look at the polling, the polling in this country is quite rudimentary, we understand that. But if you look at the polling it's pretty consistent. The polling says three things over and over and over. The overwhelming majority of Iraqis are grateful for the liberation. They're glad Saddam is gone. Something 95, 96, 97 percent. The foil, if you will, to the election results Saddam used to get.
The second thing we hear over and over is they don't like the occupation. They want the occupation to end. That makes sense to us. There's nothing nice about being occupied. There's nothing nice about being an occupier.
Thirdly what they say is they don't want the U.S. -- the coalition forces -- to leave. They're concerned about the security situation in the event that we depart. So the last two are sort of paradoxical there. On the one hand they want the occupation to end, on the other hand they want the coalition forces to stay. But in does in a sense reflect where we think things are going. That is they want political sovereignty and they're going to get political sovereignty on June 30th as outlined in the November 15th agreement. But they also want some presence of U.S. security forces here in order to address security problems going forward.
Q: As you sit here today, you acknowledge that the existing caucus plan is not going to be the one that happens. You've all said now that that is going to change. What alternatives now are beginning to shape up to you that look reasonable and likely to win the acceptance that they need to win? (Inaudible.) an alternative to the caucus plan.
Senor: The Secretary General, and I won't want to get out in front of him, the Secretary General of the United Nations has said from Tokyo that he expects to be making some recommendations very shortly, in fact it could be as soon as today, about possible recommended alternatives to the caucus plan. We are open, we welcome their input. The U.N. has tremendous expertise in this area. They have done a lot of work on elections and constitutions development and related areas around the world, specifically in the developing world. We consulted a number of independent organizations on this issue. We're looking forward to hearing what the U.N. says.
I don't want to get out front and start speculating on if the U.N. said X, how would we feel about X? If the U.N. said Y, what would our reaction be to Y?
Q: Is there anything that would not be acceptable?
Senor: I don't want to go down that path. We're looking forward to the U.N.'s recommendation. Then we'll engage once we get time to take a look at it and digest it.
Q: Can you describe how you think the process will work to reach some sort of accord, whether a formal SOFA or memorandum or something to formalize the relationship, military-to-military in general. And can you give us your military assessment about what would be required in that Status of Forces Agreement or memorandum or whatever it is.
Kimmitt: Even though the issue about the role of U.S. forces in Iraq, post-June 30th, was raised in the November 15th agreement, it was our understanding all along that the Department of Defense would take the lead on working with the emerging Iraqi government or future Iraqi government on defining that. So I really would refer you to the individual you're traveling with today to get into that.
The coalition, the CPA, Ambassador Bremer will not be in the lead on negotiating that. That's something the Department of Defense will be taking up.
Senor: And Tom, regarding the question about what would be required, it really goes back to what our mission will be in the post-July 1 environment. Unless there is a dramatic shift in the mission set, we would expect to have a SOFA that allows us to continue operations much the same as we're running now. A SOFA will lay out clear guidance on use of force. Obviously the issue of self defense won’t come into play here. Freedom of movement, where we can operate, how we can operate.
But we aren't going to speculate on what the SOFA will have in it. It's just important that the SOFA and the mission set for us to do correlate very, very well so there's no mismatch between what we're asked to do and what we're permitted to do.
Q: What if the post June 30th Iraqi government expresses a lot of unwillingness to see a continued largescale U.S. military presence?
Kimmitt: Secretary Rumsfeld has been clear on this. He has indicated that he doesn't want U.S. forces anywhere where they're not welcomed by the host country. We're not going to engage in speculation. It's a very fluid situation. But here, as I said, is what we do know. The Iraqi Governing Council, the overwhelming majority has indicated that they want a role for U.S. forces in Iraq post June 30th. Iraqi leaders across the country at the provincial level, everywhere we go, recognize the need for a role for U.S. forces post June 30th. And if you look at the polling, Iraqis on the street, they are quite clear on this issue.
You yourself, I'd encourage you while you're here, talk to Iraqis and ask them the question. What do you think about U.S. forces leaving? All 100,000-plus leaving on June 30th, how do you feel about that? I think you will get a unanimous please don't go because they recognize that there is a role here and they recognized what we recognize, which is that Iraq is now the central front in the war on terrorism. A number of organizations, some with ties to al Qaeda, have decided to stake their ground in Iraq. Against that backdrop while Iraqi security forces are increasing in number dramatically, well over 150,000 Iraqis in security positions today, there is still an important role for the U.S. military in helping to stabilize the situation.
Q: Has there been a significant change in the role of foreign forces or terrorist organizations? The Secretary has been talking a little bit more about that saying that al Qaeda was definitely involved. Have you seen in the intelligence here much of a change over the last couple of months?
Senor: Particularly in the wake of the capture of Saddam Hussein, the amount of time we're spending attacking former regime elements, the amount of threat they have been posing, has been going down and down.
In November we were getting roughly, somewhere on the order of 50 attacks against coalition troops on a daily basis. We're down to about 20, 15 to 20 per day. I think in the last 24 hours it was about 18.
While those threats have begun to diminish at present we've also started to see a rise on what we would call more terrorist type of operations. Rather than gunfights between paramilitaries and our forces, we're seeing a lot more of what we saw this morning in Kirkuk. A DDID going up to a police station and exploding.
With regards to whether they're external or internal terrorists, there's still a lot of determination being worked on that. Clearly we have acknowledged since the capture of Hassan Ghul that there is some measures of al Qaeda presence here in the country. There also is some measure of Ansar Al Islam inside the country. There also are some people such as Zarkawi that we think are sort of freelance franchise terrorist organizations out there trying to pull some of these terrorist organizations inside the country.
So to directly answer your question we are starting to be as concerned about the terrorist threat I believe as we have been about the former regime elements over the past year.
Q: The Kirkuk incident, we've sort of been in the bubble and haven't --
Kimmitt: At 8:45 this morning a white Oldsmobile was seen coming towards the gates of a police station in North Central Kirkuk. It exploded. We don't know if it was a suicide or if anybody got out of the vehicle and ran away, but we do know it was a car bomb. We believe there were, at this point the reports we have, four civilians killed not associated with the police department, and ten wounded. We had coalition forces responded with their quick reaction force. They're on-site right now helping with the process. But the lead right now is being taken by the Iraqi police service. They're providing the cas-evac, the medical attention on site.
Those numbers, of course, could change and probably will change over the next couple of hours but one of the last things I did before coming down to this meeting was call the people in Kirkuk, or the [response force] in Kirkuk and can you give us the most recent numbers. At that point they had four civilians dead, ten civilians injured. Not associated with the police department. No coalition killed or wounded.
Kimmitt: With regards to the ongoing transition we're probably about halfway there for the coalition overall and about 40 percent there in U.S. troops. We've already rotated the commands of Multinational Division Southeast, Multinational Division Central South, and as you know the 101st. So three of the six divisions have gone through the full transfer of authority. We're now working in the 4th Infantry Division sector. The 173rd from Italy has departed. A second brigade, 25th Infantry Division, has conducted TOA with them. We're now continuing the transfer of authority within the 4th ID region and we're going to start seeing it over in the 82nd region, then finishing up with the 1st Armored Division here in Baghdad.
It's going well. The logisticians have done a brilliant job in terms of the planning. It's been a little disruptive, as you might imagine, to the civilians on the roads as hundreds and thousands of vehicles and personnel are coming in and out, but we've been talking to the civilians and we've been talking to the Iraqi press to try to manage this as well as possible.
We have not seen any directed threat aimed at any of the incoming or outgoing units. It's always something that we take as a given that the most vulnerable time for a unit is around TOA. So as you can imagine, we add extra force protection measures. We're a little more vigilant. And up to this point, we have not seen in any of the transfer of authorities, either in the activities or the actual ceremonies themselves, that there has been any increased activity. But we stay vigilant.
Kimmitt: I suspect that after the first couple of convoys started, and there were a couple of IED and small arms fires attacks, when the enemy saw how quick we were to respond both on the ground and from the air, and how quick they recognized that these troops were not declaring victory, holstering their weapons, and just driving out drinking soda pops, but in fact those troops as they were going down out of the country were treating that as a combat convoy, they realized that it was not in their best interest to try to attack those convoys. That's what we've seen since then.
Q: You mentioned (Inaudible.) and Zarkawi. Aside from them is there any other specific piece of evidence that indicates to you al Qaeda presence in this country?
Kimmitt: We have not seen any people show their al Qaeda membership cards and directly admit that they're members of al Qaeda. When you take a look at tactics that are used, when you look at techniques that are used, you look at procedures that are used -- For example, the other day at Al Harrah when you saw one of the vehicles trying to ram the gate, so that he could blow the gate so that a second vehicle could come right behind it and attack into a dormitory area. That is something that we have seen before with al Qaeda and al Qaeda associates. So can we actually say we have card-carrying al Qaeda in this country? No. Do we have enough evidence to suggest that there is a presence? If not in actual membership but in terms of people that have trained with al Qaeda, affiliated with al Qaeda, using al Qaeda techniques? Yeah, we've seen quite a bit of that.
Kimmitt: I'm sorry?
Kimmitt: We have. They're coming from, we would expect from the main area of al Qaeda which is the Afghanistan/Pakistan area, but as you know, al Qaeda is a worldwide organization so they could be coming from most anywhere, and they could be hiring local affiliates as well.
Q: Have you located (Inaudible.) that you think may have infiltrated through the Afghan/Pakistan, from that region?
Kimmitt: Again, we have a number of detainees that hold foreign passports. We can't directly attribute them to membership in al Qaeda. We have strong suspicions, but we have a number of [lat] lines that come into these country, we call them geographical lat lines that would allow them to come in this country through some of the bordering areas, and they could have used any of those to come in.
Q: (Inaudible.) pre-war network that was described that Zarkawi had inside Baghdad and outside of the Kurdish area? Any of those guys been locked up?
Kimmitt: We continue to go after Ansar Al Islam. We continue to go after all the terrorists. We're making some measurable progress in going after the terrorists inside the country.
Q: Have you seen some, now that you're beginning to spend some of this $18.6 billion supplemental money, have you seen an increase or any change in attacks on infrastructure or any of the non-military organizations that are here during reconstruction?
Senor: Here's what we've seen. I'll take the electricity infrastructure, for instance. Because of resources we're deploying, we are able to increase the security along the electrical lines and therefore -- Keep in mind, last time you were here and you saw a large number of attacks against electrical infrastructure. There were virtually no security forces protecting against that. Now if you travel across the electrical lines there's security spread out all over the place so it's making it that much harder to engage in the attacks.
Secondly, because of the resources we're deploying, when lines are taken down we are able to put them back up that much quicker.
So both the marginal risk of engaging in attacks against infrastructure, electrical infrastructure for example, has increased because you're not just going up against an electrical line. You're now going up against an electrical line guarded by trained security forces. The marginal benefits of taking down an electrical line have decreased significantly because of our ability because of the resources we're deploying, to get those lines right back up.
So individuals engaging in sabotage, what we call political sabotage against Iraq's infrastructure, specifically electricity, which is our number one priority in the supplemental are realizing that it's more dangerous to attack infrastructure A, and B, the advantage they get in trying to stabilize the situation decreases because of our ability to get the system back up and running that much quicker.
That said, it's still not perfect. I don't want to exaggerate expectations. Electrical infrastructure is obviously something we continue to work on. There will continue to be political sabotage, specifically as we move closer and closer to June 30th. We expect it to continue. But we are doing a better job of getting the Iraqis better prepared to protect against attacks and rectify the situation if there is an attack after the fact.
Q: The numbers --
Senor: What we saw prior to the supplemental and currently. And it's also important to differentiate between what is political sabotage and what is just common criminal activity. Electrical wires have a lot of copper, copper has a high value, so with regards to that, and it has to do primarily because of the additional assets that we've been deploying to protect most of that infrastructure that we haven't seen a measurable spike in that since the supplemental has put the money out there so we can start really putting a lot of emphasis into the generators, into the power, into the oil system.
Q: Is it mostly facilities protection service guys, Iraqis who are doing that? You were talking about the security along the lines.
Senor: Facilities Protection Service, the numbers have gone up significantly. The electrical infrastructure is one of the areas they're dedicated to. And it's also tied into the coalition as well. For example, if a commander has a pipeline or electrical wires, significant electrical wires running through his area of operation, he doesn't just pass that off and say that's the FPS' problem. It's all of our problem. FPS, police service, and the coalition's problem to provide some measure of protection on that.
Q: A handout that was given out today during the briefing to Secretary Rumsfeld by the 1st Armored Division talks about there being in addition to foreign terrorists and former regime elements religious extremists domestically. They get external funding and are adherents to Solafism. I don't know much about this group. Has this emerged recently on your radar screen, and can you tell us a little bit about them?
Kimmitt: They have been an element that's been in the country for quite a long time. Obviously Iraq being a secular nation prior to this, there has been sort of a suppression of some level of free expression of religion and that has a tendency at times to promote extremism. Solafism, Wahabism. Those are added into the mixing bowl of what we consider to be the terrorists.
Kimmitt: Nothing significant. We picked up a couple of Wahabists up in the 4th ID region about a week ago, but that is not something that is so large or extraordinary that it would sort of pass muster as being something unusual.
Q: You described this transfer of authority you've got half of the regions transferred over already, half of them to go, and you've had few attacks. Is this going better than you thought it was going to go?
Kimmitt: We have had a lot of practice with transfer of authority. We've been doing it in Bosnia for quite a few years. We've been doing it in Kosovo for quite a few years. We have never done it to the magnitude and the numbers that we're talking about now. I think it's a credit to logisticians who planned this into the minute infinite detail and the people on the ground that have actually gone out and assured that the routes were open and that we've done this with a minimum of disruption to daily life. And in the background, the backdrop of that transfer going on, still conducting combat operations, offensive operations to kill or capture anti-Iraqi elements, anti-coalition elements. So by that measure we are generally pleased with the process as it's going on and we anticipate this will go on through May and it will not cause us to slow down our operations here. So by that measure are we pleased? Yes.
Are we pleased at the overall progress? When we get down to zero attacks against coalition forces, when we get down to zero killed Iraqi civilians and zero killed Iraqi security forces, then I think it's time for us to sit down and say we're really pleased with ourselves.
Q: How capable are the Iraqi security forces at this point? What are they able to do now? Where do they still need to go? What capabilities do they still need before they can really manage security issues themselves?
Kimmitt: It is clear that right now the Iraqi security forces are not capable of conducting independent protection and independent defense of this country. It is a partnership with the coalition. The partnership is going well. In some areas the units are in the training stages. In other areas we have ICDC, Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, stepping out every day conducting independent patrols.
In general the program which only started nine months ago is going well because we have, as Dan Senor said earlier, as many Iraqi security force partners as we do coalition forces. We've said many times that it was a deliberate decision to get them out on the street early because when you look at what the Iraqi security forces can bring on a day-to-day basis, it goes well beyond just the capability to have a trained soldier on the ground capable of expert marksmanship. They know the culture. This is their country. They know the people. They can provide much better intel. And quite frankly, they're far more trusted than coalition soldiers are. So in terms of getting them out early, we probably put them out earlier than one would have in a vacuum, but given the conditions on the ground and their ability to act as sort of interlocutors between ourselves, the coalition forces, and the Iraqi civilians, it made their -- One can't overestimate the value they bring in being able to link us to the Iraqi people and demonstrate that we in fact are trying to turn them into a capable and credible force. We've still got quite a long way to go with it. They themselves understand that they're not ready yet, but we are firmly committed to working side by side with them to get them to where they need to be before we start diminishing our, either our visibility or our responsibilities.
Q: Is it a matter of training, equipment? Is it command and control experience?
Kimmitt: They're not fully equipped and the CPA has made significant progress in getting them all the equipment they need. They are not fully trained. That comes with experience.
It takes us 20 years to train a colonel. It takes us ten years to train a sergeant to Western values and to Western tactics, techniques and procedures. We've done this in six months. And there's just the on-the-ground experience. It's going to take some time.
Senor: In the supplemental, $3.2 billion is dedicated exclusively for Iraqi security forces. That includes training and equipment. It's one of the highest priorities for the supplemental. It's a very serious commitment by the United States government to meeting the needs that General Kimmitt has described.
Senor: There have been no decisions made in that regard at this point. Right now we are moving forward with the plan that we have.
We are constantly evaluating how to -- Ambassador Bremer in his approach, generally speaking, with the overall reconstruction is to have strategic clarity and tactical flexibility. You can establish a great plan as a quarterback out in the huddle, but when he gets out there and takes a look at the field, he is to call audibles and he does that all the time. He's doing that in the supplemental right now in the area of democracy. There's $100 million in the supplemental dedicated to democracy building. He's now decided there's huge momentum on that front, there's great grassroots activity going on in democracy building at the provincial and local level throughout the country so he moved the supplemental money around so we have $500 million for that effort. He's calling an audible.
The strategic goal remains the same but he's got to maintain some tactical flexibility so he will do that from time to time in all areas of the reconstruction and supplemental including security forces, but there's been no decision there.
Q: How long do you think it will take at the rate you've seen now for the Iraqi security forces to be able to operate independently?
Kimmitt: First of all I don't want to speculate because it's got a number of variables here. The first is what is the threat out there. The threat that we see a year from now we hope is going to be significantly different from what the threat is today. The second is how well they pick up the experience, how well we can bring leaders in to take over these organizations.
But I can tell you that we're prepared to stay side by side in partnership with them until they are ready to do this on their own.
Kimmitt: Again, I couldn't speculate how long it's going to take here. I can tell you that if we continue to make the progress that we have over the last six months you're going to have a very, very capable force in the near future. Now depending on the threat, that will depend on how capable that force really needs to be.
Kimmitt: Saddam is in a safe location. Saddam is being cared for. Saddam is being treated as an enemy prisoner of war. On the 21st of this month he was visited by the International Committee of the Red Cross. But Article 13 of the 3rd Geneva Convention prevents us from making him an object of public curiosity. The same way we would not want our soldiers being treated in that manner were they captured. So we like to keep this as quiet as possible and just tell you he's being taken care of. He's in a safe location. And I'd really refer any other questions to the ICRC on this.
Voice: Thanks, guys.