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DoD News Briefing

Presenters: Lawrence Di Rita, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs
March 03, 2005 3:35 PM EDT

            Q:  Flying solo?

 

            MR. DI RITA:  I am.  My trusty colleague is unavailable.  How's this work?  How's that?  (Referring to microphone.)

 

            I did want to just come down and give some updates, take some questions.

 

            The first thing I'd like to do, obviously, is reiterate the condolences we all feel for the untimely passing of former Congresswoman Tillie Fowler.  The secretary expressed his own condolences.  She was, obviously, the chairman of the Defense Policy Board; had been a trusted source of counsel to us, and had taken on some additional assignments that the secretary had asked her to undertake in the course of her tenure with the department.  And we extend our condolences to her family.

 

            And Mr. Pete Geren, who is a former member of Congress and a special assistant to Secretary Rumsfeld, will be leading the DOD delegation to a memorial service for former Congresswoman Fowler tomorrow in Jacksonville.  Pete served with her -- with Mrs. Fowler in Congress as a member of Congress himself from Texas, and served with her on the Armed Services Committee.  There are likely to be other members -- other officials in the department going to the memorial service as well.

 

            I also wanted to just draw your attention, if you haven't had a chance to see some announcements that CENTCOM put out today regarding the graduations; there were three separate graduations of various components of the Iraqi security forces today.  A Special Weapons and Tactics training course graduated 27 SWAT officers today.  These are all police graduations.  There was an advance police training course that completed today, of 292 police officers trained in special investigation techniques, those kinds of things.  And then the emergency response unit of the police force graduated, I believe, 77 -- or correction -- 72 police officers today.  So, as we've said, and as General Abizaid, who's in town this week, has testified, the Iraqi security force development continues.  And we've seen just today some graduation ceremonies held in Iraq.

 

            And with that, I'd be happy to just give you an update on what's going on and take your questions.

 

            Charlie?

 

            Q:  Larry, the Army failed to meet its recruiting goal last month for the first time in five years in apparently another sign of the services having trouble in meeting recruiting and retention goals.  I'd like to find out about your concern about that, this building's concern about this.  And do you plan on increasing the incentives, perhaps increasing the money that's being paid for people to sign up again in order to address this problem?

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Well, the situation of retention and recruitment in both the active and Reserve component is something that a great deal of focus is being applied to across the services.  But in the Army obviously it's a particularly stressed force.  And so there is a lot of focus being applied.

 

            These numbers, to look at it monthly, it tends to be cyclical. There are times of the year when the Army anticipates ups and downs. But, that notwithstanding, the fact is that they did not meet goals for March.  And so it is something of focus for the Army.  The Army has indeed increased the incentives.  They're hiking enlistment bonuses from $8,000 to $10,000, and in some cases to $15,000 for unique -- people with prior enlisted service that have unique specialties, skills that are in higher demand.  So there is -- that follows on other recruiting incentives that have been conducted. They're trying to look at ways to provide incentives in the delayed entry program that might attract people at different time tables according to, again, this cyclical fashion.  So it's something that a lot of focus is being paid.

 

            They've increased the number of recruiters by about 20 percent in the United States Army.  They've added about 950, 960 recruiters to the total recruiting force.  So, yes, it is something that we're focused on.

 

            Q:  The problem -- you keep saying "focused on."  Is it something you're concerned about?  I mean, the problem doesn't seem to be just in the number of recruiters.  It seems to be the fact that you just -- the people who go to the recruiters -- the people who the recruiters go to just aren't signing up.

 

            MR. DI RITA:  It's a mixed story, Charlie.  It's certainly -- it is a matter of concern, and that's why these kinds of additional steps continue to be taken.  At the same time, what we are seeing in terms of retention is that people who are serving, and particularly people who have served and deployed, are -- the retention rates are staying pretty solid.  So people who are in and who understand how things are going and who understand the importance of the work and the national service that they've had the opportunity to provide, are returning. So that's a -- so it is a mixed bag.  But recruiting is an important component of overall force levels, and nobody's trying to do anything other than to accept the reality of it. And the reality is that we did not meet goals for this month, and the Army has taken some additional steps to ensure that as this cycle continues, that they can make that up.  And they believe they can, by the way.  They believe they can make it up for this year.

 

            Q:  Is it possible that you'll increase these incentives?  I mean, do you have --

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Oh, I just announced that they -- I mean, I'm not announcing it, but I'm just reflecting that they've already done some of that.

 

            Q:  The Army did that, and the Army had increased incentives last month and still didn't meet its goals.

 

            MR. DIRITA:  Right.  I think it's something that's always being tuned.  I mean, you've seen -- there have been press reports and I think we've acknowledged, or the Army has, incentives that appear quite impressive for really unique skills, special operators and those kinds of things.  It's something that the Army personnel and generally the services personnel components do a lot.  They're always adjusting the incentives.  And if they feel that these incentives need to be further adjusted, I'm sure they would do just that.

 

            Q:  Larry, do you believe that the explanation for the difficulty in recruiting perhaps now is as simple as the fact that there's a reluctance of potential recruits to sign up because they know they may face dangerous and difficult duty in Iraq, or is there something more complicated going on?

 

            MR. DI RITA:  I don't know if there's -- I think that's a factor, that  we're a nation at war, so people have the opportunity -- I think what we end up seeing, a lot of times it's influencers.  If it's a young kid who's in high school and contemplating his future, what are his parents advising him?  And the Army's focused on that and wants to help guidance counselors and parents understand what the individual can get from making this decision to join the Army, both in terms of his personal growth as well as his growth in character, if you will; I mean his ability to serve the country.

 

            I think you have a strong economy, and that always makes it a little bit more of a challenge when the economy's strong.  And as   we've seen just this week in testimony from the Federal Reserve chairman, the economy's doing well.  And that always plays a part in how we're able to compete in that economy.  And that makes the incentives that much more important, because if there's a strong economy, the private sector's providing incentives as well.

 

            So there's a lot of factors.  There's a lot of factors.

 

            Q:  Conversely, though, do you believe that as you're more successful in getting Iraqi troops to take over the responsibilities in Iraq and the U.S. presence is reduced, do you believe the recruiting job will be easier?

 

            MR. DI RITA:  I don't know.  That's a fair enough question.  I don't know that anybody's been able to draw that kind of a connection. I mean, without question, when there's the kind of coverage that there has been about casualties -- and we certainly mourn all the casualties, but they are covered, there's prominent media coverage of casualties in Iraq -- parents factor those kinds of things in to what they want their children doing.  And parents, I think, are still considered, for the purposes of recruiting, one of the strongest influencers, in addition to peers, on young men and women.

 

            So -- yeah, Nick?

 

            Q:  Larry, the IAEA, in its latest report on Iran, is speaking about Iran digging tunnels to house or conceal nuclear components and things of that nature, and this is of concern to them.  How much of a concern is this to you?  And if it is a concern, what militarily should be done about it?

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Let me not speak about Iran in particular.  The White House spokesman made comments on this very point today, and I don't think I need to do anything to add or detract from what he may have said.

 

            Let me speak to the issue generally and the issue of -- work being done underground around the world is a growing fact that makes intelligence gathering that much more of a challenge.  The technology exists that can dig tunnels the length of a basketball court and twice the height of a basketball net in a day.  That much progress can be made in a day.  That technology is readily available in the commercial market.  So countries that wish to conceal their activities can do so if they're willing to make the investments in the technology that will allow them to do that.  So it's a challenge at a time when a lot of -- there are countries that wish to conceal their activities.

 

            So again, I don't want to speak -- we're on a path that's been well described by the secretary of State and the president with respect to Iran, and there's nothing that I need to add from here.

 

            Q:  Wait.  The issue, though -- this seems to take the Iranian activity a step further.  And does it make Iran more of a threat now if it is building a nuclear weapon, the fact that they could be concealing what they're doing from either an attack or from surveillance?

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Again, I just don't have any -- I mean, you can draw your own conclusions, but as I've said, countries that wish to tunnel underground are doing it for a reason.  And it is a concern around the world that if countries want to hide their activities from the technical capabilities that we and other countries have, they're able to do that.  But I am in no position to discuss anything specifically with respect to Iran.

 

            Q:  Larry?

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Yeah, Rick.

 

            Q:  Can I ask you about the fact that the casualty rate in Iraq for U.S. troops for February was apparently the lowest that it's been since last July?  I wonder how significant you think that is and what's your analysis of why the number has gone down.  Does it -- what does it represent?

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Well, the commanders have spoken about their -- the fact that the insurgencies are becoming -- their capability is becoming somewhat cruder in its -- in their ability to anticipate and target, because their -- the coalition's intelligence is getting better.  And one of the reasons it's getting better is because there are more and more Iraqi security forces directly involved in counterinsurgency activities.  So it may well be associated with that.

 

            There's a -- we saw demonstrations by Iraqis in Hillah against the insurgency, as a result of that large bomb that tragically killed over a hundred people.  So I think you're seeing also a growing public opposition to -- and more -- and people more willing to make public their opposition to the insurgency.  And that's almost certainly having an effect on the ability of the insurgents to operate with some -- with impunity.  So I think there's a lot of factors.

 

            Q:  Well, do you think that the insurgents have changed their tactics?  Are they targeting more Iraqis --

 

            MR. DI RITA:  It appears they are.  It appears they're targeting -- I mean, the bombing in Hillah is a -- is just one example, but it's a very dramatic example.  It's the second-largest bombing since we've been involved in this activity.

 

            Q:  And therefore there are fewer attacks on U.S. forces --

 

            MR. DI RITA:  I don't know about the specific numbers.  Those numbers are knowable.  I just don't know them.  And if we have them, we can provide the actual numbers of attacks on coalition forces.  But it -- there's no question that there are at least a steady state, if not a growing number of attacks against innocent Iraqis -- Iraqi civilians.

 

            Q:  And just one more point.

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Sure.

 

            Q:  Do you take this as a trend?  Do you expect it to continue to decline or --

 

            MR. DI RITA:  We would certainly hope that it does, but hope is not a plan.  And what we're doing is working closely with the Iraqi  security forces, letting the Iraqis increasingly involve themselves in the counterinsurgency, the intelligence-gathering.  And we believe that that plan will allow us to gradually see this shift in overall responsibility to Iraqis.  And if that's the case, there will, by definition, be fewer coalition forces out in front.  And we certainly would expect, over time, that that could tip the security balance in the country.

 

            Q:  Larry, can I follow up on that?

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Jim?

 

            Q:  Yes, Larry, just to build on --

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Jim -- I'll come back to you, Bob.

 

            Go ahead, Jim.

 

            Q:  Okay.  Just to build on the question there, how many Iraqis -- and the statement you had at the beginning -- what are the sizes of the Iraqi forces now?

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Yeah.  We were at 140 last weekend.  I'm afraid that I don't have the current data, but that data's available.  And I just don't have it with me, and I should, but I don't.   I gave you those three numbers, so I obviously beg the question.  But we'll get it to you.

 

            Yes, sir.

 

            Q:  In response to Rick's question you said something about how the insurgents have been limited to a more crude, or cruder approach, or something like that.  What did you mean by --

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Some of the commanders have talked about how they've seen -- some of the IEDs are less sophisticated but more powerful, which means maybe their ability to -- their own intelligence, their ability to time their strikes is maybe interrupted because of our ability to intercept -- or our ability to interrupt their activities. And so, it's just an -- it's an observation that our commanders have made.  I think we've actually talked a little bit about if from here. General Rodriguez has spoken about it.  In some cases, more powerful bombs, but less precise and less able to time and target the way that they were before.

 

            Q:  Do you attribute that to U.S. offensive actions, or intelligence --

 

            MR. DI RITA:  I think there's a range of things that one might attribute it to.  I mean, there -- the intelligence is, without question, getting better.  I think there's no question that we have apprehended or killed an enormous number of insurgents.  So this -- I think you may well -- we may well be seeing people who are less skilled at what they're doing because there may be -- it could well be that they're recruiting -- they're continuing to recruit, but these are -- these may not be people as well experienced.  This is speculation, but there are a lot of suggestions that indicate what the commanders have said.

 

            Yes, ma'am.

 

            Q:  I have two questions unrelated to each other.  The first one is, can you give us more detail on how the hand-over of Saddam Hussein's brother-in-law happened?  How did Syria capture him, why'd they do it, how long did they have him, were there any conditions of his hand-over, and has it improved relations with the U.S. military and Syria there and maybe between our governments?

 

            MR. DI RITA:  I -- I am -- I am not in a position -- did you say you have two questions?

 

            Q:  Yeah.  Except --

 

            MR. DIRITA:  Because -- well, that sounded like several questions.  Is that one question made up of several subquestions?

 

            Q:  Well, -- (off mike) -- one long run-on sentence with several comments in it.

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Okay.

 

            Q:  The second question, on the ACLU lawsuit that was filed against Secretary Rumsfeld, it was both as SECDEF and as a citizen. So I think you're (sic) hoping to go after some of his private assets to compensate who they say are the alleged victims of U.S. torture. What sort of legal arrangement do you all have here?  Is the general counsel going to represent him?  Will he also have a private sector attorney?

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Let me take them in order.

 

            Syria.  I don't have anything -- I -- what I can comment, which I think we've already generally acknowledged, is that there was U.S. forces involved in transporting the individual to his location inside of Iraq.  How those arrangements were made and who was involved in making those arrangements is beyond the scope of anything that I'm privy to, and I'm not in a position to comment on them.  I can only acknowledge that there were U.S. forces involved in transporting and ultimately securing the individual.  And you might -- I don't know -- I would just refer you to the State Department to see what they might be saying about what arrangements may have occurred.  But we're not -- I'm not aware of any.  I'm not involved in them.  We weren't involved in them, to my knowledge.

 

            Q:  And the lawsuit?

 

            MR. DI RITA:  The lawsuit.  This is a matter -- as an official of this government operating in his official capacity, the secretary is represented by the Department of Justice, in a manner of speaking.  So it's the Justice Department that is going to evaluate this claim and determine what the steps going forward are.  We're, through the general counsel's office, very closely connected to the Justice Department.  There are aspects of it that are being -- are still being considered how best to approach this.  I would like to just reiterate what we said when this claim was made, and that's that we just continue to vigorously reject any assertion or implication that any of the policies that were approved inside the department or by the commanders -- General Sanchez approved the policies in Iraq -- were intended to be policies of abuse, and in fact none of the investigations that have been conducted concluded that there was a policy of abuse.  I should say it more positively:  all of them concluded that there was no policy of abuse.  So we just -- there's just no basis for any of these claims.  But again, it's the Justice Department that will determine the way forward on this.

 

            Q:  Just one brief follow-up -- I'm sorry -- to the question, if I may.  You operate in the highest levels of this building, highest echelons of this building.  I mean, how can you say you're not privy to how the U.S. forces transported this guy from the border?  I mean, you can't give any details on how this --

 

            MR. DI RITA:  On how the U.S. forces transported to the -- from -- you mean from the border?

 

            Q:  Right.  I mean, tell me, was it a squad of Syrian soldiers? Was it a high-level exchange at a border post?  I mean, you don't know that, or --

 

            MR. DI RITA:  I don't know that, as a matter of fact.  What I know is that U.S. forces inside of Iraq gained custody of this individual and took him to where he went.  And beyond that I just don't know.  So --

 

            Q:  Could you take the question and maybe --

 

            Q:  Bryan knows the -- (laughter) --

 

            MR. DI RITA:  I think we've --

 

            Q:  Bryan knows -- (laughter) --

 

            MR. DI RITA:  If Bryan knows it -- Bryan knows it, let Bryan tell you.  I just don't -- I don't have any detailed understanding of what happened other than what I've described, which is that U.S. forces were involved in transporting him inside Iraq.

 

            Q:  I mean, even if you -- even if you would want to have the State Department discuss how it was done politically, could you physically fill us in on it, take the question physically how he was turned over and transferred?

 

            MR. DI RITA:  I'll see what can be learned, and then having learned what can be learned, I'll see what can be disclosed.

 

            Q:  Thank you.

 

            Q:  It seems like you should be excited about this, because after so much pressure on Syria, and saying how bad they're being, they're being good.  So it's a good news story, Larry.  I'd like you to get it out there.

 

            MR. DI RITA:  The current Iraqi security forces is 141,761. That's again the categories that we've discussed, not including the Facilities Protection Service.

 

            Q:  Larry, just back to the Syria thing for a second?

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Yeah?

 

            Q:  Just at the end of your answer to Pam's question, I think you said we were not involved.  Could you just --

 

            MR. DI RITA:  All I know is what I said.  I mean, there were U.S. -- we were involved to the extent that there were U.S. forces that got a hold of this guy and took him to where he was going, but that's all I have any kind of --

 

            Q:  We were not involved?  Doesn't apply to anything that might have happened inside Syria?

 

            MR. DIRITA:  Oh, no, no, no.  Yeah, I'm not trying to -- please, don't -- don't --

 

            Q     -- the Defense Department in negotiations --

 

            MR. DI RITA:  No, I'm not, because that would -- to say yes or no to that would be saying yes or no to the concept of negotiations.  All I'm saying is what I said:  U.S. forces moved this guy from a place to another place inside Iraq.  I can't help you on anything beyond that. I just can't.

 

            Q:  Larry, the president today talked about Osama bin Laden, and how everything was still being done in the pursuit of him.  Can you tell us whether any military assets have been diverted from Afghanistan to Iraq to fight the insurgency there, specifically around the Iraqi election?

 

            MR. DI RITA:  There has been movement back and forth over the course of the period that we've been involved in both countries.  The general level of forces inside of Afghanistan, I think, has been something on the order of three brigades plus a division headquarters -- plus or minus 17,000 --

 

            Q:  Do you know if there's any other assets, whether it's equipment, UAVs, or --

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Oh.  General Abizaid is the combatant commander.  He has responsibility for both those areas, those theaters of operation. He knows what he is trying to accomplish, his military objectives are. And I don't doubt for a -- and I think he's talked about this -- he moves resources around as necessary.  But he has never felt that he didn't have the resources he needed in any given theater for the mission at hand.

 

            Q:  You don't believe in any way the mission to find bin Laden has in any way been compromised, or there's been any shortcomings to help fight the insurgency in Iraq?

 

            MR. DI RITA:  I don't believe General Abizaid thinks it.  I don't believe General Barno thinks it.  I think they feel like they've had what they've needed to conduct the mission at hand, and the mission at hand is Taliban, al Qaeda and the hunt for Mullah Omar, other high- value targets including Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden.  And they've said that they've had what they needed when they needed it.

 

            Q:  Can I ask the same question a little differently?  Do you know specifically whether surveillance assets that were in Afghanistan were moved to Iraq to help --

 

            MR. DI RITA:  I don't know.

 

            Q:  -- (inaudible) -- situation during the election period?

 

            MR. DI RITA:  I do not know.  And if we can find out -- I don't know, did this come up in General Abizaid's hearing at all?  Maybe he talked about it a little bit; you could read the transcript.

 

            Q:  (Off mike.)

 

            MR. DI RITA:  If it's something -- I would only say that it wouldn't surprise me.  But again, that's a decision that the combatant commander and the theater commanders are making all the time, and they base it on what they need and where they need it, and if they needed more, they'd ask for more.

 

            Yes?

 

            Q:  The drop in the sophistication of the IEDs, could that be because they're having better success in targeting the bomb makers?

 

            MR. DI RITA:  There's been a lot of effective targeting of bomb makers.  There's been a lot of apprehension of bomb makers.  There's been a lot of apprehension of bomb laboratories.  They've rolled up bomb-making equipment and inventory.  So all of the above, I guess, is what I'd say.  Yeah.  So therefore, it could be related.  I don't know how you prove that.

 

            Q:  Is there a sense, though, on the part of the intelligence people that sort of the number of bomb makers is getting down to the point where it's having a noticeable effect on their ability to set up IEDs?

 

            MR. DI RITA:  It's possible.  I suppose that's the implication of what I said.  But I don't know that I've heard anybody put it quite that way.  They just -- what some of the commanders have noted and what we've talked about from here is the observation that the bombs -- they're having more success at the percentage of bombs that they capture before they go off, and the ones that are going off, to some extent, are less sophisticated than they once were, but in some cases more powerful.  I guess that's the way they've described it.

 

            Q:  Thanks.  Different subject.  It's been reported that the Comparative Testing Office is sending a delegation to Taiwan this weekend.

 

            MR. DI RITA:  The which testing?

 

            Q:  The Comparative Testing Office.

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Is that a DOD office?

 

            Q:  Yes, it is.

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Oh.  Okay.

 

            Q:  And they're sending a delegation to Taiwan to evaluate the possibility of procuring military supplies and equipment there.  And I'm wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about this delegation.  And do you think this represents an increasing trend to forge military-to-military ties with Taiwan?

 

            MR. DI RITA:  I cannot say anything more about it.  But we'll see what we can learn about it and provide that information.

 

            Q:  Okay, thank you.

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Yeah?

 

            Q:  The Hillah bombing was not an isolated incident.  There's been a whole series of attacks on Iraqi recruits as well as Iraqi soldiers and police.  How is it that such a situation is allowed to happen, where you have over a hundred people in a vulnerable situation that can all get hit at once by a car bomb?

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Have you ever been to Hillah?  It's a big city, and if a guy comes up in a truck, and he's willing to die, you can kill a lot of people.

 

            Q:  But aren't there force protection measures that can be put in place?  Is that a U.S. responsibility or an Iraqi responsibility?

 

            MR. DI RITA:  It's -- security in that country is what we've described.  There's a growing involvement of Iraqi security forces and the obvious role that coalition forces play.  But the concept of force protection in the middle of a big city is a different concept than what you may be describing, which is a military force defending itself.  This was in the middle of a large city.

 

            Q:  Are any new efforts being made to figure out ways to try to prevent --

 

            MR. DI RITA:  It's something they're always evaluating -- how best to protect the Iraqi population.  Increasingly, as I said, it's an Iraqi police and an Iraqi security force responsibility.  But again, if somebody's willing to kill themselves, as we saw on 9/11, they can kill an enormous number of people.  And I don't -- and you -- and it's difficult to defend against that kind of attack.

 

            Why don't we take one more?  Yeah?

 

            Q:  Let's go to the Middle East again.  The commander of the Israeli air force said this week that the IAF is ready to hit terrorist targets inside Syria after the suicide bomb in Tel Aviv.  My question is, if this happens, does the DOD support this action?

 

            MR. DI RITA:  I didn't see the comments that you're referring to. I wouldn't want to reflect on the comments made by another government official and speculate on what those comments would mean.

 

            So it's just -- it's -- there's an awful lot of -- that situation right now is very dynamic in that part of the Middle East.  And there's a peace process in place, but the peace process is associated with what appears to be popular sentiment that the situation in a couple of those countries is one that deserves consideration by the public.  And so that's happening, and it's difficult for us to comment on what's happening, other than to say that there is a peace process that we support.  And then we have bilateral relations with countries in that region that -- we've made our points bilaterally.

 

            Q:  I mean, Secretary Rice said this week -- I think in Brussels -- that there is, I mean, clear proof that Syria -- that Damascus is behind this attack.

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Mm-hmm.  So I don't have anything to add to Secretary Rice's comments.

 

            Last question.

 

            Q:  Larry, is the secretary hale and hearty --

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Is he what?

 

            Q:  He had somewhat of a cold when when I was here.

 

            MR. DI RITA:  He picked up this bug that's going around.  He's been in pretty much every day.  In fact, he's been in every day.  As far as I know, he might -- he was here when I came down here.  So it's just been one in which he's tried to limit his contact with people a little bit because he's been sick, but he's been -- if the volume of snowflakes is any metric, he hasn't been down and out.

 

            (Cross talk.)

 

            Q:  If we could see him next week --

 

            MR. DIRITA:  (Laughs.)

 

            Q:  If we could get him down here next week, it would be wonderful.

 

            MR. DI RITA:  It would be, wouldn't it?

 

            Q:  Okay.  (Off mike.)  Thanks.

 

            Q:  Thanks for dropping by.

 

            Thank you.

 

            MR. DI RITA:  I need -- (inaudible).  (Laughter.)

 

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