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DoD News Briefing with Marine Col. Larry Nicholson Live from Camp Fallujah, Iraq

Presenter: Marine Col. Larry Nicholson commander of Regimental Combat Team 5
November 17, 2006 12:00 PM EDT
(Note: The colonel appears via teleconference from Camp Fallujah, Iraq.)

BRYAN WHITMAN (Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): Good morning, and welcome.

Let's see if we've got good communications here with Colonel Nicholson. Colonel Nicholson, this is Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon. Can you hear me okay?

COL. NICHOLSON: Hi, Bryan. This is Larry Nicholson in Fallujah. Got you loud and clear.

MR. WHITMAN: Well, thank you very much for joining us today, and welcome to the press corps this morning. This is Marine Colonel Larry Nicholson, who is the commander of the Regimental Combat Team 5. He commands nearly 5,000 Marines, soldiers and sailors, and has been operating out in Multinational Force West since February of this year. And as he indicated, he's at Camp Fallujah today.

Welcome, Colonel, and thank you for joining us. And why don't I turn it over to you for some opening remarks, and then we can get into some questions here.

COL. NICHOLSON: Okay. Great. Thanks.

A short opening statement, but I certainly appreciate the opportunity to talk about the great work being done by your Marines, soldiers and sailors of the Regimental Combat Team 5 here in Al Anbar. Each day these young Americans are risking their lives for the basic security of the Iraqis, supporting local governance and improving the economic opportunities and conditions, and, in short, making life better for the Iraqis. There's no aspect of the Iraqi challenge that your Marines are not involved in and working hard to improve. And again, you can be very proud of the job that your young men and women are doing here.

As you know, RCT 5's primary mission is the development of the Iraqi security forces, which include both the Iraqi army -- (brief audio break from the source) -- which has been very successful here in Fallujah.

But in a larger context, we see security as only one of several other lines of operation that we aggressively pursue every day. They include economic development and the development of governance in several forms. This includes governance -- and the government of the locally elected officials and appointed officials, which we're very fortunate to have here in Fallujah, as well as working closely with tribal sheikhs and imams, which some of my peers may not have the opportunity to do in other parts of the country. In a nutshell, we see ourselves as a windbreak -- (audio break from source) -- and mentoring economic growth and governance.

The regiment's force subordinate battalions work closely with their Iraqi army brigades and police over an area of operations that stretches 30 miles from east to west, and 60 miles from north to south. We cover most of the distance between Baghdad and Ramadi, and include some cities you may not have heard of, like Gharmah, Amiriya, Ferris, Sakalaweyah, Habbaniya, and one that is certainly very familiar to you, and that is the city of Fallujah.

Fallujah, of course, is famous as the site of Operation Al-Fajr, a battle fought exactly two years ago, where the 1st Marine Division assaulted to defeat insurgents who were using the city as an enemy stronghold and sanctuary. These insurgents had taken the city hostage, pushed out much of the local population, and denied both coalition and Iraqi security force access or control anywhere near the city. Operation Al-Fajr was, of course, a hard-fought victory for both the coalition and the Iraqi security forces and the citizens of the city. And in the subsequent two years, we have aggressively worked to make Fallujah a model of progress, cooperation, and see it as an emerging, advanced and forward-looking city, perhaps one of the most in all of Iraq, certainly the most in all of Al Anbar province.

In the two years since the conclusion of the battle, the population has rebounded to pre-Al-Fajr levels. Today anywhere between 300,000 and 400,000 is our estimate. The mayor will tell you about 500,000. But not only have most of the original citizens returned, but many Iraqi citizens who were fleeing sectarian violence in Baghdad have found refuge in Fallujah.

While the fleeing of Sunni citizens from Baghdad is in itself a tragedy, the fact that Fallujah has become the overwhelming destination of choice for these seeking refuge and peace is a great testament to the work done here in Fallujah by the coalition forces, the Iraqi forces and our local government. Our citizens take great pride in the fact that Fallujah can now offer such hospitality, even under these dire circumstances.

The government of Iraq has provided $70 million for the rebuilding of residences damaged or destroyed during the battle of Al- Fajr. That's about 70 percent; we are still working with the government to find the extra 30 percent. We do boast in the city now an elected mayor, a functional city council that we meet with routinely, an Iraqi police force has been established as well as an Iraqi army brigade that works now in the city. Each of these elements of government, police and the Iraqi army work alongside the Marines, sailors and soldiers of RCT-5 every day to solve the city's challenges.

In terms of progress, there's perhaps no more telling statistic than this: when I left here in March of 2005 and returned to Camp Pendleton, there was about 3,000 Marines and soldiers in the city. As I returned 11 months later in February of '06, there were 300. That is a significant measure of progress under any scale.

There were no police in Fallujah at the end of Al-Fajr; today over 700 police report daily for duty.

The key to our success in Fallujah has been a thematic approach. We focus on "team Fallujah," meaning that as the Marines, the Iraqi army, the Fallujah police and the local citizens working together, nothing can stop us, no one can beat us.

There's a lot more in our area of responsibility than Fallujah. In each of the population centers I previously mentioned -- Gharma, Amiriya, Ferris, Sakalaweyah, Habbaniya -- there are Iraqi police and army soldiers working together with RCT 5 to neutralize the insurgency and provide a safe and secure environment for their government and an economy to develop. The regiments supporting the battalions each work closely with the Iraqi army units, down to the battalion and company level, training, mentoring and fighting against the insurgency. In addition to our regular combat formations, we have police transition teams and army military transition teams that work closely with the Iraqi forces to develop their skills and mentor their leadership.

In many locations, Marines, Iraqi soldiers and police, along with Iraqi civilians and military advisers, live and work together in the same facility, sharing the same hardships, dangers and goals for the future. Despite a campaign of murder and intimidation of local civic leaders and police by insurgents and criminals, city government and police stations across our area continue to develop and grow.

As I mentioned earlier, progress is clearly evident in Fallujah, where coalition commanders and civil affairs officers meet weekly with the mayor, city council and numerous other formations where we work to resolve the daily challenges within the city, ranging from security to sewer, water, electrical and many other infrastructure issues that concern our citizens.

I believe that leader engagement at all levels and the development of personal relations has served us well in our mission. I emphasize with all of our newly arriving junior officers and noncommissioned officers that we stress the importance of respect, courtesy to locals in our daily activities. We also emphasize to the locals that time is fleeting. U.S. forces will not be here forever. We have no colonial aspirations. We must work together and get the heavy lifting done while we are here. This means jump-starting businesses, fixing infrastructure and clearing the streets of thugs, criminals and intimidators, who thrive in the chaos for personal gain.

The message resonates well and I feel that it's been a catalyst for our success. Fallujah is today a boomtown for construction and is again reasserting its financial muscle in the province. We continue to work feverishly on items like electrical distribution, but what we are finding out is that there has now recently developed a First World appetite for consumer goods like air conditioners, satellite TVs, freezers and fridges, while there still remains a Third World infrastructure that struggles to keep up.

Probably the most pressing need we have right now in our area of operations is a lack of Iraqi soldiers and police. The ones we have are doing great, but we just don't have enough. We need to have more positive developments in Baghdad that will also help build confidence in the central government. Sunni engagement and Sunni inclusion in the decision-making in Baghdad will pay great dividends in towns like Fallujah.

In the end, I think our citizens all understand that no matter how successful Fallujah is, if Baghdad continues to have stability issues and problems, we will all be negatively affected.

As we have stated so often to our local citizens -- and they're certainly tired of us hearing -- hearing us say it -- the future of Iraq will not be decided by the Americans or the Iranians; it will in fact be decided by the Iraqis.

In closing, I think we all understand that there's no magic bullet in Iraq, but the Marines and the Iraqi citizens and the security force members continue to work faithfully towards a free and independent Iraq, one day at a time. I am immensely proud of what we've accomplished in Fallujah and the surrounding AO over the last 10 months and can state unequivocally that our progress is a direct result of forging close personal working relationships and teamwork with the Iraqi army, the Fallujah police and the municipal leadership, which is a cadre of brave and selfless citizens.

Thank you for the opportunity today to talk about the great Fallujah AO, and allow me to tell you firsthand one more time about the amazing work being conducted by the nearly 5,000 Marines, sailors and soldiers of the combat team. And again, we also have 4,000 Iraqi security forces working with us. And again, I just could not be prouder or more humbled to be the commanding officer of RCT-5, which is the Marine Corps's most decorated regiment, as we continue our mission here in Fallujah, Iraq.

This concludes my opening statement, and I would certainly enjoy hearing any questions you might have about what RCT-5 is doing in Fallujah AO. Thank you.

MR. WHITMAN: Well, thank you for that comprehensive overview, and we do have a few questions.

Mr. Burns.

Q: Colonel, this is Bob Burns from AP. The other day General Abizaid told the Senate Armed Services Committee that that the 15th MEU is en route to Anbar. I was wondering if you could tell us whether they're going to be attached to your RCT.

And also, another point that General Abizaid made was that he would like to see the military transition teams increase in size. I'm wondering how that would play out, in your view. Would that -- how much would that help your mission or training, or accelerate the training?

COL. NICHOLSON: Yeah. First question first. As far as the 15th MEU goes, I don't know where they're going. And I'm sure that my boss at MEF has a plan for them, but right now I don't know where the 15th MEU is going.

I can tell you they're not going to Fallujah. That's what I do know.

As far as General Abizaid's comments, I'd tell you I think that's a page right out of our playbook. We have out of hide here increased our military and police training teams. We understand the importance of, again, those personal relations that I mentioned earlier, and having more exposure and greater exposure to our great young officers and noncommissioned officers down there at the company and battalion levels.

So I -- absolutely, General Abizaid is exactly right. I think it'll make a great difference. I'd like to see the size of the MTT teams double, and I'd like to see that program continue and expand. And I would tell you we've already done that. We've taken Marines and soldiers out of our combat formations, so that they can work more closely with the Iraqi security forces. And as, again, I said, my principal mission is Iraqi security force development, and I can best do that by working more closely with them every day. Thank you.

MR. WHITMAN: Pam.

Q: Colonel, this is Pam Hess with UPI. How many Marines and soldiers have you taken out of your combat formations and put into Mitt, and how have they expanded the force?

And would you tell us a little more about the exodus of people from Baghdad to Fallujah -- how many, where are they staying, how are their needs being taken care of? And do you expect them to stick around now and become permanent Fallujans?

COL. NICHOLSON: Okay, firstly, we take them out of hide by asking our companies and battalions. I work with my battalion commanders. We've probably doubled the size of the teams right now. A battalion MTT team may be 10 guys. I think they're probably double that size right now. We also send a number of support personnel -- drivers, radio operators, corpsmen. So we probably, out of hide, already doubled the size of the MTTs. And I would tell you, I think we could probably even double it again. And I think we're making recommendations again to my boss, General Zilmer, we certainly endorse General Abizaid's proposal, and we think that is clearly the way ahead.

You know, one of the things I tell our guys all the time is we should be doing less every day as the Iraqis do more. And again, it -- (word inaudible) -- great, it's a great bumper sticker. It's, in practice, tougher to do. But this is a way to get after that a little bit by increasing that exposure and their professionalism down there.

I would tell you, the Iraqi security forces, the Iraqi army, they're great mimics. And I don't mean that in a negative way. They mimic. They see how a young NCO conducts inspections before patrol, they see what a patrol order looks like, they see the rehearsal that goes into -- before you leave a FOB, and they mimic that. They're great imitators, and we consider that -- you know, that's great flattery. So I think our Marine NCOs that work down there, and young officers, understand that, and there's a great deal of satisfaction of seeing an Iraqi platoon that you've been working with and training going out and just nailing a patrol and just doing great out there.

But I would tell you, there's another part of MTT, the military training team, and that's the partnership. Each of my infantry battalions -- I have four battalions working for me in the regiment. Each of my battalions not only support the MTT, but they support a partnership program. We are, as Marines, a better unit when we go out that we have Iraqis with us. You know, nothing against our great force -- and again, we're exceptionally capable -- but the Iraqis see things we'll never see. They understand intuitively things that we just won't understand.

Now, they can also, upon talking to the guy, immediately tell you, "Hey, this guy's a Syrian," or "This guy's from somewhere else. This guy is not local." And again, it doesn't matter how many linguists I have, how many interpreters I have, you can't train that. So we actively seek to work with the Iraqi forces each and every time we go out.

Okay. Hope that answers the question. Whoa --

Q: (Off mike) -- the question was about the people coming into Fallujah. But would you tell us the numbers of people you now have working on the MTT teams?

COL. NICHOLSON: Yeah. We're probably -- at the battalion MTTs, we're probably in the 20 range; at the regimental MTT or brigade MTT, we're probably up in the 30 range, and again, that's a result of our adding people.

And again, there's temp loans, there's times where we will send squads over, we will send machine gun sections over, we will send -- if we're going to teach patrolling package, we'll send a platoon over, and they'll just stay with that Iraqi battalion, you know, for a week or so.

So the permanent MTT we doubled, and then on top of that, we continue to add more folks with them all the time.

As far as Baghdad residents coming here -- my estimate right now is about 150 a day. And we track that very closely, because we have in Fallujah, for lack of a better term, a gated community. There are six entry points into the city of Fallujah, and you cannot drive into the city of Fallujah unless you go through one of these entry points. Well, you can't even get through an entry point unless you have an ID resident badge. And we have what we call a Fallujah Development Center where we make ID cards for what we call our IDPs, or for those that want to seek their refuge in the city of Fallujah.

What we don't have in Fallujah is we don't have refugee camps or IDP camps. We don't have tents or any of that. The Fallujahans are very giving, and the Fallujahans accept these people. We've opened up apartments. And again, one of the things, as I mentioned -- the city's booming. There's a lot of new housing going up, apartment buildings are opening, but even some of the damaged structures that still remain, we are able to rehab them to a position where they can accept some of these families. But by and large, they are being welcomed, and they are being housed, fed by families in Fallujah. And again, the tribal connectivity here, as you can imagine among the Sunni, they have no problem bringing in these people.

This has been going on probably since the Samarra violence earlier this summer. And again, we track very closely how many people come in.

What we can't track is when they leave and go back to Baghdad. And there are certain neighborhoods in Baghdad, they ebb and flow. Things get better in Baghdad and part of our population packs up and goes back home; things get worse, they come back. So we can tell you -- I could tell you pretty accurately how many we have in the city; a little tougher to tell you how long they stay and exactly when they go home.

MR. WHITMAN: Pam, did you want to try one more time?

Q: Yeah, if --

Q: Let me try.

Q: Yeah, you try.

MR. WHITMAN: All right, David.

Q: Colonel, Dave Wood from the Baltimore Sun. First, could you tell us on any given day roughly how many trainers and advisers you've got out with the security forces? And secondly, we notice here a tragically steady flow of casualties, Marine casualties and soldiers from your area. Could you give us an idea of what's causing that, what's going on and in what kind of situations you're taking casualties?

COL. NICHOLSON: Okay. First question, I'll hit that one first. I work with nine Iraqi battalions and I work with three Iraqi brigades. So -- I mean, I'll let you do the math, but I've got about -- in terms of MTT trainers, we've got about 20 at each battalion, we got about 30 at the brigades. That gives you a ballpark number of where we're at. And again, I would double that. We're looking to increase that, and I would double that out of hide. I wouldn't expect anyone else to pick up that weight.

In terms of our steady flow of casualties, our stats are about five attacks a day in the city of Fallujah. Now again, understand I've only got one of my four battalions in the city of Fallujah. So I realize we're Fallujah-centric, but there's an iconic value to Fallujah that I think we all understand, but I think your question pertains to the whole AO -- again, 30 miles by 60 miles in scope. So my RCT-5 casualties probably, in fact, encompass all that area.

But in the city of Fallujah there are probably about five attacks a day. Now, that's not just against Marines; that's against police, that's against Iraqi army and that's against Marines. Now, an attack includes an IED that is found that doesn't go off. An attack includes a mortar round that lands 200 yards from anything that -- and has no damage. But it also includes a catastrophic IED that will kill three Marines or three Iraqi jindi (ph) or police.

So I don't ever want to call it a benign level of violence, and I wouldn't do that, but I mean our average probably right now is about five incidents a day. A little bit during Ramadan, we peaked up to about seven. We're back down to five right now. And again, we don't accept it any more than the mayor of New York accepts the fact that there's murders every night in his city. He doesn't like it, he doesn't want it, and he works hard to eradicate it. And it's the same thing here. There is that level of violence that we go after. But this is, after all, a city that I believe is about 400,000 in strength, and five attacks a day are five more than I'd like, but that's what it is.

Q: Colonel, Tom Bowman with National Public Radio. When I was out with some of your battalions back in September, there was clearly, you know, a great lack of trust among Sunnis for the Maliki government. Few Sunnis were signing up for the army. The province was not getting the reconstruction money it was promised from Baghdad. And there were also fears that the provincial elections slated for the spring would not happen.

Can you talk about each one of those and what you do to -- you know, to make the Sunnis feel like they're going to be part of this new country?

COL. NICHOLSON: Yeah, Tom, great to hear from you. And I certainly enjoyed your visit out here with us. Hope you come back and see us again.

You know, you're spot on. There is a real sense of mistrust by our local elected officials. And again, you know, I'm fairly boastful about our city council, but I got an elected mayor with a city council that work to solve problems every day, and we're very fortunate to be in a position that we have that, and we work hard to support that, even against a murder and intimidation campaign where we've lost some members of the city council. They continue to meet against all odds. And again, I am in awe of their ability to continue to show up each and every day to work on behalf of their city.

But I would tell you that every city council meeting opens with a little bit of a dialogue, sometimes a soliloquy by the mayor or by the city council about what the Maliki government is not doing for them. And again, as I mentioned in my opening statement, there is just that belief that there is a Sunni disenfranchisement that is palpable in the city of Fallujah. They just don't believe that the government right now in Baghdad is as inclusive as it ought to be, is not reaching out as much as it ought to be. And again, there are positive developments that come out of Baghdad and out of the government for Fallujah. But by and large, there is a feeling that they are not as much a part of this government as they would like to be.

And you're spot on about recruiting of Sunni soldiers. You know, we have worked exceptionally hard to try to get the Sunnis to participate and to volunteer for the army, and we've had some success, but we have not had the kind of success that we would like to create an army that represents all of Iraq and not just portions of Iraq.

But, Tom, you're right. And again, you know, Kyle Westin, our State Department rep here, and I, we work very hard to make sure that the city of Fallujah is connected with the provincial government that's in Ramadi, who is dealing directly with the national government in Baghdad. But you're right, there is a little bit of feeling of not being fully represented, not being fully part of that government in Baghdad.

Q: Can I follow up?

You Marines are standing in the middle here. Do you share some of the frustrations?

COL. NICHOLSON: Yeah. You know what's funny is, you know, General Mattis, the old commander, 1st Marine Division, used to talk about "no better friend, no worse enemy." That was the logo, that was our bumper sticker, our mantra coming into Iraq. We kind of joke amongst ourselves, it's -- you know, at this point it's your only friend, you know, with the Sunnis. And it's a strange dynamic. And I tell all my officers, hey, if you're a black-and-while kind of guy, this is probably not your fight.

We live in a gray area, and this is a very complex scenario that we have to work with every day. We're in the middle of a Sunni insurgency, but yet we feel, you know, that we are the protectors of the Sunnis. We're the guys knocking on the door in Baghdad trying to get them funding, you know, doing everything we can to protect them, to make sure they have a seat at the table, and it's just an interesting dynamic. And again, you know, our city council, the people in Fallujah understand that, and I think that's one of the reasons that we're doing so well in Fallujah is because they understand that, hey, we're fighting for them. You know, we are here to help get funds for them to rebuild their infrastructure and to make sure that they get a fair shake out of Baghdad. And I will tell you, it's not lost on them. They understand that.

MR. WHITMAN: Mike.

Q: Colonel, it's Mike Mount with CNN. I want to go back to something you'd said earlier about the training of the Iraqi forces. You said they were great mimickers. Is that something that also worries you? Is the pressure great to get a lot of these forces out? And while they can mimic and go through the motions, do you think they're actually really getting it? And when they're going through the motions, do they really understand what's underneath the surface that they need to be looking at, either while they're reviewing or while they're out in the field?

COL. NICHOLSON: Yeah. You know, I kind of regret using the word "mimic," as it conjures up thoughts of somebody who's imitating but doesn't get it. They're just kind of going through the motions, and that really was not my intent.

The mimic or the -- I think what I was trying to get across is they watch and they really -- they'll watch that squad leader do the inspection or they'll look at the detailed map studies, they'll look at the comm plan, and they will replicate that. When they go out on their patrols, they will take those skills, they will -- again, you know, this is a very talented group. The Iraqi officers that we work with and some of the senior Iraqi NCOs, I mean, they get it. We have a lot of English speakers. We have a lot of very well-educated individuals like university students that understand that being part of the army and joining the army's very important.

So maybe an unfortunate choice of word in the "mimic" because it may not have conveyed the sense that I was trying to get across, that they study, they learn and they imitate in the sense that they are actually picking up skills. Now, they'll do it their way, but they are picking up the skills.

And they understand why we go through that great preparation that we do before every patrol, the debriefs we do after a patrol, you know, why we go through those things and rehearse the comm plans. I mean, all the things we do as Marines, naturally, you know, we see them doing as well. And again, we take a great deal of pride out of that.

So again, I see it as a great positive. And no, I don't think they're going through the motions to impress us. I mean, certainly there's nothing to be gained by them impressing us. I think they're doing it because they understand that it's the right way to do it. But again, they wear -- you'll see them wear their gear the way we do. You'll see their NCOs, just in terms of how they -- the manner in which they deal with their marines, a professional manner, not a demeaning manner; letting the troops eat first. You know, junior guys always eat first. I don't know that these were things that always occurred in the Iraq army. I suspect that they weren't. But you see that now with the officers.

So if that's mimicking, so be it. What I see is, I see a good thing. I see them picking up some great skills that will be useful to them long after we're gone.

MR. WHITMAN: Colonel, we've just about reached the end of our time, and I wanted to leave the last minute for you. If you had something that you wanted to close with, I'll turn it back to you.

COL. NICHOLSON: Okay. Thanks. Yeah, no, I appreciate the opportunity to tell the story of Fallujah. You know, frankly, we continue to work here with this economic and governance development, and I think there's a lot of great things happening here. And I see this -- again, I'm a little biased; I admit it. I have a soda straw view of the world through Fallujah, but I see this as perhaps a microcosm of what could happen in other places.

Fallujah is ahead of the rest of Al Anbar province. I mean, there's no doubt about that. But again, I can't overstate the importance of our personal relations, the hard work that Marines, sailors and soldiers do here every day.

And in closing, I just want to say that I am honored and humbled each and every day to lead this magnificent regiment here in Iraq, and I thank you for your interest in the Marines, sailors and soldiers of the Fighting 5th Marines. Hoorah! Thank you.
MR. WHITMAN: Thank you, Colonel, and thank you for your time today. Best wishes.

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