DoD News Briefing with Maj. Gen. Barbero from the Pentagon
GEN. BARBERO: Good afternoon, everybody.
First, I'd like to recognize up front that yesterday was obviously a tragic day in Iraq. And I want to express my condolences to the Iraqi people for their significant losses.
As a result of yesterday's attacks, approximately 115 Iraqi civilians were killed and over 137 Iraqi civilians were injured by multiple VBIED attacks. Primarily most of these casualties came from an attack in a crowded marketplace in the Rusafa district of Baghdad, a predominantly Shi'a area.
As we've said many times, we will have bad days along with days of progress. Sunni extremists and al Qaeda in Iraq continue to attempt barbaric, high-profile attacks in an attempt to incite sectarian violence, and yesterday was an example of this -- as was the suicide bombing in the Green Zone last week.
I think what's important to note is that immediately following the attack in the Green Zone, the Iraqi government took steps to take responsibility for the security and to demonstrate the resolve and commitment to carry on the work. Some of the measures they took were they immediately placed responsibility for security for the building under the Ministry of Interior. The Council of Representatives met the very next day, on a holy day, in the very same building to demonstrate their unity in the face of terrorism. And the Iraqi government launched an extensive investigation into the attack.
But that being said, the Green Zone and predominantly Shi'a areas remain extremely high-priority targets, both physically and symbolically, for an adaptive, ruthless and thinking enemy looking to make headlines and undermine stability. We can expect this enemy to continue to use every means at his disposal, no matter how brutal, to attempt further high-profile attacks in the future.
However, I will tell you that despite these high-profile attacks, sectarian murder trends are declining in Baghdad as the additional U.S. and Iraqi security forces continue to establish themselves and embed themselves in the neighborhoods. Compared to the six-week period before the start of Operation Fard al-Qanun, civilian casualties and attacks on civilians are down by approximately 50 percent in Baghdad, and civilian casualties across Iraq are down by 24 percent, and attacks against civilians across Iraq are down by about 17 percent.
During the last time I briefed you, I was asked a question whether we sensed our surge of forces in Baghdad and the Baghdad security plan was causing increased attacks and violence elsewhere in Iraq; in other words, as we squeeze Baghdad, was the enemy flowing to other areas -- other provinces. Our analysis shows that with the exception of some high-profile attacks in Mosul, Tall Afar and Kirkuk, the cycle of violence in Baghdad does not appear to have spread to other areas and we're not seeing a significant rise in violence in the other areas of Iraq.
To be a little more specific, in the northern areas, the primarily Kurdish areas, where the level of attacks have been low, they remain low. They remain steady. In the northern-central area, from basically Mosul and south to the northern part of Baghdad, Diyala and Al Tamin provinces, we have seen a slight increase there in the number of attacks.
In the south, like the north, attack rates there have been low and have remained steady. And in the west, in Al Anbar province, we've seen a significant decrease in the number of attacks. So we are not seeing an expansion of violence to other areas outside Baghdad.
Our top priority continues to be our support for Operation Fard al-Qanun, the Baghdad security plan. The security plan continues as we increase our coalition and Iraqi security force presence across Baghdad.
Three of the five deploying U.S. brigades are now operating in Baghdad, with a fourth brigade in Kuwait and starting their move north as we speak. On the 18th of April, the 3rd Infantry Division established command and control of a new area of operations in an area southwest of Baghdad that includes Najaf. Twenty-four of 36 joint security stations are operating in their neighborhoods. And as you know, they are manned by the Iraqi army, police and coalition forces. Twenty-five of 33 combat outposts are also operating in neighborhoods of Baghdad.
In response to the increased security presence, the Iraqi people have been providing an increasing number of tips which have led to the discovery of more caches. These discoveries are up from about an average of nine caches discovered in and around Baghdad prior to the start of this operation to now about 20 caches a month we are now discovering and reducing. Some of these recent caches included suicide vests, IEDs, vehicle-born IEDs and other materials used in high-profile attacks we've seen in the past.
So in the midst of early indicators of progress, security challenges obviously remain. It remains too early to tell if these early indicators are enduring trends.
Turning to Afghanistan, Operation Baz Achilles (ph), the major tactical operation in the south, continues to target enemy forces, preempt enemy operations, and set the long-term goal of enabling reconstruction and development in the critical southern area.
ISAF and Afghan Army units are currently conducting operations focused in Sangin district, an area of Helmand province, that was claimed by the Taliban to be in their control and declared as one of their strongholds. ISAF and Afghan units recently conducted a large operation into the heart of the district, securing the district center largely unopposed.
While the threat of the Taliban spring offensive still exists, to date we have not seen enemy operations on the scale that they have predicted. In fact, our assessment is that the increase in the number of contacts we are seeing is being driven by the presence and activity of ISAF and Afghan forces, not by the Taliban.
However, overall success in Afghanistan will not be achieved by solely engaging and killing insurgents, but success will be achieved by separating the insurgents from the population and by demonstrating the effectiveness of the government of Afghanistan.
In support of this goal, ISAF and the Afghan government continue to execute an extensive reconstruction and development program throughout the nation. I think Brigadier General Joe Votel described some of that to you yesterday.
Globally, our forces remain active. Of note, in the Pacific Command's area of operations, as you know, a tsunami struck the Solomon Islands in early April. Several weeks ago, Pacific Command's U.S. Naval Ship Stockham began providing assistance to the people of the Solomon Islands. To date she has provided over 80 hours of helicopter lift, moving nearly 20,000 pounds of supplies, transported 149 aid people and put them on the ground on the island, and they either casually evac'd or rescued 20 civilians.
This operation is planned to provide assistance throughout the end of this week. Participation in operations such as this, often occurring well below the radar, help create new partnerships and build upon existing relationships.
And with that, I'll be glad to take your questions.
Q Sir, on the bombing last week in the green zone, the cafeteria bombing, what can you tell us now about who it was, how that person got past security, any details?
GEN. BARBERO: I don't have -- I've not seen any detailed reports of who that was. Obviously there are breakdowns in security. I think General Odierno talked about that. And we are in the process of analyzing and adjusting our techniques. That started immediately. Security operations there were changed on the spot.
As I said, the investigation, led by the Iraqi government, is ongoing. And, you know, providing security in that area is going to be hard. As I said, it's a very lucrative target. But I would say we ought to look at this -- although these are dramatic and have some strategic effect, we should not look at these one or two attacks or one or two bad days in isolation.
You know, it's about a long-term effort to improve the security situation, provide security which allows breathing space for the Iraqi government to make the necessary political judgments. And we continue to do this in several ways. Our increased presence in the neighborhoods I talked about. We are embedded there, not just visiting, not just driving through. We are doing this through our joint security stations and combat outposts.
We're doing it with active security operations -- patrols, checkpoints, hardening of key sites, both physically and procedurally - and then by offensive operations. Every day and every night, we're going after individuals and organizations that are either attacking the people of Iraq or attacking our forces.
So we'll continue to do this. It's hard work. And we're adjusting it every day.
Q So it's a week later. You're telling us you have no information on what happened at the Parliament building, no forensics, no sense of an inside job, type of bomb used? You have no information?
GEN. BARBERO: I have not seen any specific reports on who exactly got that bomb in there, no, I mean, from the Joint Staff perspective. In Baghdad, I'm sure they have some details. But I'm probably not the person to ask about specific tactical details. I've seen some speculation about how it happened. Obviously there was a breakdown in security. The security measures that were in place, if they were executed properly, should have prevented this, obviously. But, no, I do not have that level of detail.
Q Sir, is there any increased security at the building?
GEN. BARBERO: I'm not sure. I'm not sure what those specific steps are.
Q Sir, can I just ask about tactics to deal with the VBIED threat? Because obviously that's a bit different than dealing with sectarian violence. The Israelis have been at this for decades trying to stop suicide bombers, and they've built walls and really, you know, cracked down on flows of population. And that seems to be the only way they've been able to do it.
Can you talk about tactics you guys are considering to deal with that specific threat?
GEN. BARBERO: Without getting into specific tactics, you have to look at the network. It's not just about stopping a vehicle before it gets to a very lucrative area. It's about identifying who is running and organizing these networks, where they're being built, who's funding them, who's supporting them, who's providing them intel, who may be providing them tips on the security measures, and identifying those and going after those people. So attacking the network is a primary means.
The second means is attacking the supply and the caches and the means -- the rat lines, we call them -- of transporting these supplies, and then finding the areas where they're being constructed, where they're being supported. You know, we've identified certain areas in Baghdad and what we call around the belts of Baghdad, and we're actively going after those.
And then the final piece of it is actually part of hardening, as I said, both materially and procedurally, these lucrative targets. So it's a very comprehensive, complex operation, not just for VBIEDs, but it's the same methodology for any type of threat that we have over there.
Q Why is it that you're having such a hard time getting a handle on this? I mean, this has been a recurring problem for years. And if you can't stop this, you know, what's the prospect of stabilizing Baghdad over the next few months?
GEN. BARBERO: Well, there has been a drop, you know. But every one, like I said, like yesterday, has a strategic effect. So we are having some effect on these. But as I said, it's an adaptive enemy and it's an act, react, counteract. We take action going after these networks, putting up these barriers, improving our security. They analyze it and they react. Meanwhile, we're not standing pat. We're changing every day also, trying to make sure we haven't set up any patterns.
So it's a pattern of act, react, counteract, which goes on every day. It's tough business, I mean, trying to find these with an elusive, ruthless enemy that doesn't care. You know, we have certain restraints; they don't. They're willing to blow up children, girls' schools in Kirkuk. So it's tough. But you know, you have to continue to work at it.
Q General, can you give us a sense on this effort to counteract the BBIED networks? Is this a new effort, an ongoing effort? Has it received increased priority lately? Admiral Fallon said yesterday it was the number one task of all the things you have to do in Iraq.
GEN. BARBERO: Right.
Q And also, do you have a sense of whether these VBIEDs are being blown up in the areas where you already have the JSS or the outposts established, or is it neighborhoods you haven't gotten to yet?
GEN. BARBERO: Let me -- renewed emphasis on the -- on what we call the "accelerants." What is going to accelerate sectarian violence? VBIEDs and these murderers -- the extrajudicial killings. If you remember several months ago, it was tit for tat, rampant, back and forth. So we've had a renewed focus on what we call the accelerants for sectarian violence.
And we've had success -- some success with the extrajudicial killings. The murders and rapes are down. We've had some success with these BBIED networks. So it is a priority and it has been the focus since before the start of this operation.
As far as where they're being employed, they're being primarily employed by the Sunni extremists, al Qaeda in Iraq. It's their signature weapon; primarily used in the Shi'a neighborhoods to try to incite the sectarian violence that they know will lead to the chaotic and ungovernable state that they want. So we're not seeing them in the vicinity of these combat posts or joint security stations -- primarily still against the Shi'a population and gatherings.
Q Can you give us any details of any of those successes you mentioned against the network?
GEN. BARBERO: I don't have that with me now. No, I can't.
Q Is there any indication that yesterday's wave of bomb blasts was carried out by al Qaeda in Iraq? What evidence to you have of that? And would you say that there is a shift now that -- with the Mahdi Army sitting out of the fight basically since the surge began -- that al Qaeda in Iraq is your main sort of -- the group that you're focusing on and that is causing the greatest problems for the U.S. military?
GEN. BARBERO: I know al Qaeda in Iraq has claimed responsibility for them. It's their signature weapon, so the asuption is that they're behind it. There's no reason not to believe that they are responsible for it.
We continue to conduct deliberate operations against everybody -- every individual, organization that attacks coalition forces, attacks the Iraqi peoples -- people -- or contributes to insecurity. And we do -- we're doing that every day and every night. It's balanced, and it's Shi'a extremists, Sunni extremists. And we're actively going after all of them.
Clearly we have to -- and as Admiral Fallon said, the BBEIDs are our main focus. And that is what -- the folks in our intelligence and our operations center try to stop these attacks and take out these networks.
Q On VBIEDs, and then one on the Najaf operation: Are you getting the sense that the BBIED cells are separate from the population of Baghdad? Is that why they're hard to penetrate, or do the Sunni populations in Baghdad passively or actively support them and so there's a way in?
And then on Najaf, it's my understanding that the Iraqi security forces have taken over responsibility for Najaf, and so why is the 3rd ID down there?
GEN. BARBERO: I don't have -- I've not seen a report about the Iraqi security forces taking over Najaf, so I don't --
Q Oh, I thought that that was one of the four provinces that they --
GEN. BARBERO: Oh, I'm sorry. It's was Maysan Province just was transferred. And I'm not sure --
Q Not know? Or just --
GEN. BARBERO: -- (inaudible) -- provincial responsibility.
So back to VBIEDs, penetrating that network. Are they connected to --
GEN. BARBERO: Right. Yeah. Primarily -- obviously almost exclusively Sunni network -- Sunni extremist groups, al Qaeda in Iraq -- logically most of their sanctuaries would be in the predominantly Sunni areas.
But we're seeing -- and I know it's been reported -- a trend in Al Anbar province of the Sunni leaders and the Sunni population turning against al Qaeda in Iraq specifically, and we are starting to see that expand into other areas. It's still a very early stage in Diyala and some other provinces, but this reaction to the absolute brutality and the indiscriminate murder of Iraqis, to include Sunnis, by these organizations is starting to drive a wedge between them and the Sunni leadership and the Sunni population. And we're seeing that in Al Anbar, and as I said, the attacks and violence in Al Anbar province has greatly diminished.
Q General, your briefing now -- a day after one of the deadliest days in Baghdad that we've seen in a number of weeks -- but you presented quite a few statistics essentially indicating that things are better, not worse. How can that be? What are you leaving out?
GEN. BARBERO: I hope -- and I meant to present a balanced picture in that we are seeing, as I said, some early indicators of some progress. However, we should not -- we should have realistic expectations. These high profile attacks are going to continue. And there has been a drop in some of the statistics, but this is obviously after a bad day. If you look at yesterday in isolation then it's not a good story and things are not -- then we're not being successful. If you take a longer-term view from the start of this operation to where we are now, there are some indicators of success. So I mean, that's my point: I think we have to take a longer-term view of this and not take, you know, a day of -- a successful day and blow that out of proportion or take one of these tragic days like we had yesterday and extrapolate that into a trend.
Q General, just a point of clarification, first of all: You said that there were 115 Iraqis killed yesterday. That's quite a bit lower than the estimates of 170 to 180 that have been reported. Just explain that difference.
GEN. BARBERO: This is -- I'm sorry. A total of 150 killed, 197 injured. I'm sorry.
Q Oh. Maybe I --
GEN. BARBERO: Yeah.
Q And also, is there any indication that -- aside from the five bombings that occurred yesterday -- that al Qaeda in Iraq is planning a major counteroffensive to try to defeat the surge, counter the surge in Baghdad?
GEN. BARBERO: I think that their planning for that is ongoing. And we saw an initial drop in their activity, and now lately we've seen an increase: the bridge, this. As I said, it's you know, action by -- on our part, and now we're seeing the reaction on their part. And it will be like that until we can defeat these forces.
Q And if I could also follow up on the question of the Mahdi Army: Within the past week there were reports that Muqtada al-Sadr had sort of unleashed some of his followers to increase or to reengage American forces, and apparently called some of these forces back from their hiatus or wherever they were lying low.
GEN. BARBERO: Right.
Q Is there any evidence that Muqtada al-Sadr is -- intends to reengage not only U.S. forces but reignite those death squad killings -- sectarian killings?
GEN. BARBERO: It's hard to get a handle on the Mahdi Army, Jaish al-Mahdi and the Sadr movement because, as you know, he's gone to ground, been out of sight for a long period of time, since we started shaping operation -- before we executed this operation. And we're starting to see some fissures in his organization. There are some who are following his orders and directives; there are others who are clearly not. Some have decided to step up their attacks on coalition forces; others are cooperating and looking to become more of a participant in the political process. So we're starting to see that.
You know, this latest withdrawal of some of his ministers -- he did a similar act back in November where I think he attempted to pull all his members from the Council of Representatives, and after a certain period of -- you know, that was ineffective. And as the secretary said yesterday, this may turn out to be good news -- replace some of his hard line ministers with more capable -- with more capable ministers.
You know, the Najaf demonstration -- you know, it was a fairly large -- 10(,000) to 15,000 -- but our commanders on the ground say there were some positive indicators there. Unlike past demonstrations which he organized and claimed responsibility for, which were upwards of 100,000 people -- smaller, more nationalist in tone rather than Shi'a-Sadr in tone; peaceful, both internally by their actions and externally, and the security provided to it was by the Iraqi security forces. So I think he was probably disappointed by that. He envisioned a larger, more radical demonstration.
So it's hard to get -- to answer your question is, it's hard to get a feel on the Jaish al-Mahdi or Mahdi Army because we're starting to see some fissures as I said. It's not this monolithic organization as it sometime is presented.
Q If I could follow up -- has the U.S. confirmed reports that Muqtada al-Sadr has ordered his forces -- whether they follow him or not -- has ordered his forces to reengage the U.S. and the death squad activity?
GEN. BARBERO: I cannot confirm that. I have not seen specific reports of that.
Q General, could I just ask you an Afghanistan question for a second?
GEN. BARBERO: I'd welcome it.
Q You had mentioned that the Taliban spring offensive apparently hasn't materialized in the way you thought it would. But I'm wondering how much good news might really be there because my question is what in -- with your current operations had on are you now seeing across the border in the al Qaeda training camps and the U.S. government says are back up and running are full and are very active. What are you seeing in those training camps on the Pakistani side right now?
GEN. BARBERO: Well, there continues to be activity on the -- around the border area in the federally administrated tribal areas -- continue to watch that -- concerned about it. I'm not sure we see -- we've seen any great increase in that lately, you know, but we are concerned about it and watching it closely. And as I said, right now we have not seen this great uptick in their operations. That does not mean that they will not try something here in the near future. I expect them to.
Q These al Qaeda camps that you're referring to on the Pakistani side -- when you analyze it could they possibly be operating unless -- over this long period of time now unless the Pakistani government and the Pakistani military as well as intelligence services were complicit in allowing them to continue, and are you pressing the Pakistani government to try and shut those camps down?
GEN. BARBERO: I'm not sure at my level that I'm familiar with them but -- with what our policy is towards Pakistan and to these camps. We're watching them -- we're concerned about that area and continue to watch it.
Q I see Admiral Fallon said, to follow up on that, that he thought a lot of the Taliban fighters were out in the fields whacking down poppies to help harvest the ongoing -- the blooming or budding opium crop. What kind of eyes do you have on the total acreage of opium poppies being grown in Afghanistan, and what sort of efforts are being made by you all and by ISAF to try to eradicate --
GEN. BARBERO: Right.
Q -- those fields?
GEN. BARBERO: First, we've seen the reports of the Taliban active in the harvesting of the poppy -- poppies and so, you know, I agree with that. I do not have the size or estimates of the acreage and it is not an ISAF mission to eradicate the poppy fields so -- sir?
Q On Tuesday, General Pace told us about some evidence of Iranian influence and weapons and materials found in Afghanistan. Do you have any more clarity on that at all in terms of how much you're seeing where it's coming from exactly at the roots?
GEN. BARBERO: I will say that for operational reasons I can't add to what the chairman said about this. But I will tell you we are seeing some indicators of Iranian support to the Sunni extremist groups in Iraq, which is a development. And it's imprecise, but what we have that I can discuss with you is some -- that we are seeing some aid from the Iranian intelligence services to the Sunni insurgents. Detainees in American custody have indicated that Iranian intelligence operatives have given support to Sunni insurgents, and then we've discovered some munitions in Baghdad neighborhoods which are largely Sunni that were manufactured in Iran. And I think General Odierno referred to this the other day in his comments.
But if you're a Sunni leader in Iraq, this is cause for concern. Increasing Iranian influence in Iraq is a cause for concern. Iranian support to al Qaeda and others who are blowing up and killing and unleashing gas on Sunni civilians should give you cause for concern. You know, as I said earlier there's a wedge being driven by al Qaeda and Iraq's activities and their tactics between themselves and the Sunni leaders and populations clearly in Al Anbar Province, and we're starting to see it elsewhere as a reaction to the brutal methods that they're employing.
Q Just to follow up, sir, you (spoke ?) of a higher level of support from Iran?
GEN. BARBERO: That's all I have and it's -- like I said it's initial indicators and I just gave you what I could as far as what we have.
Q Just to follow up on that, what's the thinking behind the motivation for Iranian assistance to Sunni factions, since in the past it's been believed that their interests were more closely aligned with the Shi'a in --
GEN. BARBERO: It is the same -- destabilize Iraq, tie us down -- pretty much the same strategic goals they have by supporting the Shi'a insurgents.
Q Could you just clarify? You mentioned munitions and you mentioned support. What other types of supports besides --
GEN. BARBERO: That's all I have, what I gave you.
Q Because it's been said that way a couple times this week: support and then munitions later, as though there might be --
GEN. BARBERO: Support and munitions, how's that? Support and munitions. (Laughter.)
MR. : And time for about one more, we got to go.
Q (Inaudible) -- is that support going to al Qaeda groups?
GEN. BARBERO: Pardon me?
Q Is it going to al Qaeda groups, Sunni al Qaeda groups?
GEN. BARBERO: Sunni extremists and I assume, but I do not know, al Qaeda groups. But Sunni extremists is what I have. Sir?
Q Question on the state of al Qaeda in Iraq today. Since Zarqawi was killed in June, do -- does the Pentagon believe the group is larger today or smaller today -- weaker? Has it been able to rejuvenate leaders?
GEN. BARBERO: It has been able to replace leaders and we've -- we are very active in like I said almost nightly going after these leaders and taking down this network. And whenever you do that then more intelligence pops up as they try to react and adjust their network. They're still effective. These vehicle-borne IEDs -- these high profile attacks are their signature, and they're still capable of executing these. So they're adaptive, ruthless and a thinking enemy and we are staying on them all the time.
Q Are they sending new leaders in?
GEN. BARBERO: There are new leaders emerging, yes.
Thank you very much.
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