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Operational Update from the Multinational Brigade Commander

Presenters: Army Brig. Gen. Carter F. Ham, Commander, Task Force Olympia
March 09, 2004 9:00 AM EDT
Operational Update from the Multinational Brigade Commander

            UNKNOWN:  You will make a brief opening statement and then take your questions.  This is a live broadcast to the Pentagon press pool and they will be given the opportunity to ask questions every third question.  If you have a cell phone, please turn it off.  If you have a radio, please turn it down and same with the pagers. 

 

            Cameraman, please do not walk in and among the journalists that are out here.  Brigadier General Ham will address you on issues about Multi-National Brigade North operations only.  He will not address policy issues or governmental issues.  Please keep your questions to those related only to Multi-National Brigade North area of operations. 

 

            Also, as a reminder, immediately following this press briefing, Brigadier General Kimmitt and Mr. Senor will have a press briefing as well.  Please stay your in your seats immediately following this.  Once General Ham is off the stage, General Kimmitt and Mr. Senior will enter and begin their press briefing. 

 

            Chikhan (ph), thank you. 

 

            HAM:  Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen and good morning to those in Washington, D.C.   It’s, indeed, a pleasure for me to be here with you today, as this is my first opportunity to share with you my observation of coalition forces operations in North Iraq.  I welcome this opportunity and extend to each of you an invitation to come visit us in Mosul. 

 

            Task Force Olympia, the Multi-National Brigade North officially assumed responsibility for coalition military operations in the northern portion of Iraq on February 5th of this year.  We had the good fortune to follow the soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division Air Assault whose soldiers accomplished so much in Iraq over the past year. 

 

            Our responsibility extends over to three northern governorates of Dahuk, Irbil and Ninewa (ph).  A principal coalition military unit is the 3rd Brigade’s 2nd Infantry Division, the United States Army’s first Stryker Brigade combat team.  The Stryker Brigade is headquartered in Mosul and focuses much of its effort in that important city. 

 

            We also have elements of the Stryker Brigade based near Telafar (ph) and at the airfield, Qayyarah West.  Additionally, Task Force Olympia has attached engineers, military policy, Civil Affairs and Combat Service Support units.  In total, we are about 8,000 U.S. personnel, over 6,000 of whom are in the Stryker Brigade Combat Team. 

 

            In addition to U.S. forces, we have an Albanian Commando that serves alongside us and we’re most grateful for their role.  And as you can see, there are many Iraqi security units which perform missions under my operational control.  These include Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, border police and newly assigned in the north, Iraqi Armed Forces.

 

            One of our highest priorities is to help build the capabilities of Iraqi Security Forces.  We do this through a program that includes formal school for police and ICDC leaders, as well as more informal cooperation, such as joint manning of security outposts.  We work closely with the Coalition Provisional Authority regional and government coordinators to obtain funding and equipment required through Iraqi Security Forces and we work together with Iraqi local and regional leaders to support projects that contribute to stability and economic growth.  These projects, mostly funded through the Commander’s Emergency Response Program includes schools, small business opportunities, security facility repairs, road improvements, oil and electrical power initiatives.

 

            I’m very proud of what our soldiers, the Coalition Provisional Authority representatives in the north and the many brave and dedicated Iraqis have accomplished. 

 

            And I’d be glad now to answer any questions you may have.    Yes, please. 

 

            Q:   Hi.  I’m Jim Crane with The Associated Press.  General, you guys have about a third or maybe a little over a third of what the 101st Airborne had, as far as troops go or U.S. Coalition troops in your AOs.  Was wondering how you’re making due with such a smaller amount of troops and how you’ve had to cut back in operations such as the ones you described, some of the civilian development operations and was also wondering if there was any sort of cutbacks in operations on the street – combat-type operations?  Thanks. 

 

            HAM:  In short, we’re doing quite well.  While we do have a smaller coalition force presence than the 101st Airborne Division had, we have a much more significant Iraqi Security Force contribution.  We have over 12,000 Iraqi Security Force members who are under my operational control and perform missions throughout the north.  So it is this balancing of missions that we wrestle with each and every day.  I think we are in good shape.  My assessment is the Iraqi Security Forces are improving their capabilities each and every day and taking on an increasing role, thereby reducing the burden on coalition forces. 

 

            Yes, please?

 

            Q:  Basam Hamsel (ph) with (inaudible).   (speaking in foreign language)

 

            HAM:  Thank you for that question.  There has been a change in the assigned area for Task Force Olympia.  This occurred before we got there.  The governor at Solamaniya (ph) previously was under the control of the 101st Division that was changed prior to our assumption of responsibility in the north.  So that segment of the Iranian border is under the control of the 4th Infantry Division at present. 

 

            We do have a small segment of the Iranian border that is in our area of responsibility, as well as the Turkish border.  We have Iraqi Border Police – are primarily responsible for the security along Iraq’s borders and we assist them in their training and in the execution of their duties and then they could go back to Washington, D.C.

 

            Q:  General, I’m Carl Osgood.  I write for Executive Intelligence Review.  Could you talk a little bit about the nature of insurgent activity that you might be seeing in your area of responsibility and what the security situation is like now? 

 

            HAM:  I’d be glad to.  We clearly find ourselves still countering an insurgent enemy in the north.  We see this enemy as taking the shape of former regime elements, extremists and – as well as foreign fighters, international terrorists.  Those cells, I think, are becoming increasingly desperate and isolated.  This evidence it itself, I think in some ways that we’ve seen in the past weeks, and that is attacks against Iraqi Security Force members in what I assessed to be an attempt to dissuade Iraqis from contributing to the future of their nation.  I think that – to me, that indicates the desperate nature of our enemy in that regard. 

 

            We certainly do see continuing terrorist activities in the north and we conduct operations as we are able to identify the sources and cells that participate in those operations.  We are very aggressive in attacking those as we identify them. 

 

            Yes, please?

 

            Q:  General Ham, Rajiv Chandrasekaran from The Washington Post.  Two questions for you, some of your fellow commanders in other parts of Iraq have reported, of late, seeing sort of a different composition in the insurgent threat – less Baathists, more Islamist extremists -- and I’m wondering if you’ve seen those similar trends up in your AO, in terms of a lessening, in terms of the FRE threat, but an increase in terms of what you’re seeing from both indigenous and foreign extremists?  And the second, just sort of following on to that, if you could just speak a little bit about what you’re seeing currently in terms of cross-border infiltration of terrorists and others? 

 

            HAM:  Let me take the last part first, if I may.  We do have some indications of cross-border operations.  Small-unit individual infiltrations, I think, would be more accurate.  We focus our collection efforts to try to detect those and intercept those, as we are able.  I think you’ve seen in recent days a renewed emphasis on border operations.  Principally, this is the Iraqi Border Police responsibility and we work closely with them to try to increase their capability. 

 

            With regard to the changing threat in the north, I think there is some evidence that the former regime elements, the former Baathists are losing their influence and becoming smaller in number, I think as they see -- in my view, as they see more and more Iraqis participating in the free development of their governments that the former regime elements are seeing that their chances for success are nil or at least in their view is perhaps dwindling. 

 

            We do see a continued terrorist threat in the north and, in my view, that is the most dangerous threat that we are posed with, at present, and we are focusing collection efforts and operation against them.

 

            Yes, please? 

 

            Miram Hamid Ali Afti Nishnuk (ph):  (speaking in foreign language)

 

            HAM:  In an overly simplistic way, we only detain important people.  If they’re not important, we would not detain them.  We do see evidence of Ansar al Islam operations in the north.  We do focus our efforts against them very specifically, because we recognize the threat that they pose not only in Northern Iraq, but throughout the country, so that’s a very high priority for us. 

 

            Yes, please, sir?

 

            Q:  (speaking in foreign language)

 

            HAM:  What we try to do with all of the Iraqi Security Forces is to find those men and women who are best qualified for the positions that we have available.  In most cases, that means that there is a mix of those who have served previously in the security forces and those who are new and we find that this balance generally pays the best dividends for us. 

 

            The border police have a very, very important responsibility on all of the borders of Iraq.  And the more that we can help them improve their proficiency -- through equipment, through training, through advising -- then the better off this country will be. 

 

            Q:  (speaking in foreign language)

 

            HAM:  I agree that we want to get the absolute best results we can along the border.  At present, most of our border – and I can only speak to the north – most of our positions are filled.  I think it would be advantageous to increase the number of border police.  We are in discussions with my headquarters, CJTF-7, in an effort to do that. 

 

            Yes, please? 

 

            Q:  Samit Hinish (ph), for the Danish Newspaper, Yulanspostin (ph).  General, how do you feel that you are being met by the local population in Mosul as liberators or is it a necessary evil or is an occupation force that should leave as soon as possible? 

 

            HAM:  All of the above.  I think it totally depends on whom you’re speaking with in Mosul.  I think the precedent that has been set by the 101st and I hope that our soldiers are continuing in that mode, is that in our primary responsibility is to help Iraqis.  We understand that it is not a pleasant circumstance to have an armed force in your country, in your city and so we try to be very respectful and conduct all of our operations with dignity and respect.  Having said that, there certainly are members of the community who wish that we were not there.  There is a much larger number – an overwhelming percentage – who I think know, understand and respect the mission that our coalition soldiers have and are performing. 

 

            In a very personal sense, I can tell you that we have been very warmly welcomed in Mosul and throughout the northern portion of Iraq by the overwhelming majority of people. 

 

            Perhaps we could go back to the Pentagon. 

 

            Q:  Good afternoon, general, this is Sandra Jontz with Stars and Stripes.  Recently, there’s been some testimony on Capitol Hill for military leaders as well as observers of the lawmakers who have said that some of the Iraqi forces that are there to assume some of the responsibilities and jobs, that there are some shortcomings in their training.  Could you please kind of characterize for us the level of adequacy, for lack of a better word, of those Iraqi forces, where those shortcomings are, what you’re doing to overcome those shortcomings and what risks they might present to U.S. forces in this short term? 

 

            HAM:  Thanks.  There are training, organizational and equipment shortfalls in the Iraqi Security Forces, there’s no question about that.   Our job is to help them through that, to find for them the equipment, to provide for them the training and to advise them so that they can become ever-increasingly responsible for their own security. 

 

            In my view, the principal shortfall, however, is not practical, but it is in the culture of a people trusting their security forces.  Remembering that we are in a place where previously Iraqi Security Forces were an oppressive element of the regime.  To now convert that and foster in the people of Iraq, a trust and confidence that these security forces are their security forces.  They are here for the good of all the people.  I have found that that to be quite a challenge up in the north.  I’m very confident that we will, through equipping and training and advising, over time developing the Iraqi Security Forces, the operational capability that is required.  Changing the mindset of the people, in my view, will be a little more difficult. 

 

            Yes, please? 

 

            Q:  (speaking in foreign language)

 

            HAM:  Could I ask you to re-state the second part of your question, please?

 

            Q:  (speaking in foreign language)

 

            HAM:  If I understood this, the second part of your question it was regard to  -- it was have we captured al Dhouri?   Is that correct? 

 

            Q:  Okay. 

 

            HAM:  I can assure you that when that happens, it won’t be me that’s up here to tell you that. 

 

            Q:  (speaking in foreign language)

 

            HAM:   The pesh murga or a militia?  It is very clear from statements from the administrator, from the commanding general of CJTF-7, and it is now encapsulated in the transitional administrative law that militias that are not under the federal structure are not helpful to the future of Iraq.  We are looking for ways to increasingly incorporate pesh murga forces into legitimate Iraqi Security Force structure, whether this be taking former pesh murga units and forming them under the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps or whether this is individual members, former members of the pesh murga serving in the Iraqi Armed Forces or in another security force construct.  It is clear that that is the role ahead for their former pesh murga forces is with Iraqi Security Force operations. 

 

            So do we conduct operations with pesh murga, no.  Do we conduct operations with ICDC that were formerly pesh murga and the answer is yes. 

 

            Perhaps, back to the Pentagon? 

 

            Q:  General, this is Carl Osgood from Executive Intelligence Review again.  I’d like to ask you, you’ve got this transition coming up on June 30th, this handover of sovereignty, whatever form that’s going to take.  Can you say how you’re planning – I mean, how is your mission going to change after June 30th?  Do you have some notion of what will occur? 

 

            HAM:  From a security standpoint, I don’t think our mission will change significantly from the 30th of June to the first of July.  It’s very clear that coalition forces are going to remain in Iraq, performing a security role for some period of time.  That period of time will be dependant on the capability of Iraqi Security Forces to perform those missions. 

 

            There will be certainly a difference for us in that the Coalition Provisional Authority is presently the sovereign government and we get all of our instructions or the country get its instructions from the CPA from a military side.  We will continue to receive our instructions from CJTF-7 and so I don’t see that there will be a major shift in security operations post the 30th of June. 

 

            Yes, please? 

 

            Q:  Hi.  Rachel from NBC.  If the pesh murga, for example, militia – will they have a difficult time incorporating them under the ISF, how much of – in your opinion -- of a threat do these militias or this specific militia pose to the national security of Iraq and sovereignty? 

 

            HAM:  Well, we don’t really have a big problem incorporating them into an Iraqi Security Force construct.  It is finding the right role for them to play in the future of Iraq.  I wouldn’t say that the former pesh murga pose a threat to Iraq, it is just that having militias that are outside of a federal architecture is inconsistent with the federalist nature that Iraq is developing toward.  So if there are going to be military forces, security forces in a country, they have to be part of an authorized and approved and structured organization, not separate entities with loyalties to something other than the federal government. 

 

            Yes, please?

 

            Q:  Hi.  Jim Crane again.  Wanted to ask you about one of the things that General Petrais was real big on was some of the rebuilding projects that he was doing up there with some of the CERP funds.  In October or November, they had a big spate of attacks on them, when they ran out of CERP monies.  And one of his brigade commanders, I believe, said that he thought the two were related, that they were getting shot at, basically, because they didn’t have any more money to work on some of the rebuilding projects. 

 

            Now you guys from what I understand, are doing a much smaller number of projects, rebuilding projects.  I was wondering if you could contrast the amount of rebuilding-type work that you are able to do, versus what 101st was able to do and let us know if there’s been any kind of resentment or pushback from the community, if you think there’s any attacks that were maybe related to the small number of jobs, perhaps, in these projects?  Thanks. 

 

            HAM:  Well, I’m sure they’re not going to refute anything that General Petrais said.  I’ve known him for almost 30 years and I tell you, I stand in awe of what he and his soldiers accomplished up there.  There is, I think, a direct relationship between the projects, many of which were CERP-funded and stability.  And that really is the link.  It’s not necessarily a specific number of dollars that results in a threat, but it is rather the application of CERP and other funding that helps bring an environment of stability to the region. 

 

            It’s also important to remember that, of course, when the 101st first got into Northern Iraq in April of 2003, there was little to no structure.  And so they had to do most everything themselves.  Now, almost a year later, their structure is starting to form.  There certainly are local and provincial governments that are standing up and are functioning.  The ministries here in Baghdad certainly are at a higher state of capability than they were.  So the reliance on CERP and other programs does become less over time.  It doesn’t mean there’s not a lot to do.  I mean, you all have been here.  You know that there is a vast amount of work that is still required.  But I do not see and have not seen attacks against coalition that I would make a direct link to CERP or other funding. 

 

            Yes, please? 

 

            Q:  General (speaking in foreign language)

 

            HAM:  I want to make it clear that I do not want to leave you with the impression that the pesh murga are on Iraq’s borders.  It is the Iraqi Border Police who are responsible for Iraq’s borders.  It is, in my opinion, there is a possibility of employing former pesh murga in an increased role in the Iraqi Border Police, but it must be as Iraqi Border Police, not as former pesh murga. 

 

            I welcome Ambassador Bremer’s support to increasing border protection services, not just in the north, but all over the country.  We are engaged on a frequent basis with my IR headquarters, CTJS-7, to identify what is, in my opinion, the requirements necessary to improve border police operations in the north.  This ranges from additional border police units to technical solutions to better training.  I think all of those components are necessary to improve the capability of the Iraqi Border Police for us along the Syrian, Turkish and a small portion of the Iranian border. 

 

            Yes, please? 

 

            Q:  General, I was wondering when you mentioned the terrorist elements, insurgent elements that you see up north, you didn’t mention the PKK and now thinking of the border operations which you just talked about briefly.  What evidence do you see of the PKK operating up in north and what steps can you tell us that you’re doing to minimize their threat? 

 

            HAM:  We do see intelligence reports that indicate that there is a PKK presence along the northern border areas.  We have not had an contact with any of those forces, have not had any engagement with them and do not, at this time, have any plans that are focused in that direction. 

 

            Q:  (inaudible)

 

            HAM:  No.  Clearly, if we had evidence of PKK members, then we are certainly obliged and authorized to detain them, but have not seen that. 

 

            Yes, in the back, please?

 

            Q:  Yoshbrit (ph) from NHK (ph).  General, could you give me a more clear picture of when you mentioned that you have indications of infiltration.  These chaps (ph), do they, like, cross the border in night, secretly disguised or, like, to do they enter their formal points of entry with a fake passport or what kind of pictures should we imagine when you say that there are infiltrations of foreign fighters? 

 

            HAM:  Well, I wouldn’t like to be very specific, frankly, because we still are conducting or trying to collect that information and conduct operations against them.  But we do see evidence that mostly individuals and small groups – very small groups – may be infiltrating across the border, using the variety of means that you addressed.  It’s not just one technique that we’re seeing, but a variety of means. 

 

            Yes, please? 

 

            Q:  On that same question, do you have any estimate of how many people would come across in a week, given the number of people you see and the number of people you probably miss? 

 

            HAM:  I would say small numbers.  My concern is not so much the numbers, but if these are truly dedicated and motivated, perhaps well-trained foreign fighters, then these could possibly form the nucleus of the most challenging threat to us.  So again, I think small numbers, but very lethal. 

 

            To the Pentagon, please. 

 

            Q:  General, this is Lieutenant Colonel Keck.  There are no more questions from the Pentagon.  Thank you. 

 

            HAM:  OK.  Thanks.  Any more here?  Yes, sir. 

 

            Q:  (speaking in foreign language)

 

            HAM:  On the 30th of June, when sovereignty is returned to Iraq, coalition forces will continue to have a security force responsibility.  It is very clearly my intent and the direction that I have received from General Sanchez and others is to, as expeditiously as we can, train Iraqi Security Forces so that they may assume their rightful role in protecting the people and the terroritory of Iraq.  In my view, the sooner we can do that, the better that will be for all.  But we must make sure that they are properly trained and experienced before we hand over full responsibility to them. 

 

            Yes, sir? 

 

            Q:  (speaking in foreign language)

 

            HAM:  There is in my AOR, area of responsibility, we have, indeed, only a small coalition presence in what is now the Kurdish regional government area.  That is driven based on my assessment of the threat.  I view the threat as, in that area, while it is important, is it not as significant a threat as in other parts of my area.  So we have the ability and the authority to conduct operations in that territory, should we need to do so.  We have done so in the past and will do so in the future, should we need to find the requirement to do that. 

 

            Yes, please, in the back. 

 

            Q:  General, The New York Times, John Burns.  I may have missed something in your earlier remarks, but I’m a little uncertain as to the pattern of military activity of insurgent and terrorist activity over the last several months.  We know it was pretty bad up there.  From what you’re saying, it seems to be well (ph) down.  We hear the chief administrator saying that he expects things to get a good deal worse between now and June the 30th.  I wonder if you can give us the broadest possible picture of how the United States Armed Forces are faring on the whole in this war?

 

            HAM:  Well, I can only talk about in my area.  I think there is every likelihood that we will see an increase in activity, again, based on – from each of those entities that we talked about:  terrorists and former fighters, extremists, criminals, former regime elements.  Because I think what those elements see now is that, in my view, they have lost their opportunity, but they may not quite see it that way, that we have achieved great momentum in progressing toward a future free Iraq.  And I think those who are opposed to that will find these next couple months and opportunities as they arise to try to stop that.  Each of them, I think, are differently motivated, but the results are often the same.  Evidencing themselves on attacks on coalition forces, attacks on Iraqi Security Forces, attacks on symbols of progress, whether those be economic or otherwise. 

 

            I think that we have the forces necessary, the coalition forces necessary in the north to cope with that threat.  As we build capability in the Iraqi Security Forces, we improve our capacity each and every day and I think that, again, that we will be able to meet the threats as they arise.  It doesn’t mean that there won’t be attacks.  There almost certainly will be.  There may be even spectacular attacks in the north, but we have not seen those since the 1st of February attacks in Irbil.  There could certainly be that.  But in my view, those are evidence of the desperate nature of our enemy. 

 

            Perhaps two more questions.  Yes, please? 

 

            Q:  General, Seth Walker (ph) from Reuters.  When the 101st was hit by a spike in attacks back in November, General Petrais’ command is mostly of the view that these are  being carried out by former regime elements.  Could you say whether you’ve seen an increase in border infiltrations, if you’re saying that the terrorist threat is presently the biggest that you’re facing in the north or would you think that it’s possible that foreign fighters that are in Iraq are starting to use the north as a base from which to launch operations? 

 

            HAM:  I think the terrorist threat, in my view, is the most dangerous because these are the most capable and most dedicated enemies that we face, at least in AOR north.  We have seen in past weeks attacks against Iraqi Security Forces, most notably against Iraqi police.  And I think those two are conducted by different groups.  I think those attacks against Iraqi police specifically are done by former regime elements who are opposed to a capable police force that would minister justice throughout the region.  And I think those attacks on police are also conducted by terrorist organizations, as we’ve seen in the Zarkawi letter and others in an attempt to remove civil control to allow for the emergence of, perhaps, a civil war. 

 

there side, please.  Yes?  Last question.

 

            Q:  General Ham, the Stryker Brigade, if I’m not mistaken, was intended to be a smaller and more flexible force.  And the Army is planning to introduce others.  Could you tell us a little bit about how your training and organization and preparation have  prepared you for your task in Northern Iraq and also as a follow-up, whether there is any lessons that you’ve already learned in the less than a month that would effect the future training of similar brigades? 

 

            HAM:  The Army designed the Stryker Brigade Combat Team to be a very agile and adaptive force.  I think it is that.  I think the soldiers of the Stryker Brigade have demonstrated that.  While I have been and Task Force Olympia have been officially in charge of the AOR only since the 5th of February, it is important to note that the Stryker Brigade began operations under the command and control of the 4th Infantry Division in early December of 2003.  So they have some very good experience under their belt, before they moved into the northern sector. 

 

            I think what we see with the Stryker Brigade Combat Team are soldiers who are very comfortable in the ambiguous situations that we find ourselves in.  They’re comfortable with junior leaders making very important decisions at the tactical level, based on incomplete information, based on their interpretation of the tactical situation.  What the technology of the Stryker Brigade Combat Team allows them to do, first of all with the Stryker vehicle, allows them to move very, very quickly, very stealthfully at night in mass combat forces, mostly dismounted infantry, at the point of decision.  They also have a suite of situational awareness equipment that allows them to see one another across the entire sector that we operate in, so we they understand where one another are all the time and are able to thereby coordinate their operations much more quickly, much more decisively. 

 

            I think, though, the greatest lesson learned that we have seen with the Stryker Brigade Combat Team is that when the Army forces are equipped with the most modern equipment, when they are provided ample training opportunities and when they are empowered at the junior officer and junior Non-Commissioned Officer level, to train and make decisions and operate the way we would like them to, the result has been very, very satisfactory. 

 

            Thank you all very much and I was very serious about my invitation to come to Mosul.  I think you would enjoy it.  We look forward to the opportunity to host you up there, where you can learn a little bit more about what we’re doing in the north.  Thank you very, very much.

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