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Defense Department Operational Update Briefing

Presenters: Lawrence Di Rita, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs
July 14, 2005 2:15 PM EDT
Defense Department Operational Update Briefing

            MR. DI RITA:  Good afternoon.  Sorry to keep you all waiting.  I wanted to let General Myers get a chance a finish.  I hope you all had a chance to hear him.  He was over at the Foreign Press Center today. But we -- we piped in -- excuse me? 

 

            Q     We were sitting here waiting for you! 

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Oh, stop.  (Laughter.)   

 

            (Chuckles.)  Well, you missed General Myers, then.  (Chuckles.) 

 

            General Myers gave some remarks at the Foreign Press Center, took some questions.  One of the things that he mentioned which I wanted to emphasize or reiterate is the recent transfer of control in the city of Ad Diwaniyah to an Iraqi army battalion from an El Salvador army unit.  So it's an indication of the capabilities of Iraqi security forces kind of maturing, continuing to mature.   

 

            Obviously we have always appreciated the involvement of El Salvador in the coalition.  They've done a very good job in their area of responsibility, and just yesterday they turned control of a section of that area to -- in Diwaniyah to an Iraqi army battalion. 

 

            Something else that the chairman mentioned, I think the other day -- he may have spoken to it a little bit today -- he mentioned it in a media interview the other day, and we've subsequently provided some information about the two al Qaeda operatives that were apprehended in Iraq in the last few days.  And I would just draw your attention to a Multinational Force Iraq release that came out this morning that provides a little bit more detail about that -- two important captures.  

 

            The insurgency continues, and operations against it continue. But I thought it would be worth drawing your attention to MNFI's statement, if you haven't seen it.   

 

            And with that -- one final note:  We're hoping -- we expect to have Major General Taluto, from the 42nd Infantry Division in one of the northern sectors of Iraq, with you tomorrow.   

 

            Q     Is it at 9 a.m.? 

 

            MR. DI RITA:  (To staff.)  Is it 9:00? 

 

            STAFF:  Nine a.m. 

 

            MR. DI RITA:  At 9 a.m.  So barring any technical challenges or his diversion to other not more but equally important objectives, we hope to see him tomorrow morning. 

 

            With that, I'll be happy to respond to a couple of questions. Will? 

 

            Q     Larry, I know this may sound more like a State Department question, but we were told earlier today by someone inside the building that General Casey is saying that it's possible that as early as, I guess, tomorrow that there may be some type of draft on the Iraqi constitution made public.  Do you know anything about that?  

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Well, it is mostly a State Department issue.  The embassy is working together with the Iraqi government to keep an eye on the progress.  There is progress in the development of the constitution.  There has been -- we've all seen the reports about the involvement of the many factions inside of Iraq in developing this constitution through the process that the Iraqis established.   

 

            I wouldn't want to say that there's something that's going to be coming out soon.  I know that General Casey, who's obviously much closer to it than I am, has a sense that the progress is quite good. But the objective is that this be completed by August 15th.  That's the objective that everybody expects will be met.  And I wouldn't start looking for something specifically before that date.  If it happens, that would be wonderful.  We did, as you recall, transfer sovereignty a day or two early last year.  We thought we were going to do it on the 1st of July or 30th of June.  We did it on the 28th. 

 

            On the other hand, I recall that the Temporary Administrative Law took a week or two to finish up beyond their original deadline.  So these things kind of come and go.  But I think everybody's hope and expectation is that they'll meet the deadline of August 15th, and if it were to happen sooner, we'll just wait and see. 

 

            Q     And was it your understanding that Casey said that there may be something tomorrow? 

 

            MR. DI RITA:  I have -- I've heard the same thing.  I've heard others in this department say it.  But what I'm saying is when it's ready, it'll be announced.  And it mostly is the State Department. The embassy is working very closely, but obviously, so is General Casey to the -- he's involved because he's there, and he's aware of the political developments and has a very good read on it.  But again, the objective is August 15th, and if it were to happen sooner, that would be wonderful, but we'll wait and see. 

 

            Q     Larry, can you update us on confirmations for officials coming up on the Hill?  What's going on there and especially with this pension issue? 

 

            MR. DI RITA:  It would be nice to think we'll get some of those people confirmed before the Iraqi constitution is complete, but it remains to be seen.  The -- Congress will go out of session -- obviously, the Senate will recess for the August recess I think at the end of this month.  We've got a number of people pending up there. Each of these cases is a little bit different.  And -- but we're hoping that we can move some folks through.  We've had some progress. General Moseley was recently confirmed to be the next chief of staff of the Air Force.  Dan Stanley as the assistant secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs.  But we have others.  Obviously, the Deputy Secretary of Defense position remains open, formally speaking, although Gordon England is acting in that position.  We hope that he will be confirmed soon. 

 

            I know that the committee and the Senate is trying to work through a number of issues that, I think, are different in each case. Senator Levin has some particular concerns that we have been working closely with him to resolve that has -- 

 

            Q     On the Edelman matter, you mean? 

 

            MR. DI RITA:  He doesn't have concerns on the individual.  He has concerns on some documents he'd like greater insight into.  From here in the department we've provided him, I think, a couple of thousand documents on the issues that he's been concerned about and are preparing some more that we hope will be responsive to his desires. But I think he has acknowledged that on that basis he is going to withhold on clearing Mr. Edelman.  We hope that can be resolved.     

 

            We have Peter Flory, who's the designee for the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy, in the same situation.  So we're hopeful we can work through each of these.  They do each have their own individual circumstances.  But in this case -- in the case of England, Flory and Edelman, none of them have to do with the individual, they have to do with issues that are important to the Senate, and we're trying very hard to work through those issues with the Senate. 

 

            Q     Another Hill question? 

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Does that help you? 

 

            Q     Yes, very much. 

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Great. 

 

            Q     Larry, ask you another Hill question.  This report to Congress that was supposed to be transmitted on Monday regarding progress in Iraq, could you explain why it hasn't gone up yet?  Is it a matter of doing the report work, or is it a question of, say, negotiating with Congress on what you will provide and what you don't want to provide? 

 

            MR. DI RITA:  No.  It's -- the latter not at all.  It's -- they -- Congress -- it came in the appropriations -- emergency appropriations bill, the supplemental approps.  It's a wide range of things that the Senate has asked for, that the Congress has asked for.  And all of -- most of that information was being compiled in other places and kind of moving it into a single report and ensuring that what moves out of one report and into this report is consistent.  It's -- we're just trying to be very careful that with all the amount of -- we've provided an enormous amount of information to the Congress on progress in Iraq, and we want to make sure that this consolidated submission is consistent with the disparate submissions that we've provided over the months and years.  So it's just taken time to kind of get it in one place and make sure that we're comfortable that it's consistent with the various reports we've provided. 

 

            Q     Imminent? 

 

            MR. DI RITA:  By Pentagon standards -- (chuckling) -- "imminent" is a very elastic notion.  We're only a week over, and for us, that's pretty good.  I think we have something on the order of somewhere between 6(00) and 800 reports that are due to Congress every year based on various insertions into various pieces of legislation, and we kind of paddle as fast as we can and we get them out as fast as we can, so. 

 

            Q     Follow-up? 

 

            MR. DI RITA:  And -- which follows on Will's question to the China report. 

 

            Q     Get it before the Iraqi constitution, for example? 

 

            MR. DI RITA:  We -- as I said, we've provided the Congress a lot of information.  And the public -- you.  And a lot of this is kind of boiling that amount of information into a single place, and that's -- and so it's not going to be new information, it's going to be information in a new -- newly packaged format.  And that's -- and so it's -- don't look for new information.  Just look for it in one place.  And that's what -- we'll get it done.  And I expect it to be probably before the Congress recesses in August. 

 

            Q     One important bit of information which came up at the hearings again was the issue of the readiness of the Iraqi forces. 

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Right. 

 

            Q     Which you mentioned earlier in this press conference was encouraging news.  Will that be in that report?  And -- 

 

            MR. DI RITA:  There are some assessments of readiness such as they can be provided in a format of this nature.  I think some of the information is classified, and some of it's not classified.  There will be classified portions of this report.  But some of it won't be, and that which is not classified we'll obviously make available. 

 

            Q     Larry, how significant is the capture of the two al Qaeda leaders?  And is there any growing optimism that U.S. forces are getting closer to Zarqawi, given the fact that these two are apparently so high up? 

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Well, we believe that this fellow Abu Abdul Aziz is the al Qaeda leader in Baghdad.  How significant is that?  They always have somebody behind them.  So there's no individual who will stop the -- you know, whose capture will stop the insurgency.  On the other hand, the more of these people that we capture, the more information we gain.  We believe that Abu Seba had something to do with the diplomat attacks over the course of the last few weeks, so we'll learn from that.  So -- again, there's no individual whom we will capture that will stop this.  But I think if you're looking at the general trend, we're capturing a lot -- a lot of these guys.  And from that developing a lot of intelligence. 

 

            Q     Isn't that the usual -- 

 

            MR. DI RITA:  I wouldn't want to connect it, though, to a sense of timing on Zarqawi.  When we get him, we'll get him. 

 

            Q     Isn't there a danger, though, that as you capture a lot of the top leaders, the lower rungs may scatter and disperse and turn into, basically, the smaller ones that aren't necessarily run by a central organization? 

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Yeah.  I mean, there's a lot of things that can happen as a result.  But what we know about al Qaeda is that it's a networked organization, so when you disrupt aspects of the network, it disrupts their operations to some extent.  Now, we have seen -- and I'm not trying to overstate this -- that they can recover from that and they go off and recruit somebody else.  But over time, we have disrupted a lot of al Qaeda senior leadership, and these two individuals are at some level in at least the Iraq cells, and we expect to get information from them that will be helpful going forward.

 

Brian?

 

            Q     Larry, that horrible attack yesterday with the children, I mean, you've seen the troops go out there.  This is part of their -- you know, even if they tried to stop handing out candy to children, the kids just keep running up to the convoys.  I mean, is there anything that you're thinking about here in the Pentagon or that U.S. troops can do to try to prevent something like that from happening again?  This is the second time in a year that a group of children have been blown up. 

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Yeah.  It is a, obviously, tragic circumstance.  I think again, as we've said, when somebody's willing to kill themselves, it's a very difficult thing to defend against.   

 

            Iraqis do tend to react to U.S. forces when they're in their area.  They appreciate the fact that U.S. forces are there.  They tend to collect around U.S. forces.  And when these kinds of tragedies occur, we obviously lament them and look for what ways that we might adjust our procedures so that that could be avoided.   

 

            But again, when somebody's willing to kill themselves, it's a very difficult thing to -- or put themselves in a position where -- a suicide bomb or an IED where they can remotely detonate it, it's difficult to defend against. 

 

            Q     So is somebody thinking about maybe putting out some guidance to troops that maybe you shouldn't create situations that congregate children? 

 

            MR. DI RITA:  I don't know.  And we can find out.  It's a question you might ask one of the commanders, if you speak to them tomorrow. But I think it's an issue that they are mindful of, that they know that it does present an elevated risk, a target risk, to Iraqi citizens as well as U.S. forces.  

 

            But the interaction with the Iraqi citizens by both Iraqi security forces and coalition forces is, on balance, a positive thing, and it's not the kind of thing you want to restrict too much because it's something that the Iraqis themselves I think appreciate – and my observation has been they appreciate it. 

 

            Q     Larry, before, when you were talking about the state of where the constitution is for Iraq, I think General Casey was saying that by tomorrow there might be some form of it in a rough draft.  Are you saying that that isn't ready?  Or were you speaking about whether -- 

 

            MR. DI RITA:  No, what I'm saying is -- first of all, I'll leave to General Casey, who has a much better sense of it than I do, but the objective is that there be a constitution complete by August 15th.  I think the general view is that we're on track for that.  Everybody understands the importance of getting it complete on or about that date.   

 

            But I wouldn't be surprised if, for whatever reason, people's expectations here as we get close to that date ebb and flow.  And that's the nature of these things.  We saw it, as I said, with the TAL.  We saw it with the transfer of sovereignty.  And if there's a draft that people start circulating and it gets published in papers, and all of the things that happen with this kind of thing, I think that would be terrific.  And if it doesn't happen, nobody should consider that any portent.  I mean, August 15th is the date, and that's the date we expect this process to be complete. 

 

            Q     Larry, what's your assessment of the level of violence in Afghanistan, and what should we make of the deployment of the battalion of the 82nd that's going over there? 

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Well, the -- when -- I think back in the spring we acknowledged -- I think General Abizaid did; we certainly have -- that as we get closer to the election we anticipate the Taliban to throw everything they have at this, for whatever effect that may have.  And as a result, we did have this notice, this unit on notice to prepare to deploy.  And Abizaid has determined that under the circumstances he would just as soon have the additional force around the time of the election.  So this unit will go.  

 

            I don't think the -- Abizaid was here a week or so ago and talked about what he considers to be generally steady progress in Afghanistan.  But I think he also acknowledged that, with this coming election cycle, he is preparing for the possibility that there will be an upsurge in violence.  And that's why he's asked for this additional battalion.  But we -- he anticipated that back in the spring when this battalion was notified.  As a matter of fact, it had been intended that it would deploy, and then didn't deploy, was just put on notice. And so now he'll ask for it.  And that's prudent.  It's -- when he has asked for more forces, he's gotten them; when he's said he doesn't need forces, he hasn't.  And at this moment, he thinks he wants a little bit of a plus-up during the election cycle, and we did it through normal rotation adjustments in Iraq, and we -- in January; we did it in Afghanistan last year in December.  So it's consistent with the pattern that he'd established.   

 

            But again, last election we saw very little violence in Afghanistan.  We all hope that's the case this time.  But hope's not a plan.  I mean, he's planning for the contingencies that might arise. 

 

            Q     That Salvadoran unit, Aduaniga, is it being transferred to another part of Iraq or is it coming back? 

 

            MR. DI RITA:  I do not know the status of that unit, and whether -- I don't know where it is in its deployment cycle and what the current status of Salvador government decisions is with respect to it. So --   

 

            Q     Okay.  A second question.  In London there have been some editorials calling for DOD, and specifically Secretary Rumsfeld, to apologize for the Air Force's having told personnel not to go into central London.  Is there any reaction to that? 

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Well, you know, it's hard for people to understand, because it's that they see this big bureaucracy and they assume decisions are made by command and control out of the third floor.  We have an -- we have a large number of military commanders who are responsible for their areas of operations, and they make decisions every day.  And in this case, a commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe made a decision, first because of the difficulty of people moving in and out of London, he didn't want to add to that difficulty on the day of the incident.  And then the second day, when the transportations were shut down, he made a judgment that it would be easier for the people of London not to have U.S. people moving in and out.  It turned out to be a decision that was unnecessary and one that -- in which the Secretary had no involvement.  And when he learned of it through press reports, immediately determined that it was not the decision he agreed with.  And -- but other commanders senior to the commander who made the decision had already made that same assessment.   

 

            In other words, you have somebody who makes a determination. He's responsible for force protection, he makes an immediate call:  in the absence of a lot of information, this is what I'm going to do.  Senior commanders, including, in this case, the Supreme Allied Commander of Europe, questioned that decision, said it's not necessary.  The Secretary's own views was it not necessary.  And it was rescinded.  I mean, these things happen.  I think the Secretary spoke for himself and for the department on the day of the bombings when he went to the embassy, signed the condolence book and talked at some length about the deep respect he had for the way that the British government was responding to this.  The way the President responded to it speaks for the United States.   

 

            And I don't think -- I think people understand that commanders make decisions and then people step back with a different perspective and say "that's one you want to rethink."   And it didn't take a lot for the commander to decide just to rescind his decision.  But with the amount of information he had available, he made a call.  The secretary learned about it through press reports, like most of us did. And when he learned of it, he and other senior commanders had determined that's just not necessary. 

 

            Q     Was he ordered to rescind the decision or did he just decide he was -- 

 

            MR. DI RITA:  I believe, both in the administrative and the operational chain of command, senior commanders to the commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe directed that the decision be rescinded. But I think with the passage of a few days, that commander himself determined that the thing was no longer.  So I don't know if it was ordered or self-determined and then followed on by an order, but a few people above his level, with the perspective that they had, stepping back a little bit, thought that that wasn't necessary, and it turned out not to be necessary.  So there's not too much to dwell on. 

 

            Q     Larry, in recent days the governments in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have said things along the lines of questioning the continued presence of U.S. forces in their countries.  Has Secretary Rumsfeld gotten on the phone, talked to his counterparts in either of those countries about this? 

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Not to my knowledge, he has not. 

 

            Q     Does he plan to? 

 

            MR. DI RITA:  He's traveled to the region on several occasions. We were in Kyrgyzstan, as a matter of fact, back in the spring.  But he has not had any contacts since this issue has arisen.  I mean, there's been discussion of it inside the U.S. government.  There is a lot of discussion about the proper approach, what's the next step. There's no single installation anywhere in the world that, you know, we must have and can't live without, so we'll make adjustments if we're not going to use those installations going forward.  But he's not, to my knowledge, had any direct conversations with any of his counterparts in those countries.   

 

            Q     Are you saying that the government is considering whether to offer to pull out, or -- 

 

            MR. DI RITA:  No.  I simply refer to comments that the State Department has made about what the level of transparency would be desirable for the investigation of the incidents at Andijan in Uzbekistan.  I mean, it's a more narrow aspect of the issue that you were raising.  But there's been discussions at NATO and inside the government about, you know, what is the appropriate military-to-military interaction in a situation like that, where you clearly have a country that's trying to manage a tough internal terrorist problem, which you do have in Uzbekistan, but is also kind of -- you've got obvious human rights challenges.  So there's no quick answer on this one. 

 

            But the installations, none of them are so critical to our operations that we couldn't do fine and work around them if we weren't operating from those places any longer. 

 

            Q     Are China and Russia being -- and/or Russia being unhelpful on that front? 

 

            MR. DI RITA:  You know, we've had a lot of interactions, and I would refer you to the State Department on the general policy.   But I think it's an issue that does arise when the Secretary meets with his Russian counterpart -- you know, the U.S. activities in Central Asia.  But it's part of our operations in the struggle against violent extremism, and I think the Russians understand that.  The same thing applies to our involvement in Georgia, which we know is a situation of some anxiety for the Russians.  But the United States has its own sets of relationships around the world, and I think countries like Russia understand that. 

 

            Any other thoughts?  

 

            Where's Charlie?  We missed Charlie today. 

 

            Q     Vacation. 

 

            MR. DI RITA:  Good.  Well, I hope you all get some time off.  And if there's no other questions, it's good to see you all again. 

 

            Thank you.

 

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