(Briefing on Free Iraqi Forces and humanitarian assistance remotely from Umm Qasr, Iraq with Col. Blackledge, commander, 354th Civil Affairs Brigade)
Staff: (From Arlington.) Let's go ahead and get started. It is 10:00, and I know that there are a lot of you that are listening in your booths. But let's get this under way.
Today we have Army Colonel David Blackledge, who is here joining us, via the miracles of modern technology, from Umm Qasr. Colonel Blackledge is the commander of the 354th Civil Affairs Brigade, and he is the one that has been heading the efforts of the Free Iraqi Forces there in Iraq. He's going to take us through some of the things that they have been doing and how they're really making a difference in theater.
As we do this, keep in mind that there is about a five-second delay in the connection, and as you ask the questions, Lieutenant Colonel Stoneking will hand you a microphone so that they can hear you on the other end. Okay?
And with that, Colonel Blackledge, do you want to say a few things before we get into the questions?
Blackledge: Yes. Again, I'm Colonel Dave Blackledge, commander of the 354th Civil Affairs Brigade, responsible for coordinating and developing the distributions systems from Umm Qasr throughout the rest of Iraq. To do that, my unit coordinates with the international organizations, the governmental organizations and the nongovernmental organizations, as well as the military units, to get supplies forward. And the bottom line is that we're the link between the military and the civilian organizations to redevelop distribution.
We've done some really neat things here. We've been here a little less than two weeks but have made some significant progress in that time. And I can open up it up for questions on specifics.
Q: Colonel, Charlie Aldinger with Reuters. Aside from getting in humanitarian aid, we understand you're in charge of the Free Iraqi Forces. There are reports here in Washington that the United States may be preparing to set up an interim Iraqi government in the south, even before Saddam or the government fall. Have you anything on that? And are you preparing to do that, to use the Free Iraqi Forces to do that?
Blackledge: Well, I'm not in charge of the Free Iraqi Forces, although I do have a few Free Iraqi Force soldiers that are working with me to assist in reestablishing the distribution network. As far as establishing an interim government, that is not in my lane and not something that I'm doing.
QWell then -- I'm sorry, this is Charlie Aldinger again. Could you give us maybe a quick breakdown of the kind of aid that's starting to flow and how much of it's beginning to flow?
Blackledge: Well, the most significant thing that we've been able to do is get potable water distributed initially right here in Umm Qasr through a pipeline that the government of Kuwait brought through the border. And we've established a distribution system for distributing that with tanker trucks through Umm Qasr and starting to push that north.
Also, in relationship to assisting the international organizations -- non-governmental organizations, just today the ICRC made delivery of medical supplies to Basra.
Q: Sir, this is Pam Hess with United Press International. Can you give us your assessment of what the humanitarian situation is there; how great is the need for food and water and medicine?
Blackledge: Well, I can tell you what we've seen here in Umm Qasr. The exciting thing was that food was not that big of an issue. Our assessment of the folks here is that they've got at least six to eight weeks of food stockpiled. So the focus has been initially to get potable water distributed. The people in Umm Qasr, prior to the war, relied on distribution to come down from Basra for potable water. Obviously, that was not the case more recently, so we had to get that coming in. And so that's been the focus. But water was the big need. That need's been met. And we're now resurrecting the distribution program so that we can start getting food out.
Q: This is Pam again. Could you tell us how much water you're delivering on a daily basis or per person?
Blackledge: We've got seven tanker trucks that are distributing on a continuous basis from the water pipe that comes from Kuwait. There is more than enough water from (sic) Umm Qasr. They can't drink all the water that's flowing and coming in. In fact, we've got enough water to start distributing up north, which was the original intent, to do that.
Q: This is Vince Crawley with the Army Times papers. Could you give us a sense of the security? Do you need armed escorts for your water trucks? That has been one of the concerns, is getting the aid distributed in relative freedom.
Blackledge: We feel that it's a very permissive environment here in Umm Qasr; however, we do provide escorts with the tanker trucks. The first couple of days of the distribution, the people weren't sure how long that was going to last and wanted to get as much as they could, and we found that to maintain control of the crowds, it's been helpful to keep the security force with the tanker trucks; and expect that as people see that the distribution is more and more routine, we'll be able to back off on that.
Q: Colonel, this is Jim Mannion from Agence France-Presse. Can you talk a little bit about whether you've made contact with any civilians in other places outside of Umm Qasr, further north; I don't know, I'm thinking maybe Nasiriyah or An Najaf; or is that completely out of your area?
Blackledge: My focus right now has been to get Umm Qasr up and going. We do have tactical civil affairs teams that are with the maneuver forces making those initial contacts with civilians as they enter those areas, and some of that has been done. I don't have the specific details on those contacts, though.
QGood afternoon, sir. It's Meredith Buel from Voice of America. Can you tell us what sort of food distribution you anticipate? Where is this food coming from? How much is available? And how many people do you think you'll be able to feed, and in what time frame?
Blackledge: The goal has been to resurrect the oil-for-food distribution system that's been in place. It's been a very efficient and effective system in Iraq, and with numerous food distribution agents. For example, right here in Umm Qasr, there are over 40 food distribution agents. The local people knew who their distributor was to go get food, and we want to put that back in place, since there was a functioning system, and then develop it from there. The food will be coming from numerous sources. Ultimately, the -- probably the biggest source will be through the World Food Program, who just today did an initial assessment here at Umm Qasr to begin moving that in. So, we're looking forward to the food they'll be bringing in. Meanwhile, we've been bringing in food from both military sources and U.S. governmental sources through USAID.
Q: Just to follow up, please, could you give us a time frame on when the United Nations and World Food Program might begin to be able to operate in an effective way there?
Blackledge: Well, I can't really speak for the United Nations. They have to make those assessments based on their own rules. But it was encouraging that the U.N. did declare this particular area of Umm Qasr as permissive for their people to come in and they declared that yesterday. And the World Food Program sent their assessment team today. So they're leaning forward and coming in quickly. I just had a meeting with a representative from World Food Program this morning, offering any assistance that we could provide as far as information that we've through the assessments to assist them in getting the food out to the people that need it.
Q: Colonel, good morning. This is Thomas Duffy with the newsletter Inside the Pentagon. Do you have plans to set up distribution centers in other areas of the country outside of Umm Qasr? And also, what type of food are you distributing?
Blackledge: Yes. Each major population center had food distribution agents as part of the oil-for-food program's distribution network, and those are the systems that we're looking to use and to keep in place, because the people are used to going to those individuals and they had a very good system. So each population center, each town, village and city had that distribution network in place, and that's what we're looking to use to get the food through.
The food that's been coming in runs the gamut. We're preferring not to get perishable food at this point, but we have had some come in. The government of Kuwait was very generous, sent in 30 truck loads of food of various types. We also had food come in from -- as I said, through U.S. governmental sources. A lot of bulk water initially to bridge the gap until we had the pipeline flowing from Kuwait. And then general foodstuffs such as lentils. One of the items that we found through our assessment, that we knew before coming in, was that protein was a concern, lack of protein in the diet. So we've been trying to focus on that through things like lentils. Other items include rice, cooking oil, tea, sugar, as well has hygiene items, non-food items.
Q: Could you tell us -- the United States has suspended the Free Iraqi Force training program. How useful have those folks been to you, and do you see a problem with not having more coming in the pipeline? I gather there's just somewhere in the 70s of those folks that are available.
And could you also describe for us how you worked the security angle? We saw some footage that looked really crazy when you guys first started handing stuff out. And so what lessons did you learn about sort of crowd control and getting it to the point where it's now orderly?
Blackledge: In reference to the Free Iraqi Forces, their contribution has just been invaluable. In my case, the folks that are with me are from this area; they have family, they know the people, and have really been critical in establishing the trust with the local people that we really were here to help them, and to identify the people that we needed to work with to get distribution back up and going. So I can't stress enough.
As far as my mission, I don't see a problem with the termination of additional folks coming. I have what I need to work with, and the other civil affairs units have that also.
And I can't remember what the second question was.
Q: That was how you all -- we saw footage of the first distribution of food in Umm Qasr and it looked like a really crazy scene. But you were eventually able to get it under control. Was that a function of the fact that the people were so excited to finally get it, or was it more of a function you guys didn't quite have a handle on exactly how to be distributing that? What lessons did you learn in crowd control, and have you seen any of this similar kind of melee situations that you then have to come in and handle?
Blackledge: Yeah, the footage that you saw I believe was from the Safwan area where it was basically an uncontrolled distribution -- it was a distribution made with good intent, but it was not done through the military.
What we've worked very hard to do here in Umm Qasr is to coordinate the distribution with the local leaders, such that the word was brought out in advance that -- what the distribution was going to be, how it was going to be conducted, where it would be conducted, and do that in a controlled fashion. And frankly, we've been very pleased with the response from the local people here in Umm Qasr.
Q: Chris Wright with Fox News Channel. This might be outside of your lane, but what do you think the prospects are for returning Iraq to a real economy, a country that can actually feed itself? I understand in recent years it's basically a command economy where the government distributes food, but it really can't produce enough to feed itself.
Blackledge: Wow, that's a big question. It is outside of my lane. My focus is to ensure that we get the distribution system going now, and I really wouldn't want to try to speculate on the bigger picture there.
Q: Yeah. Could you tell us what the Free Iraqi Forces working with you are actually doing, and also the water trucks -- is that U.S. troops driving them, or are those -- yeah, how much do they carry? And is that U.S. troops driving them? And are they in armed convoys? Just trying to get a picture of what you're doing there. And I do have a follow-up.
Blackledge: Sure. To answer the question on the water distribution first, the goal all along here is to reemploy the Iraqi people and the systems run by the Iraqi people to do their own distribution. So the water's a good example.
The drivers of the trucks are local drivers that we have hired to distribute the water. And so they are paid by -- in this case, in Umm Qasr, they're paid by the British forces to distribute the water.
They do have an escort with the trucks to their distribution points, who then monitor the situation to make sure nothing gets out of control during the distribution. But the actual contracts are with local Iraqi drivers, with their tanker trucks, and they are paid for their services to provide that water to the people.
As far as what the Free Iraqi Force soldiers are doing, these -- again, I'd said that they -- in my case, they're from this area, Umm Qasr, and surrounding area, so they're very familiar with the local people, have family here. They've assisted us as we've gathered documents, particularly in the port facility, because we wanted -- we've been working to get port workers back in place. And as those individuals have been rehired to work at the port, our Free Iraqi Forces have helped verify that these are the actual individuals that are documented as previous workers, they do have the skills necessary to work at the port.
They've also obviously been a great help in serving as translators and interpreters. And frankly, they've helped us build the relationships with the community that have made the successes here so critical and so successful.
The other piece that's been very helpful -- as you can imagine, the local populace was somewhat nervous and scared. And as we've reached out to try to find key workers for the port, our Free Iraqi Force soldiers have been instrumental in locating those key workers and bringing them in and assuring them that we do want to rehire them and put them back to work.
Q: Okay. And I had a follow-up. Before this, before the war began, the White House had a briefing that there would be about three crack teams of 20 or so nongovernmental as well as U.S. government aid experts rushing into the battle zone to assist. Are you working with them? Have you seen them? These would be like USAID and State Department and some Defense Department personnel.
Blackledge: What we've been working with so far -- and again, it's very early. The Umm Qasr area has just been declared permissive by the U.N., and that is typically the key for the nongovernmental organizations also. Once the U.N. declares it a permissive environment, that's typically the signal for them to come in. Prior to that, we've been working with the USAID DART team individuals primarily, who declared it permissive for their purposes several days ago. So that's been the primary thing.
Again, I was in Kuwait just this morning at the Humanitarian Operations Center meeting, where we have all the NGOs and other international organizations and governmental organizations meeting to coordinate humanitarian assistance efforts and coordinating their movement because, again, they want to come in quickly and just need the assurances of what the environment is here and what the needs are here.
And I think that's probably the last question I've got time for.
Q: No, one more. How many Iraqis have you employed, and how are you paying them? Is it U.S. dollars? Iraqi money? Or food and water?
Blackledge: We've employed over 200 Iraqis already, and we're hiring every day. We are paying them in dollars at this point. And again, that was a decision made above my level.
And I really have to cut it off there. So thanks very much.
Staff: Colonel Blackledge, thank you for joining us this morning, and we look forward to having a follow-on discussion with you later on down the road.
Blackledge: Thank you.
Staff: As a reminder, our briefing today is at 1:30.
Q: Is that Torie?
Staff: And we will see you -- yes, General McChrystal and Victoria Clarke.
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