DoD Special News Briefing with Colonel Burton from the Pentagon Briefing Studio, Arlington, Virginia
(Note: This event was fed in progress. The colonel appears via teleconference from Iraq.)
COL. BURTON: (In progress) -- Combat Team of the 1st Infantry Division. Our brigade combat team, the Dagger Brigade Combat Team, deployed from Schweinfurt, Germany, in August 2006, originally as U.S. Central Command's theater Reserve.
Upon notification for deployment, we immediately deployed one infantry task force directly into Baghdad, followed very shortly thereafter with an armored task force to Ramadi and a third infantry task force to southwest Baghdad.
We then deployed the remainder of the brigade combat team to west Baghdad, where we integrated three in-position maneuver task forces and assumed responsibility for our battlespace in early November 2006.
Now let me tell you a bit about our area of responsibility in northwest Baghdad. We're responsible for coalition force activities across an area of about 93 square kilometers, with an indigenous population of about 1 million people. Our area of responsibility runs from Kadhimiya in the northeast and then extends west to include Shula, and then south to include Ghazalia, Khadra and Amiriyah, and then east again, to include all of the Mansour area north of Route Irish.
This heavily urbanized area is further defined by being principally Shi'a in the northeast, Sunni in the west and southwest, and mixed in the southeast. There are sectarian fault lines that further define these areas, where both Sunni and Shi'a extremists vie for control over portions of the city and its citizens.
These contests between extremist actors come in various forms, from extremely horrific acts, like car bombs being detonated in public gathering places, to illegal militia control over access to gas stations and food distribution programs, to execution-style murders by death squads, designed to terrorize local citizens into leaving a specific area or to supporting a sectarian cause.
And intermixed amongst this part of Baghdad are great Iraqi citizens who are eager to get on with their lives, to enjoy the benefits of a secure environment and to participate in the reconstruction of their nation.
Our brigade combat team's mission here is to secure the Iraqi people within our area of responsibility, in order to provide the Iraqi government a chance to govern. And we do that by focusing our efforts to defeat extremist actors, increase the professional capabilities of the Iraqi security forces, and by assisting local governmental leaders in their efforts to govern effectively.
Under the Baghdad security plan, we have deployed most of our forces away from the big forward operating bases and occupied smaller, more austere combat outposts and joint security stations throughout the area of responsibility.
This deployment of forces out and among the people has had an immediate and positive effect on the overall security situation, on the professional capabilities of our partnered Iraqi security forces and on the abilities of local governmental bodies to form and operate. Our soldiers are living out in the neighborhoods of Baghdad with our Iraqi security force partners. Working with us here in partnership are 10 Iraqi army battalions and two national police battalions, which are deployed across two security districts of the Karkh area command, those being the Kadhimiya security district and the Mansour security district. We plan and conduct operations together. We grow in capabilities together, and together we are increasing the trust and confidence in the Iraqi people in their nation's forces to provide security.
The fundamental necessity for improving the quality of life for Iraqis in Baghdad is security. And to achieve that necessity, the Baghdad Security Plan is focused on three basic parts: clear, control and retain.
In the clear and control phases, Iraqi and coalition forces will not simply clear neighborhoods and then leave them unattended. We will clear the neighborhoods of extremists and then emplace measures to control those areas and protect the population so that they are not threatened by extremist forces in the future. These gated and secure communities facilitate the rebuilding of neighborhoods, with security provided through the combined efforts of Iraqi and coalition forces, allowing local governmental processes to take root and improve access to basic and essential services. The establishment and maintenance of the joint security stations within these communities is an integral part of the clear and control phases.
Now, ultimately, we will fully transition the security responsibilities of these areas to the Iraqi security forces in the retain phase, allowing us to relocate coalition forces to achieve and assure control. In order to support our efforts and the efforts of local governments throughout western Baghdad, we recently received and integrated one battalion from the 2nd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, and they are currently operating effectively within the Kadhimiya security district in the northeast portion of our area.
We've also received a battalion from the 4th Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division, and just yesterday they began operations in the Mansour security district in the southeast portion of our area.
Now, we're scheduled to receive within the next month or so an embedded provincial reconstruction team which will work closely with local and regional governments to identify key projects to improve basic and essential services, infrastructure and economic growth throughout western Baghdad. Inside the Dagger Brigade Combat Team we had already developed and employed our own local reconstruction team, which has been effective in working with local leaders to develop programs which benefit the citizens of West Baghdad. With the addition of this embedded provincial reconstruction team, we expect even greater results over time.
Under this new plan, we have already begun to see progress, which is demonstrated by a noticeable decrease in the numbers and effectiveness of attacks across our area since the beginning of operations. It is important to note that the overall effects of this new Baghdad security plan, Operation Fard al-Qanun, will not be seen in days or weeks, but over the course of months. And while it is too early to determine if this downturn in the number and effectiveness of attacks is a major and enduring trend, it is definite that these conditions are given the Iraqi security forces the opportunity they need to get control of the security situation and to increase their professional capabilities. And they are doing so with great pride and great enthusiasm in many areas.
This downturn in violence also provides the opportunity for the citizens of western Baghdad to live in an environment which is less violent, providing increased opportunities for local and district governments to form and operate, to increase the opportunities for employment, education and access to a better life. These are all positive signs necessary for continued progress here in Baghdad.
Now, make no mistake, we are not proclaiming victory yet. There's a lot of tough work ahead, but we are very optimistic. We will continue to take stock of our actions to determine what adjustments need to be made as we continue our mission here.
With that said, I'll open it up to any questions.
BRYAN WHITMAN (Deputy Assistant Secertary of Defense for Public Affairs): Well, thank you, sir, for that overview, and we'll get right into it here.
Go ahead, David.
Q Colonel, this is Dave Wood from the Baltimore Sun. You mentioned economic activity, and I wonder if you could sketch out for us what is the unemployment like in your area? And is there enough American and Iraqi money coming in to help alleviate that?
COL. BURTON: The ability to assess the overall unemployment level across western Baghdad is difficult at best, but here's what I'll offer. In working with the neighborhood advisory councils and the district advisory councils, we're identifying key projects that aid in the reconstruction of the city and specifically in western Baghdad.
And we seek opportunities to employ principally local people so that they have a positive investment opportunity into the future of their neighborhoods. This is getting much traction.
In terms of money and resources coming into western Baghdad, and specifically into the Dagger area of responsibility, we have not yet found any challenges with adequate resources to continue the building of the infrastructure here. What is most important, I believe, is the establishment of a functioning budget within the districts and within the neighborhoods, principally, so that the Iraqi leaders can understand clearly what it costs to sustain the municipal functions within their area specifically and so that the Baghdad leadership, specifically in Western Baghdad and in the districts that we work very closely with, can better forecast their requirements for the future, both in terms of resources necessary and the opportunity to employ the local citizens.
Q Just anecdotally, are there a lot of guys standing around that you feel could be employed and keep them out of trouble if you had the opportunity to do that?
COL. BURTON: Well, certainly, putting young men and young women to work in western Baghdad, I believe, will have an immediate impact on decreasing the violence in specific areas. Let me give you an example. Up in the northeastern portion of our area of responsibility, specifically up in Shula and Kadhimiya, we have already seen where the district advisory councils and the local governmental leaders are working very effectively with the Provincial Reconstruction Teams of Baghdad, and specifically with our own local reconstruction team. And we are putting lots of young people to work in municipal functions, everything from cleaning the roads to paving the roads to opening up small businesses. We have microfinance offices going in that are allowing us to jump-start some small entrepreneurial actions across northwest Baghdad and northeast Baghdad.
These are all positive signs; that we see the employment opportunities decreasing the violence, specifically in the Shula and Kadhimiya areas. And we hope to export similar programs throughout the rest of the area of responsibility.
But what we've seen more importantly is that the violence level is not just contributed to by the local citizens. There is, in fact, an import of Sunni extremists in from the west which continue to cause violence, which decreases the opportunity for locals to engage in governmental processes or even seek employment. What we've got to do is bring that security situation under control to provide those people in those neighborhoods the opportunity to be employed and to invest in their neighborhood's future.
MR. WHITMAN: Gordon.
Q Hi. Gordon Lubold from the Christian Science Monitor. Could you tell me a little bit -- we were told maybe a few weeks ago about a new Iraqi rotation plan that essentially prevented Iraqis from leaving to go to another -- to go home to pay their families or whatever. Is that in place where you are? And how is that working? What's the impact?
COL. BURTON: I hope I got the question right. We have seen rotational formations come into our area of responsibility specifically from the Kurdish areas of Iraq. We have an entire brigade that has been brought into northeast Baghdad that is working extremely effectively in partnership with our forces.
They are aggressive, and they are committed to security. And they are also committed to increasing their professional capabilities, in partnership with the task force commanders that are on the ground there. So that has been a positive sign.
There is also a program in place which allows us to rotate formations out of the battle space for what is called reblueing and retraining. And there are no forces right now inside our area of responsibility that are scheduled in the near-term to rotate out.
Q I don't think I explained very well. We were told that there was a new plan, as part of the Iraqis' commitment to this new plan forward, to ensure that the Iraqi army didn't leave for 10 days at a time to go home and pay their families or take leave or whatever it was they were doing. And as part of this new commitment moving forward, that was eliminated for at least three months at a time. Are you seeing that?
COL. BURTON: You're talking about the Iraqi rotational and leave programs, I presume, and let me talk to that for a minute for you. Our soldiers are able to operate on this battlefield in Iraq far away from home because we have electronic banking opportunities for our paychecks. The Iraqis don't yet have that. And their leave program has been brought to the attention of the Iraqi security force leaders, so that they have a more structured rotational program, which allows the Iraqi soldiers, national police and local police to rotate out of the battle space without causing a tremendous decrease in effectiveness across the area.
We have seen this start to take root, with Iraqi security force leaders closely monitoring who is on duty and who is not on duty, and who is scheduled to rotate out. So they can attend to those things that we as Americans sometimes take for granted.
MR. WHITMAN: John.
Q Colonel, it's John Hendren at ABC News.
Let me ask you just generally -- are you saying the surge is working? And can you give us some numbers to maybe quantify that decrease in violence you're talking about?
COL. BURTON: I can.
The immediate impact of this surge is really seen, I believe, in the projection of American forces from the large forward operating bases out into these smaller, more austere combat outposts. The principal effect of that is getting coalition forces living and working with Iraqi security forces from locations that are out along the principal threat areas inside of Western Baghdad, in our area specifically.
What we have seen is a decrease from -- we started our pushout in January, and have been following through with our own projection of power out into these joint security stations since then. And from January to February, we saw a decrease from 141 murders or what we believe to be extrajudicial killings throughout our area -- from 141 down to 63. And right now in March, we have tracked 16 EJKs that we have found in our area.
Same with improvised explosive devices. We have seen a decrease from about 12 in our area in January down to three now in our area that have -- and the key about all of those IEDs that we are finding is not only have they decreased in number, but they have decreased in effectiveness, and I believe that has to do with us being out in the neighborhoods constantly, 24 hours a day, day and night, with the Iraqi security forces, continuously disrupting the insurgents' ability to target and prepare their own munitions to attack us with.
We have seen, though, over the course of the last few days an increase in the number of VBIEDs, specifically targeting Shi'a gathering places and national police and Iraqi army checkpoints, specifically in the Mansour area. Now, I believe that that increase in vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attacks is a result of a departure of Shi'a extremist leadership in recognition of the local Shi'a holiday of Ashura and Arba'in. I believe the Sunni extremists saw that as an opportunity to strike with much violence across much of western Baghdad, but that violence has been short-lived. And in testament to the great courage and commitment of the Iraqi army soldiers and the Iraqi national police, they have in fact defeated three vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices inside of our area of responsibility, rendering them harmless before they could reach their intended targets, all positive signs, based on the commitment to this new plan.
Q Colonel, if I could follow up again. Just to clarify, those IEDs -- it was 12 in January and three -- is that March or February? And can I ask you, also, just to summarize -- I mean, is -- does the surge appear to be working? Is that what you -- is that the result of this decrease in violence?
COL. BURTON: I believe that the short-term indicators that we have seen, based on the new Baghdad Security Plan, which is really a projection of combat power from these FOBs to a near full-time presence out in the area, is having a positive impact on the security situation of western Baghdad.
For IEDs specifically, improvised explosive devices, in January, 89 were detonated; in March, 21 have been detonated so far.
In January, 36 were discovered; in March, 10 have been discovered, and that's a notable decrease across the board. For explosive formed penetrators, IEDs that are of the explosive form penetrators types, in January, there were 12 in our area of responsibility, and in March, there are three. Now let me clarify something. The explosive formed penetrator device is principally found where Shi'a extremists operate, and with the departure of the Shi'a extremists over the course of the last month, we're monitoring this very closely to ensure that this is not an artificial trend as we watch for the Ashura and Arba'in festivals to come to a conclusion and the potential for these Shi'a extremists to return to the battlefield.
MR. WHITMAN: Courtney.
Q Colonel, this is Courtney Kube from NBC News. I just want to clarify exactly what you're saying here. So the Shi'a extremists, when they leave the violence goes up? I mean, are you saying that the Shi'a extremists really provide an element of security in part of your area?
COL. BURTON: I would not say that at all. What I would say is as follows. With a Shi'a extremist influence and a Sunni extremist influence, coalition forces are focused in two directions to defeat extremist actors regardless of the sect. What we have seen is when the Shi'a extremists departed our area of responsibility, specifically in western Baghdad, incidents rates in the Shi'a areas dropped dramatically. Incident rates in the Sunni areas increased a bit with vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices targeting Shi'a gathering places and Iraqi security force locations.
So what I think we are seeing right now in a very short duration with regards to the Sunni extremist actors, that they have seen an opportunity with Shi'a extremists out of the area to strike with much violence in south -- correction -- in western Baghdad to take advantage of this absence of Shi'a extremists.
Q Is it fair to say that the majority of the attacks you're seeing in your area over all, are they targeting Shi'as or how would you clarify?
COL. BURTON: Today and specifically since the start of Fard al- Qanun, which was on 14 February, that coincided with the Ashura celebrations and with Arba'in.
There was a call to remove Shi'a extremists from the fight. We believe that that was announced by some more senior Shi'a extremist leaders. And they have gone quiet or departed the area. With their departure, the principal violence we have seen has not been in the Shi'a-dominated areas. Those areas have gone relatively quiet as we have progressed in this new Baghdad security plan.
Conversely, as we built combat outposts and joint security stations on these fault lines, we have seen increased attacks against our soldiers because we're out there more often. And this has been principally in the Sunni-dominated areas and principally carried out by Sunni extremists.
MR. WHITMAN: Go ahead, Lisa.
Q Dagger 6, this is Lisa Burgess with Stars and Stripes. Can you give us a little more information on these combat outposts and JSSs? When I left Baghdad in early February, the plan, as I understood it, was not to put U.S. soldiers at the JSSs as a permanent presence but just to come in and out. Sounds like that's either changed or maybe it wasn't the deal in west Baghdad. I was in east Baghdad. Can you talk a little bit more about these combat outposts and JSSs, and how you're pushing troops out there?
COL. BURTON: Certainly. The -- one thing to remember is that these combat outposts are something that American soldiers do. We project combat power, we secure terrain, and from that secured terrain, we dominate the battlespace. So we're very comfortable in doing this.
Under the Baghdad security plan, it was recognized that the driving back and forth to work from our areas of responsibility back to the larger FOBs was not as effective as it might be if we were actually out and amongst the people 24 hours a day.
So in terms of the combat outpost, those were principally designed to project coalition forces solely out into the battlespace, where they could dominate the terrain, make contact with the people, and further expand the security influence in some of the very troubled sites.
The joint security stations were designed to allow coalition forces and Iraqi security forces to partner in the combined command and control processes for planning operations and executing operations from common points across the battlespace.
What we have seen with the development of the combat outposts is, they have rapidly turned into joint security stations, because the Iraqi security forces were coming to the combat outposts anyway to conduct planning and operations with the coalition forces. And so it was very easy to transition from something that was principally coalition-focused into a combined effort, with combined command posts, with shared information and intelligence, so that we could effectively operate across the battlefield.
It also decreases the amount of time necessary for information to pass between coalition forces and Iraqi security forces. The Iraqi security force leadership under the Karkh Area Command, which is responsible for Iraqi security forces in western Baghdad, has directed that Iraqi security force officers are actually posted in these joint security stations to increase the capabilities that are already extant in there.
So we have tremendous opportunities ahead of us and we're very optimistic. Every day I go out and visit these joint security stations I see better interoperability, increased command and control processes and increased sharing of information. But what we started out with as a means to get coalition forces out into the battlefield has grown into a very promising effort to execute combined operations across western Baghdad.
Q I'm sorry, just to clarify, what's happened to the joint security stations? Do they still exist? It sounds to me like the combat outposts have sort of taken over the function of the joint security stations. I know the JSSs have Iraqi police and army actually living there, so you don't have room at the combat outposts to have those folks live there. But what do you have, a hybrid here? This is very interesting.
COL. BURTON: No, what we have is these joint security stations are actually a manifestation of the combat outposts that we projected out very early. And that's specifically inside the Dagger Brigade Combat Team. As I told you earlier, we had started projecting combat power out into the battlefield and away from the big FOBs because we were not getting the effects that I thought necessary in driving back and forth to work every day.
For instance, in Ghazalia, which is on the western portion of our area along a very troubled sectarian fault line, we pushed out the 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment to occupy what was then Combat Outpost Casino, designed to bed down a coalition force company so that they could operate across Ghazalia very effectively. Very shortly thereafter, the commander of the 4th Battalion, 1st Brigade, 6th Iraqi Army began conducting combined planning and efforts in that same combat outpost.
So very rapidly, it turned into a joint security station, where we have representatives of the Iraqi army and the national police and coalition forces planning together, executing command and control processes together, and yes, living together in this same joint security station. So what started out as a combat outpost grew into a joint security station, and it's a very promising development.
MR. WHITMAN: Colonel, we have reached about the end of our time here that we've allocated for this. And we want to be respectful of your time, so let me turn it back over to you to see if you have any closing remarks you'd like to make before we bring it to an end.
COL. BURTON: Well, I do. And I do appreciate the opportunity to talk with all of you this morning and answer some of your questions.
I will tell you that we, along with our Iraqi security force partners, are fully engaged and committed to the security of the Iraqi people, to improving the lives and safeguarding the futures of all Iraqis across Western Baghdad. The achievements we've experienced thus far have not come without sacrifice. We have suffered losses in combat with the enemy. But make no mistake -- those losses served to strengthen our resolve to accomplish our mission here and to leave this part of Baghdad better than we have found it. We look forward with great optimism as we continue our mission.
And I would also like to say that we are extremely blessed to have the enduring support of our tremendous task force guardian and family readiness groups in Schweinfurt, Germany, Fort Bragg, Fort Bliss, Fort Hood, and Fort Riley, along with the continued tremendous outpouring support of the American people, who have not flinched in their commitment to their nation's servicemembers. Together, these great teams of committed patriots form the bedrock of our continued resolve to accomplish this mission. I am honored to be here leading this tremendous brigade combat team, formed of our nation's finest, who are committed to this noble mission, and to have the opportunity to work alongside some outstanding Iraqis, who are genuinely committed to the enduring security of their nation. It's a prideful thing.
I thank you all for your time this morning, and look forward to the opportunity to talk with you again in the future. First team and duty first.
MR. WHITMAN: Thank you, Colonel Burton, and we do hope to talk to you again soon. And obviously you're in a sector that is of great interest to us back here, and we appreciate you taking the time this morning to share what your unit is doing.