(Note: The briefers appear via teleconference from Iraq.)
BRYAN WHITMAN (Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): Well, good morning and welcome. Let me just check and make sure that we have a good connection. General Mixon, this is Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon. Can you hear me okay?
GEN. MIXON: We got you, Tropic Lightning, loud and clear.
MR. WHITMAN: Very good. Well, we can hear you well, and we can also see you. And we know you can't see us, but we do have the Pentagon press corps assembled here this morning. And we thank you for taking some time out of your afternoon today to be with us.
We have two briefers today: Major General Benjamin Mixon, who is the commander of Multinational Division-North and the 25th Infantry Division, and joining him is Colonel James Trogdon, who is the engineer commander for Task Force Lightning.
General Mixon, I think, as you recall, talked to us a couple of months ago, back in December, I believe. And today he is at the Contingency Operating Base Speicher outside of Tikrit. He took command responsibilities for ongoing security operations in MND-North in September of last year.
He does have a few opening remarks to give us an overview of what his unit's been doing, and then we'll get into some questions. So with that, General, let me turn it over to you.
GEN. MIXON: Well, thank you very much. And to the members of the press corps, thanks for assembling today and allowing me to talk to you about some of the progress that we're making here in MND-North and some of the work that we have yet to accomplish.
I do have with me today on my left Colonel Jim Trogdon, who is my engineer brigade commander. I brought him in here today because I'm going to address some of the progress we have made in the counter-IED fight and some of the work that is left to be done. His units have primary responsibility for keeping our routes clear.
I also brought him in here today because it is important to note that his brigade, the 105th Engineer Brigade, is a National Guard brigade.
But his brigade commands two active duty engineer battalions, and I thought that was important to point out to show the total Army concept in all the forces that are participating in this global war on terrorism here in Iraq.
Today I'd like to take just a moment to review what we've accomplished in the six short months that I've been in command and at the same time explain how we remain on the path to accomplish our mission in MND-North.
Since last December, more than two Iraqi divisions have been transferred to Iraqi Ground Forces Command, bringing the total of three of the four divisions in my area under Iraqi control. These Iraqi forces are conducting combined and unilateral counterinsurgency operations in their provinces. We anticipate by this summer all of the northern Iraqi divisions will be under the control of the Iraqi Ground Forces Command.
When I spoke to you last, I mentioned our planned increases to our transition teams. Today we have augmented approximately 50 percent of the MND-North military transition teams with an additional 400 U.S. soldiers, primarily to improve the overall training capacity of our transition teams. Our combat operations focus is changing as well. It gives our brigade combat teams more of an advise and assist role; the Iraqi army will assume a majority of the counterinsurgency missions. Our operations will be more intelligence-driven and focused on specific targets such as IED sales, financiers and those who make the IEDs, while working with our local governments and on economic issues.
Our Iraqi counterparts and the army and police have continued to make strides to attain Iraqi security and self-reliance. The manning of units in the north is about 85 percent or above. Equipment shortfalls, however, remain an issue for some of our units, and we are aggressively engaging our Iraqi counterparts to resolve these issues.
Since December, we have added 33 -- I'll say that again -- 33 police transition teams to complement and bolster the overall effort to train the Iraqi police forces. Our trainers work shoulder to shoulder, day in and day out with the Iraqi police at the tactical level to build their law enforcement capacity, while our leaders at the higher level are working to improve their equipment and manning.
However, there are many areas we need to apply continued pressure in order to make more visible progress. Our border security forces and the strategic infrastructure battalions -- that are those that secure the critical oil infrastructure -- have a long way to go. They still need to make improvements in their overall manning, their equipping and their general professionalism, and we continue to work that each day.
I'm encouraged with our overall progress in the northern provinces of Nineveh, Kirkuk and Salahuddin. Diyala, however, continues to be plagued with too much violence, mostly fueled by the insurgents, sectarian agendas in their attempt to control the populace for the benefit of their extremist agendas.
We see the Sunni insurgency trying to desperately gain control of Diyala, because it helps in their effort to control Baghdad and to prevent the government of Iraq from succeeding. Over time, I am confident that the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police will overcome these security threats in cities like Baqubah, Balad Ruz and Muqdadiyah and throughout Diyala province. And our continued close partnership with them will assist them in gaining this advantage over the enemy.
Amid the violence, there are signs of progress and indicators which keep us cautiously optimistic. A local tip to the police in Diyala last week led to the discovery of the largest EFP cache -- or as we call them, explosively-formed projectiles -- in northern Iraq. The Iraqi police led this effort and discovered a significant amount of those projectiles as well as rockets and mortars, many of which had serial numbers that can be traced back to Iran.
Another noteworthy initiative has been our effort to establish routine conferences and meetings between the government of Iraq ministries and our provincial governors. As a result of these continued face to face meetings, we are optimistic that the 2007 provincial funds will be awarded to the provinces soon. This will mean better basic services to the citizens, and they will see their government actually functioning for their well-being.
The four provincial reconstruction teams in northern Iraq continue diligent efforts to enforce the civic governments at the local level. They are focusing on fiscal responsibility, basic management techniques and microfinance projects to energize economic and business growth. Examples of these are evident in Kirkuk. In Kirkuk, provincial reconstruction team developed an investment law training class and will soon offer a workshop on foreign direct investment. It is also assisting the Kirkuk government in preparations for a Kirkuk investment conference in late March.
All of our provincial reconstruction teams are undertaking initiatives similar to these. In Nineveh, we finally believe that the Tall Afar reconstruction fund, sought and lobbied for for the local government, will be released to them, the amount being approximately $37 million. As in Tall Afar, we are also expecting funds to be released for the rebuilding in Samarra.
In the reconstruction arena, we currently have 518 projects valued in excess of $800 million that are in progress.
These range from small school repairs to large water projects. Our emergency response program budget for this year is at $75 million, and we're beginning to commit those funds.
Another topic I want to talk about for just a moment is our role in Operation Fardh Al-Qanoon, commonly known as the Baghdad security plan. As the security plan continues to be implemented, our role is to prevent the terrorists and insurgents from reinforcing violence in Baghdad as well as denying them sanctuary in the outlying provinces, particularly in Diyala. Our efforts are concentrated on controlling the key roads and population centers and enabling infrastructure development to allow the government of Iraq and Iraqi security forces to provide security, governance and basic services to the people of Iraq.
In Diyala we have picked up the tempo of offensive operations and we are directly engaging the enemy in Diyala to throw them off balance and to prevent them from reinforcing operations in Baghdad.
One area I must touch on before Colonel Trogdon and I take your questions is the counter-IED fight. We continue to develop new tactics, techniques and procedures in defeating an enemy who continues to adapt as well. Our efforts are multi-faceted in reducing the effectiveness of these IEDs, including providing our soldiers with the best armor and protective gear. At this stage, 76 percent of our soldiers injured by IEDs are returned to duty after medical treatment.
We take a very aggressive and offensive stance in the IED fight, which involves killing IED emplacers, clearing high-threat stretches of roadway, and hunting down and eliminating financiers, support structure behind the IED-making cells. The enemy is ruthless in using IEDs, which kill more civilians than security forces. We are equally as aggressive and violent in our approach to defeat them. Since December 2006, we have doubled the monthly average of IED caches and doubled the number of IED emplacers we have killed. Over time we will see continued progress in this area, but it is a tough fight.
To date we have succeeded in reducing the overall effectiveness of the IEDs, and we have already increased the rate at which we find IEDs before detonation. But we have a long way to go to defeat this threat. Too many of our casualties are as a result of the IEDs. I am not satisfied and will not be satisfied till I dramatically reduce the numbers of casualties caused by IEDs.
Finally, I'd like to thank the American people for their continued support. And to those families of service members that have lost loved ones or have had loved ones wounded, we greatly appreciate your sacrifice, and we pray for your strength and courage every day.
At this time, Colonel Trogdon and I will be glad to take your questions.
MR. WHITMAN: Courtney, go ahead.
Q Hi, General. This is Courtney Kube with NBC News. Can you just give us sort of a general picture of how things have changed, specifically in Diyala province, since the Baghdad security plan went into effect? Have you seen an increase in violence; you know, more of an idea of how you've changed operations?
GEN. MIXON: We have seen an increase in violence in Diyala province, but that is caused by, really, two things. Number one, we do think some of the enemy forces not only have moved out of Baghdad, but also may have moved from Al Anbar province. It is important to the Sunni insurgency to try to control Diyala. That has been part of the increase. But more importantly, we have increased our offensive operations, and we have killed a significant number of this enemy that is trying to get control in Diyala.
So the violence has risen, but there is a cause and effect, and primarily it's due to our offensive operations.
Q Do you have any specific numbers you can point to; I mean, numbers of attacks per day or per week that you give us just an idea of how much it's risen?
GEN. MIXON: I would tell you we've generally seen about a 30 percent increase in offensive actions and attacks. Many of those are initiated by us; some are initiated by them. I can tell you that over the last couple of months we have killed in excess of 175 of the enemy in Diyala, and we anticipate with ongoing operations that we will kill or capture many more.
At the same time, we are establishing outposts in the key cities, such as Baqubah, not as many as they have in Baghdad, but we are using that tactic to ensure that we retain control over that key city of the province, and we're going to do that throughout the area within our capabilities.
Q General, Bill McMichael with Military Times newspapers. Do you have a sense that since forces are moving out of Baghdad and Diyala that they are definitely trying to wait you out? And are you hoping to try to counter that?
GEN. MIXON: Well, I can't say whether or not they're trying to wait us out. It is a natural part of an insurgency that the insurgent will try to move where it feels no pressure, but we're keeping the pressure on them. And I think by what they have seen us do over the last month and a half -- I have sent reinforcements down in Diyala. They're seeing a different picture. The friendly force I expect over the next week or so they will see an even different picture, and I am sure that they will understand that we are going to go after them vigorously in Diyala.
Q General, Carl with ABC News. Two questions. One, who do you think is behind the increase in violence in Diyala? Is this al Qaeda in Iraq? Is this, you know, Ba'ath Party, Sunni -- homegrown Sunni insurgency? Who's behind it?
And can you give us some more details on this EFP cache you found, quantify it a little bit? You say it's the biggest -- how much? And a little bit more on the, you know, evidence that ties this to Iran.
GEN. MIXON: Yes, and I'm going to ask Colonel Trogdon to also comment on the significance of the find of this cache.
First of all, in MND-North it is a Sunni-based insurgency without a doubt. We do have some sectarian violence. There is a fault line in Diyala that both the Shi'a and Sunni extremists are trying to control, but it is a Sunni-based insurgency.
We have seen a few groups that call themselves different names in Diyala. One was called the Council. We destroyed most of their fighters in a battle south of Balad Ruz. You may recall we killed over a hundred of their fighters and captured at least 25 or 30. We now control that terrain with a combat outpost that is there with an Iraqi company and a U.S. platoon that is located there 24/7.
We have other elements there that certainly are a part of the former regime. There is no question about that. And there have been elements of the 1920s Revolution that are there and other ones. They change their name sometimes, so it's hard to track. But without a doubt, it is principally a Sunni-based insurgency.
The EFP cache was huge, approximately enough materials to make about 130 EFPs. The materials that we found there, the other military-grade munitions -- many of those munitions were new. Many of them have serial numbers on them that could be traced directly back to Iran. And I'd ask Jim to comment on the significance of that EFP cache and what it means to our operations there in Diyala.
COL. TROGDON: Yes, sir. One of the things, as you know, is the EFP is an extremely lethal device. So it was a great find for our forces in Diyala, especially for our engineers who looked for IEDs as well as the other combat forces there who seek caches daily to prevent these devices from being emplaced.
Although the EFP is less than 1 percent of the IEDs that we normally see throughout our AO, it certainly contributes to a higher percentage of fatalities and casualties within the battlespace, specifically in Baghdad, where we see these used more often.
Q A follow-up, quickly. What is a place dominated by the Sunni insurgency doing with weapons, munitions from Iran? Do you have any theory on that? Just doesn't seem to add up.
And when exactly did you seize these weapons cache? When was this?
GEN. MIXON: Yeah, let me be clear. I described a Sunni-Shi'a fault line that is present in Diyala. I believe that these munitions were a cache that was either there for storage, to move back down into Baghdad by the Shi'a, or it had been moved out of Baghdad earlier because of fear of it being captured.
But I am pretty sure that this particular cache belonged to the Shi'a extremists rather than the Sunni-based insurgency.
And I missed your second part of your question. Could you repeat it?
Q Yes. Just when did you actually see this? When was this?
GEN. MIXON: We found this particular cache two weeks ago, two to three weeks ago. Had a lot of press releases on it, but we can certainly shoot you some of the background information if you need that.
Q Thank you.
GEN. MIXON: I should point out also, we have found several large caches throughout MND-North over the last two to three weeks. One in particular up in Mosul several days ago was a very large cache with what we call homemade explosive materials in it -- fertilizers, acids and other materials that allowed them to make homemade explosives, which is often used in vehicle-borne IEDs. And some of the very large IEDs are placed in the roadways.
My point is is we're finding more and more caches, and in many cases, we are being given tips on the location of these caches from the Iraqi citizens.
MR. WHITMAN: Andrew.
Q Hi, General. Andrew Gray from Reuters. I wonder if you could tell us what progress you're making with the Iraqi security forces in terms of them acting in a non-sectarian way? I think you've had some problems with that in the past. Are they acting as real Iraqi national security forces or are they acting along sectarian lines?
GEN. MIXON: You're correct. We did have some concerns over that, particularly in Diyala province. I have not seen any imitators of that in the last several months, and they do appear to be acting more professional. Of course, when they're out on their missions, generally speaking, there is a military transition team with them. We do check if they detain personnel at their holding facilities they are treated humanely.
But you know, quite frankly, there are going to be those that will continue to move forward with some kind of sectarian issue. We will deal with them as we find it out. But I got to say that I think most of our Iraqi security forces are beginning and are well beyond that and are beginning to act more professional every day.
Q Thank you.
MR. WHITMAN: Al.
Q General, Al Pessin from Voice of America. About the Iranian markings on the material -- the EFP material you found, can you shed any light on this issue of exactly where that stuff is coming from, whether the Iranian government's involved and at what level?
Has any of your investigating shed any light on that issue?
GEN. MIXON: I cannot tell you where exactly it came from. You know, in the way arms are moved around the world, it's hard to determine exactly where those munitions may have come from.
The intelligence that I have seen, though, indicates that the EFP materials, which is machine-grade copper disk and other materials that the -- our intelligence sources believe that those components are in fact manufactured in Iran. But I can't tell you for sure that those munitions came from Iran, and I certainly don't have any information about the involvement of any Iranian government officials, none whatsoever.
Q Thank you.
MR. WHITMAN: Gordon.
Q General, Gordon Lubold from the Christian Science Monitor. General, you mentioned changes of TTPs that you have made there. Without getting into too many specifics, can you -- that you're not comfortable with -- can you talk about how you share that information across with the other units? But I'm also particularly interested in how you work with the Joint IED Defeat Organization here in Washington, if at all.
GEN. MIXON: Right. I'll answer part of that, and I'm going to ask Jim once again -- his engineers have just done fantastic work, and he can talk a little bit about their TTPs.
First and foremost, our soldiers, as they become accustomed to the battlefield, they have become very adept at identifying any differences in the terrain and identifying the IEDs. We have other TTPs that we use with our vehicles, things that we have done to preclude injury to the gunners that ride on top of the vehicles and things of that nature.
We run an IED now -- a webpage that all of our leaders and units access. It is updated constantly. I have -- a large number of my staff is counter-IED focused; they work this all the time, looking at information, and that's up and down the chain, all the way up to General Odierno's level of watching and looking and learning and putting this stuff on the webpage so our leaders can access this and brief our soldiers.
We do have interface all the way back to Washington and get information on that organization, and we do have an organization that is here that is sponsored out of that group.
I'm not going to mention exactly what they do, but they are great assistance to us in identifying.
Jim, you talk about some of the things your engineers are doing on the roads every day.
COL. TROGDON: Yes, sir. The major thing that we do in the route clearance specific area, without divulging any specific TTPs, is really go after the emplacer. We don't consider the IED the major threat to us; we consider the emplacer that uses the IED as the major threat to us. So the aggressive stance against the emplacer using the IED, to make contact with him and separate him from the local populace through that method is the best way that we can achieve the desired effects that we would like to have on the emplacer.
To answer your question about sharing information, to expand a little bit on what Major Genera Mixon said, we do now go back through MNC-I as well, through their (inaudible) section, who is our conduit back to CONUS for a lot of detailed questions that we either do not have the access to the facilities or research here or the time to research these while we're in contact. That has been a significant improvement and we use that routinely.
Q A quick clarification. General, you said you do work with folks from the task force back here in Washington there? Is that what you said?
GEN. MIXON: Yes, we do. And there's interchange across the 'Net. And as I mentioned, one of the organizations that they have formed is located and working with us, and they've been a great benefit in the counter-IED fight. I obviously cannot explain to you exactly what they do, but that unit has been very beneficial to us.
But I got to tell you, as I pointed out earlier, at the end of the day all the technological solutions that are applied certainly benefit us, but it's that soldier on the ground, those engineers that are out there clearing and our soldiers that are out there operating, understanding the terrain, seeing differences in things on the roadways, and that's one of the reasons that our detection rate has gone way up.
Q General, Richard Sisk from the New York Daily News. You mentioned earlier, sir, that you have a problem with some of the Iraqi forces guarding the oil assets, that they have a long way to go. How does that work out on the ground, sir? Are you seeing more destructions of oil shipments, pipelines?
GEN. MIXON: Yeah, great question, and that's an area that we're focused on much more these days.
First of all, the security infrastructure battalions really did not have dedicated mobile training teams to them -- to work with them. I put additional teams out of my own organization with those security infrastructure battalions to begin professional training and oversight. Since that time, they've gotten much better.
But to be frank with you, we've had a problem because of the tribal nature of some of those battalions, and we have had to weed out some of the bad eggs, if you will, those that are cooperating with both the insurgents, but also people that are just trying to steal the oil. We have seen the pipelines that run between Kirkuk and Baiji -- increased effectiveness against the interdiction of those pipelines. And we are also doing major operations inside the refinery in Baiji to enhance security and to provide security to the tankers that are hauling a lot of the fuel.
It's a huge problem. But I've got to tell you, part of the issue -- at least in my opinion, a major part of the issue -- is that under Saddam Hussein's rule, the infrastructure to support the refining and movement of oil absolutely is falling apart. So there's going to have to be investment made over time, once we get the security situation in hand, to improve that infrastructure, the refining capacity, so that the Iraqi people can benefit from the great wealth that can be derived from the oil.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, we have reached the end of our time here, and we want to be respectful of your time. But before I bring it to a close, let me throw back to you, in case there's any final remarks that you'd like to make or anything that we missed that you'd like to tell us.
GEN. MIXON: Well, I can certainly -- if you've got the airwave time, I can allow a few more minutes for questions, and I'd be glad to do that. I hate to miss the opportunity to be able to talk to some of America's finest there in the Pentagon.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, we do have a few more questions here. So if you've got the time, we'll continue on.
Joe, you're up.
MR. WHITMAN: Try again, Joe.
Q Sir, this is Joe Tabet with Al Hurra. My question is about the Diyala province. Do you think you have enough troops there to face the current situation?
GEN. MIXON: Well, as I mentioned, without disclosing the details, I have moved additional forces and capabilities into Diyala over the last couple of weeks, as we begin larger offensive operations in Baqubah and other portions of the surrounding area.
Could I use more forces in Diyala? No question about it. And I'm in discussions of that with General Odierno as he attempts to balance the requirements in Baghdad.
But we are making progress in bringing security to Baqubah. That's our number-one priority. Once I have done that, I am -- I will move out into some of the other areas, particularly that fault line I described earlier, to prevent the sectarian violence that can occur along those Sunni-Shi'a fault lines.
Q Could I just quickly follow up on that?
MR. WHITMAN: We'll get back to you. Let's get somebody that hasn't gotten a question. All right?
MR. WHITMAN: Go ahead, Mike.
Q General, if I can go back to the EFP cache you found, were there any arrests that were made in that? And if so, did it turn up any intelligence that maybe connected Iranians inside the country that you were able to apprehend because of that?
And Colonel, this one is probably for you. Are you seeing any EFPs that are actually being produced inside Iraq by Iraqis, as opposed to ones that are connected back to Iran?
GEN. MIXON: Yeah. Very quickly, we have not made any arrests attributed directly to that particular cache. We have broken down some of the cells that are operating in that area and in other parts. But as far as that particular cache is concerned, we have not.
Recall that I mentioned that we were led to that cache by an informant. We are continuing to work with that individual, and I think we will get more information as time goes on.
COL. TROGDON: Yes, to answer your question, I have seen no intelligence that relates to the domestic production of EFPs in Iraq.
Q Sir, how many additional forces have you asked for? And how long would you need this current level of troops that you have to achieve what you consider to be success?
GEN. MIXON: I'm not going to tell you what I've asked for.
I would just -- and not to flip -- I would ask you to keep an eye on what goes on in Diyala over the next couple weeks, and you'll get a good indication as to what I asked for. I apologize. I just can't tell you what I've asked for.
Q How long would you have to keep this level of force to achieve some sort of success?
GEN. MIXON: Well, a lot of that's going to be based on what the enemy does, so, you know, putting a time limit on it in a combat operation would be very difficult. But I am cautiously optimistic that in the next 30 to 60 days that we're going to see some significant differences in the security situation in Diyala. If we do not, I will make adjustments, and I may go back to General Odierno and ask for additional support.
Q Just to clarify your request, are we talking about moving some of the surge troops, some of the five brigades that are going in to reinforce Baghdad security plan, moving some of those troops into Diyala? Is that what the discussion is?
GEN. MIXON: Well, the discussion that I have had with General Odierno do not pinpoint any particular forces. I simply have laid out to him what our plans are and what I would do with additional forces if I were given them. The decision on which forces and the timing is strictly based up to General Odierno.
For sure, as you understand, the security of Baghdad is the priority. I can continue to do the mission I need to do in Diyala with the forces that I have moved there. However, I've got momentum now, and I believe with some reinforcement that momentum can be picked up. And I've laid that out for General Odierno, and I'm sure he'll support me when the time is right.
Q General, it's Al Pessin again. I understand you don't want to give us the exact number, but can you give us a sense of -- I mean, is this a few hundred that could be taken out of hide, or is this several thousand that might have to come from state-side?
GEN. MIXON: No, it's not additional ones that would need to come from the state-side.
Q Fred Baker, American Press Service, sir. The increase in weapons cache finds, what do you attribute that to? And what do you attribute the additional tips coming from locals? Why are they all of a sudden more comfortable giving you these tips?
GEN. MIXON: They're interrelated. The population areas that we work in are more comfortable with the Iraqi security forces as well as us, so they are providing us more tips. Some of those tips come in through the tips lines; that is telephone lines that we've established. Some are as simple as a civilian walking in and providing information. So their comfort level is up.
You know, in some areas I really think that the Iraqi population's just plain tired of the insurgents and what they're doing to the local population. And so that has an impact on it. The other side of that is is most of my units have now been operating in their areas anywhere from three to six months, some of them as long as seven months. They know the terrain, they know where to look, and they combine that knowledge with other intelligence assets that we use and we're better able to find the caches.
MR. WHITMAN: Very good, General.
I think we've gotten around to everybody, and so I'd like to turn it back to you before we close it.
GEN. MIXON: Well, thank you very much, and I appreciate the questions.
I really would like to close with one comment, and I made this comment in a press release about two or three days ago, and it has to do with the violence that is being directed against both Sunni and Shi'a. And the statement I made was that, you know, it would seem to me that the leaders of the Sunni and Shi'a community throughout the world would just be aghast at what the Sunnis and Shi'as are doing to each other. And I am looking -- and I think many other leaders are looking for some leadership that would occur inside Iraq -- and we are seeing that every day -- but more importantly, support for the Iraqi government from outside Iraq. And I think that's an important issue. It's a part of the solution to achieving peace in Iraq.
You heard General Petraeus say yesterday that there is no absolute military solution; it's going to take political effort, and it's going to take support throughout the Sunni and Shi'a world to help to bring peace to Iraq's people.
So that would be my closing comment during this particular conference. Thank you very much for allowing us to talk to you today.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, General and Colonel, thank you very much. We appreciate you taking the time and even a little bit more than we have allocated. You have quenched our thirst for some information, but you've also whet our appetite to have you back in 30 to 60 days and to tell us about the progress that you're making in Diyala. So hopefully, we'll be able to have an opportunity to meet with you soon.
GEN. MIXON: I will make that opportunity, for sure.
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