(Note: General Odierno appears via teleconference from Iraq.)
BRYAN WHITMAN (Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): Well, good morning and good afternoon. Let me just see if we have good -- we have good video. Let me see if we have good audio with General Odierno.
General, can you hear me? It's Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon.
GEN. ODIERNO: I can hear you loud and clear.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, General, thank you for joining us this morning -- a person that really needs no introduction, but I'll do one anyway. This is Lieutenant General Ray Odierno. He is the commanding general of the Multinational Corps in Iraq. Most of you are -- have spent some time with him at -- over the past couple of years. He assumed this command in December of this past year, where he directs the operations of the joint and coalition forces in all sectors of Iraq. I think most of you know this is his second tour in Iraq. He was the commanding general of the 4th Infantry Division from March 2003 to April 2004, and then he did some hard time here on the Joint Staff prior to going back to Iraq.
He's briefing today from Camp Liberty in Baghdad. And with that, General, let me turn it over to you to open it up.
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, thank you so much.
First, it's great having the opportunity to talk with you all this morning.
I want to start off by first giving a statement. It's probably about a 10-minute statement. Then I would open it up for any questions that you all might have.
First, I think, as you all know, Iraq is an extremely complex theater. Its stability is threatened by a number of factors every day: sectarian violence, Sunni and Shi'a extremists, al Qaeda, crime and subversive influences from around the region.
Additionally, we must remember that the government of Iraq is only about 10 months old, and its institutions are developing.
These threats to stability differ from province to province and each require different approaches. And clearly, as we all know, there's no silver bullet.
Al Qaeda and Sunni insurgents continue to seek to destabilize and delegitimize the government of Iraq. They want to do this by creating catastrophic events, such as suicide vehicle-borne explosive devices and vehicle-borne explosive devices, which kill hundreds of innocent civilians. They also continue to attack coalition forces and Iraqi security force to give the impression of instability.
In addition, Shi'a extremists are working against the government of Iraq, trying to gain power. They're involved in sectarian violence and in some cases outright murder of innocent civilians.
Baghdad is the key to the future stability of Iraq. In recognition of this, Prime Minister Maliki has launched Fard al-Qanun, which translate as "enforcing the law." Though this operation the -- through this operation, the government of Iraq is seeking to show the Iraqi people and the international community that it is able to protect all its citizens, regardless of sect or ethnicity. An improved security situation will provide the government of Iraq with a breathing space to reach out to the country's different groups, through a process of national reconciliation, to ensure them all a stake in the future of Iraq.
In addition, the intent of the government of Iraq is to have the opportunity to grow its legitimacy by delivering public services to all regardless of sect or ethnicity or by providing sustainable economic opportunities for everyone.
This operation in Baghdad is clearly just beginning. The U.S. is deploying additional forces into Iraq, and the Iraqi security forces continue to flow to Baghdad, with four more battalions due over the next four weeks.
The Iraqi commander of Fard al-Qanun, Lieutenant General Abboud, continues to set up his headquarters with our help. He is actively directing the deployment of his forces. Every day, he is out visiting troops, ensuring they have the necessary resources to achieve their mission. He is dedicated and diligent in his duty, and we have personally built up an excellent working relationship and are in constant communication.
I also regularly attend meetings of the plan and the support they require from coalition forces. I am encouraged by the hard work and commitment to the task in hand.
Yesterday I had a chance to tour parts of downtown Baghdad, the markets of Rusafa and Doura. I witnessed Iraqis going about their daily life grateful for the protection being provided to them by the Iraqi forces, supported by coalition forces. I also visited a number of joint security stations where Iraqi police, Iraqi army work side by side with U.S. military and go out on patrols together.
We are helping the Iraqis introduce a number of measures to prevent vehicle-borne IEDs from entering crowded public areas. And all of this is serving to help protect the Iraqi people.
Although we see some initial progress, we know we face an adaptable foe who will stop at nothing to achieve their goals and will try to carry out spectacular attacks in order to increase sectarian violence. We know there will be some tough days ahead. The success of this mission will come over months, not weeks or days.
While Baghdad is the focus, this does not mean that other parts of our country no longer have our attention. We are continuing operations in all parts of the country all the way to its borders. Late on February 20th, 3rd Battalion, 509th Airborne discovered a car bomb factory near Kharma, which is about 12 miles northeast of Fallujah. The unit discovered numerous artillery rounds, mortar rounds, bombs, rockets, gutted anti-aircraft shells, a pickup truck and three other vehicles that were already in various stages of preparations as car bombs, as well as much detonation material.
We also found ingredients to be used to devise or enhance explosives such as fertilizer and chlorine cylinders. We also found the various components of a metal shop, including welders, burner stoves, circular saws, sanders and other items needed to build explosive devices.
Today, I just returned from out in al Qaim on the border with Syria. We are working with tribal sheikhs and local officials to bring security to West Anbar. For the third month in a row over 1,000 Iraqis joined the police and army in Al Anbar, and this is a province in which the year before suicide vest bombers hit the Fallujah recruiting drive. And before that, 15 police officers were killed in a soccer field in Haditha. It's becoming clear that local leaders and citizens are taking more responsibility for their own security and trying to turn against al Qaeda and other extremists in Al Anbar.
More recently, nearly 500 Iraqi police, 1,000 Iraqi army and coalition forces in Hit conducted Operation Shurta Nasir, Police Victory, to clear the town of terrorists and identify new location for police stations. The operation ended in the capture of 13 known terrorists and a large cache. Clearly, the people of the area have decided that the ways of the extremists is not for them, and they are beginning to take action.
One other issue of late, as many of you know, is the downings of eight helicopters since 20 January. This has included three UH-60 Black Hawks, one of which resulted in 12 soldiers killed in action north of Baghdad. The third Black Hawk came down yesterday north of Baghdad. The cause of that downing is still being investigated; however, initial reports that I have seen indicate enemy fire. We are aggressively examining the conditions of each incident and adapting tactics and techniques to address the issue.
We have increased the use of helicopters in the last couple of years. In 2005, we flew about 240,000 hours.
In 2006, that figure reached 334,000, and at our current rate, we will reach 400,000 flying hours in 2007. We realize that effective use of helicopters is essential to operational success, and we are using all means at our disposal to protect our aircraft.
Let's be clear -- a stable representative government of Iraq that is seen as viable and responsible to the people is in the interest of the countries of this region and the United States. Achieving the goals we presented is difficult, but the long-term benefits are incalculable value. Finally, all of us understand that our actions in Iraq are the subject to considerable debate and discussion in the United States. We understand that Americans want to know that we're making progress, and that's what we're striving for today.
I want you all to know that we are totally focused on the mission we have been sent here to achieve. It is a complex task, but our servicemen and women are showing they can adapt and be successful in this mission. Every soldier, sailor, airman and marine is also a son, daughter, father, mother, brother, sister or a friend of our fellow Americans. We see each as a precious and deserving of the best our country can provide to make them successful. We all are very grateful for the support that we have received from the American people, and we could not ask for anymore.
And finally, we will never forget the sacrifices of those who have given their lives or have been seriously injured. They will always be in our hearts as we continue the mission here in Iraq. May God bless all of them and their families, and may God bless America.
With that, I'd be happy to take your questions.
MR. WHITMAN: General, thank you for that overview. We'll get right into it here.
Kristin, go ahead.
Q This is Kristin Roberts with Reuters.
General, can you please give us a little bit more information about the downings of the helicopters, as well as the two chemical bombs we've seen in the last two days? Are these representative or are these indicative of a change in tactics in the insurgency, and how are they becoming more capable?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, I don't think they're any more capable. Of course they adapt like we do. And what they're trying to do is try to adapt in such ways where they can continue to create instability, and that's what they're doing, especially with these chlorine VBIEDs. That's just another way they're trying to adapt to cause some sort of chaos here in country. And we'll continue to adapt towards those. As I said, when we found this factory a day and a half ago, we found chlorine cylinders there. So we'll continue to work against that as best we can.
In terms of the helicopters, I think we see in a few cases, two, maybe three of the cases, that there were probably some sort of ambush sites that were set up by some of our foes. We are studying those intently and we're trying to learn from those, and we will learn from those and we will adapt our tactics. I think they've probably been trying to do this for a long time, but my guess is we have a cell out there that's somewhat effective.
Now, I would say that about a week ago we did pick up one of the individuals that we think were involved in one of the shootdowns. He clearly said he was. Of course we're always -- we always want to make sure that we're still looking for more information. But he has admitted that he was involved in one of them. And we've done a couple of operations over the last few nights, and I think we've also gotten into another part of a cell who might have shot down another aircraft, one of the aircrafts. So we continue to work this extremely hard.
I'm not going to comment any more on the two people we captured because that's still very -- we're still working those issues and I would not want to discuss any more of it.
MR. WHITMAN: Courtney.
Q General, this is Courtney Kube from NBC News. On the chlorine bombs, how concerned is the U.S. military about this? Would you classify it as an emerging threat, or a new tactic? I mean what's the level of concern? And can you give us an idea of who might be employing this tactic? Is it Sunni extremists? Are we looking at al Qaeda in Iraq? What?
GEN. ODIERNO: You know, we have found over the last year or so, couple of years, we have found attempts of them to try to use all different types of chemical mixtures in order to try to make VBIEDs more lethal, and this is just another way to do it.
Now, I would say in that incident the other day, we had one individual, a civilian killed. All the others were very minor injuries.
So what we have to do is continue to evaluate what does it mean, and what we can do to try to stop them from detonating them at all, of course, but also what we have to do to protect the populace when this happens. And we're studying that now.
MR. WHITMAN: Pauline.
Q Sir, it's Pauline Jelinek of the Associated Press. In light of the British announcement yesterday, can you bring us up to date, your view, of how proficient Iraqi security forces are and when you think they might be able to handle security there on their own?
GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah. Well, of course we look at this every day. It's the 10th Iraqi Army Division who is down in Basra, as well as the Iraqi police.
And of course we've been coordinating with the British on this for a period of time. And based on our assessments we've done, as I am the operational commander -- that includes Basra -- working with the British, we believe that the announcement they have made, going from 7,000 to 5,500 -- they will very clearly be able to continue their mission to achieve their goals, which, as you stated, is at some time in the near future turning over Basra to Iraqi security forces and then going to what we call operational overwatch. We believe that they are making plenty of progress. The 10th Iraqi Army has been involved in a number of operations over the last few months in Basra and have done a very -- a pretty good job.
We still believe we have some work to do with the police in Basra, and we continue to work with them on a routine basis.
So I think their decision was one that was well-coordinated. We think it's on target. We think they have enough forces to continue the mission down in Basra, to where we're headed.
You know, we really see Basra as something that we want to do in the rest of the country. They're a bit further ahead, obviously, in terms of security and in terms of violence than other parts of Iraq. So what we want to do is see how they're going to go to operational overwatch.
And this is sort of the plan we have for the entire country. Once we can get the violence to the level that we believe is acceptable -- and what I mean by "acceptable" can be contained by Iraqi security forces. So in a lot of ways, they're going to be the first ones to do this, although we have done it in some other provinces. But Basra is the second-largest city in Iraq.
Q Just to follow up, sir, should the British depart, and it turn out that the Iraqis are not able to handle security themselves, would it necessarily fall to Americans to help out in that area, or are there other coalition partners that you have in mind?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, yeah, I mean I think we'd have to work through that. And obviously, working the coalition, CENTCOM works that for us. So Central Command would have to decide whether the other coalition partners.
I have a -- I designate a force, as a commander, as an operational reserve that can be used anywhere around Iraq at any time that I have available to me. And I would use it there like I might use it anywhere else, whether it be out west, up north, to the east. So obviously, we always have a force available, a reserve, that we could use down there, if necessary. But I think if we decided that -- we thought that for a long period of time we would need additional forces, then we'd have to make a decision on whether it would be U.S. forces or some other members of the coalition, and we would have to make that decision collaboratively with MNF-I and CENTCOM.
MR. WHITMAN: Let's go to Peter.
Q General, Peter Spiegel of the Los Angeles Times. You have a new boss up there, MNF-I. The president has vested a lot of confidence in him. Can you talk a bit about how things have changed now that General Petraeus is there, how his style is different, and how your daily life has changed with the new commander there?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, I will tell you my daily life has not changed one bit. I am -- you know, I have the same job that I've had before; that is directing the operational forces.
General Petraeus and I have known each other for a long time. We have a great relationship. I'm happy he's here. As I've said before, you know, he is -- he wants to accomplish the mission. He is here to make us successful, just like General Casey was here to make us successful. And we have the same intent. We want to move forward, we want to protect the populace, we want to be successful here, and we want to turn over responsibility to the Iraqis. And we're both very focused on that, and I'm confident that we'll work as close as we can together to accomplish that goal that we have.
Q You're saying there's really not much difference in the way General Casey and General Petraeus operate there as MNF-I commander?
GEN. ODIERNO: The bottom line is every leader operates differently. I'm different than General Chiarelli was. General Chiarelli was different than General Vines. We all have personalities; we're not robots. So we're all very different. So we all have different personalities. But we all -- the point I'm trying to make is, is we are all focused on the same mission. And I think that's the most important thing. And personality-wise, you might do things a bit differently, but the bottom line is we're focused on the mission.
Q General, this is Joe Tabet with Al Hurra. Do you have any concerns that Shi'ite groups backed by Iran could control Basra after the British pull out?
GEN. ODIERNO: First off, I think as part of the stability in Basra -- and the British are going to be there in Operation Overwatch. They're not pulling out. They will continue to provide security in and around Basra, and if something happens, they clearly will be able to react to that.
But I would say we see somewhat of a power struggle going on in Basra between the Shi'a. I'm not sure it's Iranian-based, but I think there's a little bit of a power struggle that goes on internal to the Shi'a party for power just like in some places -- other places you have an internal power struggle. And they're trying to control a major city within Southern Iraq. So that's what we have to watch for.
What we can't put up with, which maybe is what you're asking, is if one of them then goes to a significant amount of violence in order to gain an upper hand. If that happens, again, the British forces will be there with 5,500 soldiers, which is a fairly large contingent, and they'll be able to react to anything that goes on.
MR. WHITMAN: Mike.
Q General, it's Mike Mount with CNN. As of late, we've heard a lot about al Qod and their efforts in Iraq. There is some recent reporting that it seems that al Qod now is playing a vital role in Shi'ite insurgent cells. Can you talk a little bit about what you're seeing there now and if indeed they are playing a vital role in propping up these cells, in terms of giving them direction, or anything else you're kind of seeing with trends with al Qod now?
GEN. ODIERNO: Let me make sure I understood what you asked me. Did you ask me in al Kut, or are you asking me about the Qods Force?
Q Qods Force.
GEN. ODIERNO: Okay. The bottom line is we believe that the Qods Force has been involved in training and possibly providing funding and potentially weapons to some groups within Iraq. So we watch that extremely carefully.
Listen, my responsibility is to deal with the issues here in Iraq, and if they are providing assistance, and we're confident of that, and we see that they're doing that, then we will take action.
Clearly, we don't like anyone else supporting any part of the insurgency. You know, for years we were talking about Syria letting foreign fighters through, and we don't support that. We clearly don't support any type of outside agitators trying to assist the insurgents here in Iraq. And what they're trying -- you know, and their goal is to destabilize this government. So our goal is we want a stable government and we'll do whatever we can to keep them from destabilizing what's going on in Iraq here.
Q General, if I could just follow up. Have you see at all if the force is actually playing a vital role with supporting Shi'a insurgent cells there?
GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah, I think vital I don't know. I can't make the determination if it's vital. What I can say is we have seen instances where they have provided weapons, training, and potentially some money, but that's a little shakier. So I would say they're playing a role. I'm not ready to go out on a limb to say that they are the ones propping up the Shi'a extremists. I will say they are assisting them in some ways.
Q A follow-up on that?
MR. WHITMAN: Sure.
Q General, it's Al Pessin from Voice of America. Do you have any indication that it's the Qods force or other Iranians who are transferring whatever technology's involved in the chlorine bombs? And are you comfortable with what the briefer said 10 days ago, that this support from Iran is coming from the highest levels of the Iranian government?
GEN. ODIERNO: First off, I have no evidence so far that they have anything to do with the chlorine bombs. I have not seen anything like that, but I'll look into it. I've not seen anything that says that.
And secondly, I don't know if it goes to the highest levels of the government. What we do know is that the Qods force has had involvement with some extremist groups in Iraq. That's what I know. Who knows about it and who doesn't know about it in Iran, I really don't know.
And frankly, I don't focus much on that. I let other people focus on those issues. I try to focus here on my mission here in Iraq.
Q General, on the Qods Force, there was a report here that the Qods Force number three person, a Brigadier General Chizari, was captured in Iraq in December. Is that true? And also, in your investigation of the attack a couple of weeks ago in Karbala, have you found any harder evidence of Iranian involvement in that attack?
GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah.
First off, on the brigadier general, I'm not aware of that. As far as I know, we do not have him in custody.
On Karbala, there is -- we continue to investigate that. Frankly, I don't want to comment on it, because we are -- we have investigated that; we are looking at it extremely hard. And when appropriate, we will take the necessary action to bring those who were involved in it into custody. So I really don't want to comment any further on that.
Q General, you mentioned that with the downings of the helos, that you may have a cell that's been somewhat more effective. Are you saying that one cell is responsible for the recent downings of the helos? And if so, what kind of cell is it? Sunni extremists?
GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah, no, it's not one -- I don't know if it's one or two or three cells. I think what I'm saying is -- what I meant to say if I didn't say it was, we're seeing some common tactics, techniques and procedures that they're using, which I don't want to comment on. And so we seem to be aware of what they're doing, and we're trying to understand what those are, learn about it so we can protect our aircraft, but more importantly, try to go after the cells. They are probably some -- I believe they're al Qaeda-associated cells.
Q And as a quick follow-up, helicopters have been in the news recently. But can you say what is the trend in attacks on U.S. ground convoys? Are they going up or down? And the same question about U.S. casualties in convoys, are they going up or down?
GEN. ODIERNO: Convoys related to anything, or just convoys in general, is that your question?
Q Sure. Ground convoys, yes.
GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah. We have seen nothing out of the ordinary against ground convoys. We still see -- where are we getting most of all our casualties from? We continue to get the majority of our casualties from IEDs, hands down -- U.S./coalition casualties. And so we continue to work to understand why that is and to work against that, so we can defeat it.
So if that's your question -- I mean, that's what I'm telling you. IEDs are still by far causing the most casualties.
MR. WHITMAN: One more answer before we run out of time.
Ken, go ahead.
Q Thanks. General, it's Ken Fireman from Bloomberg News. The reason given for the British drawdown is that southern Iraq is relatively quiet compared to Baghdad and Anbar, and so less troops are needed there. That raises the question of why those extra troops aren't being transferred to Baghdad, where obviously there is a need for more troops, because the United States is sending more. Would you like to have those extra British troops in Baghdad?
GEN. ODIERNO: Listen, that is something that's done by CENTCOM. I'm not going to answer that question.
What I will tell you is that I agree with the fact that Basra's to a state where we believe that they will be able to turn to Iraqi control very soon. And that should allow them to draw down a certain number of forces.
You know, there's so many other variables in that question, outside of Iraq. I think that question needs to be asked to either the chairman or CENTCOM, because it's bigger than Iraq. And you know that, and I know that. So I'm not going to say anything further.
Q One quick follow-up. Is it disappointing to you and to your soldiers that those troops aren't coming to Baghdad, that they're going home instead of helping you in Baghdad?
GEN. ODIERNO: I don't think so. I think I said earlier we worked with them on this plan. All along we know that they've been working in Basra. That was their area of responsibility, and some other provinces also. And they're at a point now where we think they can reduce, so we think it's appropriate.
I am very pleased with the support we are getting here in Baghdad from the Iraqi security forces, as well as the forces we're getting from the United States. And so I feel that will be enough for us to be successful here.
MR. WHITMAN: We've reached the end of our time, but Kathleen has been waiting very patiently. She said it's a very short question.
So we'll finish with you.
Q General, this is Kathleen Koch with CNN. I just wondered if you could tell us anything about a report in Al-Arabiyah today that another American helicopter was downed in Baqubah near the airport during an exchange between American military and armed militants during a gun battle.
GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah, sure. As far as I know -- I checked right before I came over here -- we have accountability of all our helicopters.
Q Thank you, sir.
MR. WHITMAN: You promised it would be short. Thank you.
General, we have reached the end of our time, and we appreciate you giving us some time this afternoon. Before we bring it to a close, though, let me turn it back to you in case you have any closing thoughts.
GEN. ODIERNO: No, I would just say this is going to take some time. The Baghdad security plan is going to take time. We're going to need some patience. I know patience is wearing thin in the United States. But I believe it's going to take months in order for us to be successful here. I think we have a chance to be successful or I wouldn't be here trying to do this. So what I would just say is please watch what we're doing, and hopefully we'll see some progress here in the next several months.
Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to talk to you all today.
MR. WHITMAN: Thank you, General. We really do find this valuable. Thank you for your time and for making your subordinate commanders available in this format each week. Thank you very much.
GEN. ODIERNO: Okay, you're welcome.
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