GEN. WIGGINS: Good afternoon. I'm Brigadier General Perry Wiggins. I'm the deputy director for regional operations within the Operations Directorate on the Joint Staff. I've recently taken the reins from Major General Michael Barbero, who has been up here before. He is heading out and assuming duties as the deputy chief of staff for operations in Multinational Forces Iraq. And so I want to wish Major General Barbero the best of luck.
I'd like to open today's briefing with a statement providing an operational update, and then move quickly to a question-and-answer session. And although I'm relatively new to the process, I understand there's a bunch of busy people in here that need to get -- have suspenses and timelines, as well as meetings, and I can count myself among one of those.
So I'd also like to start and say upfront that if I don't have the answer to your question right off the top of my head, we'll track down the answer and we'll try to get that to you as soon as possible.
April was a tough month in Iraq. A number of you have already reported about the loss of 100 U.S. service members in the month of April. Coalition forces suffered losses as well.
And with that in mind, I'd like to extend my sincere condolences to those families of the soldiers, Marines, airmen, sailors and coalition partners. Our thoughts and prayers are with those family members.
I'd like to also express my condolences to the Iraqi people. The Iraqis sustained over 300 Iraqi security force losses in the month of April as well. And I think this highlights not only the level of commitment and sacrifice of our service members, it also recognizes the dedication and commitment of the Iraqi security force members to achieve security and stability for the Iraqi people.
These deaths serve to remind us that the coalition and Iraqi security forces are the primary target for attacks. This is the consistent trend. The coalition is the target for every two out of three attacks. And as you know, a big portion of these attacks are improvised explosive devices, and improvised explosive devices are the most persistent weapon used against coalition forces, producing a total of 60 percent of our casualty rate. I have a little bit more to say about improvised explosive devices a little bit later on in my brief.
There's no question the operation environment in Iraq is complex and challenging. Al Qaeda, armed Shi'a militias, Sunni insurgents continue to target Iraqi leaders and what the Iraqi leaders are trying to build. Our main effort remains Operation Fard al-Qanun in Baghdad, where we've increased the operational tempo. Three of five additional plus-up combat brigades are operating in neighborhoods and other areas in and around Baghdad in several joint security stations and combat outposts. These stations which allow coalition and Iraqi forces to live and operate together among and with the Iraqi people, alongside Iraqi security force members, is producing some progress.
This forward presence is, like I said, paying off. We are seeing early indications of steady progress. It's not often flashy, but it's the sort of progress that can make a difference over time -- similar to the hard-nosed football game, three yards at a time, one first down at a time. As General Petraeus stated, sectarian violence such as murders and executions are down by two-thirds. That correlates to fewer people are getting snatched out of their homes and snatched off the streets and murdered. That trend can only contribute to an increased sense of security and comfort in Iraqi security force capabilities.
As well and perhaps related to the previous trend, more and more Iraqi citizens are coming forward and providing an increased number of tips that have led to the recovery of weapons caches. General Petraeus recently provided an example from the Ramadi area, where U.S. and Iraqi forces have found nearly as many caches in the first four months of this year than they did in all of last year. In stark contrast to the efforts to build trust and confidence in the Iraqi people, extremist elements work to tear down and weaken the Iraqi people's self -- control of their own destiny.
And while I can point to the steady initial indicators of progress I just discussed, there continues to be a rise in the number of high-profile vehicle IED and suicide attacks on soft targets. Innocent Iraqi people in the markets, mosque and even at funerals are targeted.
As you know, these attacks kill scores of innocent people trying to move about during the normal course of their daily lives. We haven't solved this yet, but this is a top priority. We're working hard to enhance security, and we're working hard to better security areas where people live and meet, as well as go after the networks that support these attacks.
Another area where tips are helping is that every cache found impacts enemy networks. Through these tips and the hard work of our forces, we're gaining a better understanding of the infrastructure supporting these attacks. These nets include foreign involvement from non-Iraqis that continue to try to influence events inside Iraq.
The suicide and vehicle bomb networks associated with al Qaeda conduct indiscriminate attacks against innocent Iraqi civilians in public places, in an effort to produce mass casualties. They have ties outside the country that feed both the leadership positions as well as the suicide attackers themselves. We know that the IED networks that attack U.S. and Iraqi forces have ties to the Iranian Quds Force.
As I said, we're getting smarter about these networks, and we're working with the Iraqis to bring them down. Perhaps the most effective example of this is in the Anbar province, where the Iraqis have said, they've had enough. It is largely because the local sheikhs have energized the Iraqi people to put a stop to the indiscriminate killing and outside influence that's controlling their lives.
As you know, we surged two Marine battalions in the Al Anbar province. But the key element has been the local population, predominantly the Sunni Arabs, who have stepped up and taken a more active role to secure their own destiny. Working with U.S. and Iraqi security forces, we have achieved some good results in Anbar. And there are initial indications that more and more Iraqis are starting to take this approach.
Now turning to Afghanistan, you're aware that the Afghan national army, along with the national police, working closely with coalition forces, have engaged and destroyed a sizable Taliban force in Herat province, killing over a hundred enemy fighters. Operations in the Sangin Valley continue with the beginning of Operation Silicon, a supporting effort to Operation Achilles. This operation is to flush the Taliban out of the valley and out of the Helmand province.
This operation involves about 2,000 NATO and Afghan forces. To date they have met minimal resistance. The command and control of operations in RC South transitioned on 1 May from the Dutch to the British, and we are confident the team will continue to take the fight to the enemy.
The forces in Afghanistan continue to perform superbly in non- combat missions as well. Example of that is, providing emergency medical care to a number of civilians injured by bombs planted by the Taliban. The third private university in Afghanistan opened on 27 April. There are 250 students and 15 instructors studying law, politics and as most of you will be happy to know, journalism.
In closing, I'd like to revisit a couple of key points. First, we remain dedicated to the fight. We're embedded in the neighborhoods with the Iraqi people, and the Iraqi security forces are right along beside us.
Secondly, we're making steady progress in many areas. It's not the high-profile events that often make the news, but it's solid, steady progress. The enemy has a vote, and he's pushing hard in order to stem the progress being made.
There are still challenges. And as I stated before, April was a tough month. There will continue to be tough days ahead, and I assure you that we're dedicated to meeting and exceeding the challenges in the future.
Thanks for listening. And I'll now address any questions you might have. Yes, ma'am?
Q General, just on Afghanistan, can you give us any further clarity? There's been concerns expressed by some of the Afghan leaders about civilian casualties. Can you give us any further clarity on whether or not and how many civilians may have been killed in this latest attack?
GEN. WIGGINS: Well, first, we're always concerned about allegations of civilian casualties or civilian casualties. In this particular case I think you're referring to -- you know, commanders as a matter of course normally conduct investigations when it concerns civilian casualties. In this case the commander is conducting an investigation. I think General McNeill stated such. And as a matter of course as well, we try not to discuss those particular investigations until the facts are given by the commander. And I think you can understand why in those respects.
But I can tell you that we go to great lengths in order to protect Afghan civilians. Unfortunately, the Taliban doesn't play by the same rules and executes a number of their attacks in densely populated areas, which put civilians at risk.
Q I'm sorry, just to follow, are you suggesting that perhaps these civilians were killed by the Taliban rather than coalition forces?
GEN. WIGGINS: Oh, I'm not suggesting that at all. I'm just saying I can't comment because I don't have the facts.
Q Can I follow up on that?
GEN. WIGGINS: Yes, sir.
Q What more can you tell us about the incident? Apparently there was an ambush of a patrol out there. What do you know that can sort of shed light on how civilians may have gotten caught in the line of fire here?
GEN. WIGGINS: Yes, sir. Like I told you before, I mean, the commander's investigating. I'm sure more facts will come out, and as they come out, I'm sure it will be given to you guys. But I don't have any more information. I don't have the circumstances. And as I get that, I'm sure we'll push that out to you.
Q General, General Petraeus was here last week and talked about the process by which -- his, I guess, draft for how to assess benchmarks in Iraq come September. He kind of dropped that off to the Joint Staff. I wonder if you could kind of talk about how that process is going to work. Are you guys all looking at it and perhaps tweaking a little bit, changing it? And what will it look like, do you think, before he actually uses that assessment in September? How different?
GEN. WIGGINS: You know, I can't speculate, because that's up to senior leadership. And General Petraeus, I know, spoke on that. But I can tell you that we continue to assess conditions throughout Iraq and Afghanistan. And, you know, it's all conditions based. But I think that's something that's probably better served to take up with Multinational Forces Iraq, the disposition of it, as I don't have any knowledge of where we're at with it. I do know what you know and heard what you heard, but no, I don't know any more.
Q Moving back to this issue in Anbar and these sheikhs and their uprising against al Qaeda forces, what makes you think that this is actually the real deal, that this is long term, that this will have an impact on the fight overall?
GEN. WIGGINS: Well, you know, to be honest with you, what I told you is what I know, and that's stuff that has been given to us from downrange. You know, I can't make an assessment from here.
But I can tell you that to me, there are positive signs. There's progress moving forward. The fact that you've got Iraqis that are determining their own destiny, to me is a positive sign. More than that, I can't give you specifics, and I can't necessarily tell you what the future holds or in my opinion what's going on there. But I can tell you that the signs in Anbar to me are positive; the fact that the Iraqi people are taking actions is a positive sign.
Q General, on the Afghan thing, just to follow up, I mean can't you say whether there were civilian casualties in this case?
GEN. WIGGINS: Well, sir, like I said before, I let commanders gather the facts. They're working hard at that, and I'm sure as soon as they get those facts, they'll release those facts.
Q I mean this is several days later.
GEN. WIGGINS: Yes, sir. But like I said, you know, investigations take time in order to track down the facts. And we don't like to be -- you know, time is not a factor when you're talking about allegations of this nature.
Q One other thing. You mentioned in your opening statement that sectarian murders in Iraq or in Baghdad are down by two-thirds. What are the actual numbers of murders for April? How does that compare with January and the previous months? And also, what are the numbers for the VBIED attacks and number of casualties resulting from those?
GEN. WIGGINS: Yes, sir. To tell you the truth, this is one of those things where I told you upfront I'll probably have to track down that answer and get back to you later with the appropriate answer because I don't have that with me right now. But I'll get that back to you, sir.
Q General, are you familiar with the issue regarding the Iraqi office that they call the Office of the Commander in Chief? And can you tell us how many officers have been dismissed by that office, how big an impact it's had, and whether that activity has continued in the last few days after it's come to light?
GEN. WIGGINS: Sir, I'm familiar with what you're talking about. I don't have a whole lot of information above and beyond probably what's been published already. But I'm probably not the guy that you need to address that question to. There's probably somebody down range who's closer to that particular organization.
Q Try another one on you.
GEN. WIGGINS: Yes, sir.
Q On the budget situation and the ongoing debate, has the lack of a supplemental had any impact on operations in Iraq or Afghanistan or on units that are preparing to go?
GEN. WIGGINS: Well, all I can tell you is we're continuing to focus on the mission. We're not focused on the supplemental. We're not focused on anything other than accomplishing our mission down range.
Q But has there been any impact on that from the lack of a supplemental?
GEN. WIGGINS: Right --
Q I mean, I'm not asking for a political answer or judgment, I just want to know, you know, while they're arguing up on Capitol Hill, what's happening in the field.
GEN. WIGGINS: Yes, sir. You know, I -- from my foxhole, I have not seen any impact, but I'm not down there at the tip of the spear.
I can tell you that I know that we're continuing to focus on operations -- (audio break).
Q Sir, do you have an assessment of how much the Iraqi government is adhering to its commitment to be politically neutral in the surge? We get indications that the Iraqis could be doing more. Admiral Fallon said this morning he wished the pace would go faster. Secretary Gates has said that. Do you get indications that they could be doing more, or that the Maliki government is tilting one way politically while this is all under way?
GEN. WIGGINS: Well, I can tell you I think everybody wants things to move a little quicker. The difference is, with the Iraqi security forces, I think I've heard nothing but good comments about the close relationship specifically since we've enacted this new plan. And as I stated earlier, you know, their dedication, you know, through the losses that they've suffered as well, demonstrates their dedication to this plan and to a secure and stable Iraq.
So to answer your question, I think the Iraqi security forces are very dedicated to this mission.
Q I'm not specifically talking about the security forces --
GEN. WIGGINS: Right.
Q -- inasmuch as I am the political leadership in Baghdad directing them. Do you find that they are staying out of the fray and working wholeheartedly at this, or do you sense that there is some sort of political interference?
GEN. WIGGINS: Right. All I can tell you is that that's probably something that's better taken -- I don't feel necessarily qualified to answer about their political piece in Iraq, but I can answer about the military. And I can tell you that the Iraqi security forces are working hand in hand with our forces in order to provide a secure and stable Iraq.
Q You referred in your opening statement, I think, to a hundred Taliban killed in Herat. Are you referring to the incident that we've been asking you about, specifically in southern Herat? You said you're not aware -- you can't talk about the incident because it's under investigation. But if that's a reference to the incident, I guess I'd like to know about it.
GEN. WIGGINS: Yes, sir. What I can't talk about specifically -- those are reports that we get out of there. That stuff that's already been released in the press.
Q (Off mike.)
GEN. WIGGINS: But once it goes into investigation, normally we wait, as a normal course, for the commander to release those particular answers.
Q (Off mike) -- but I'm asking you about the military operation and the military incident. What happened? Were the hundred casualties that you referred to a product of that particular incident?
GEN. WIGGINS: Well, sir, I believe the hundred casualties that came out of that was a part of the operation in Helmand province. Yes, sir.
Q So leaving aside the question of civilian casualties, what more can you tell us about how -- what happened in that incident?
GEN. WIGGINS: Well, like I told you before, I don't have a whole lot more to add to that particular incident. As we get it, we'll provide that information to you. And that's what I have right now.
Q But was it a populous area? You mentioned that the Taliban often, you know, attracts attacks in populous areas. Was that the case in -- (off mike)?
GEN. WIGGINS: Well, I don't know about necessarily in this case, particularly. I just know that that is a technique they've used in the past, to use densely populated areas in order to conduct their attacks. Whether or not that was in this particular incident, I don't know. And as soon as we find out, we'll provide that answer back to you, sir.
Q Could you go through the types of precautions that you take or that are required to be taken on the ground to avoid civilian casualties in these kinds of situations where you're calling in air strikes?
GEN. WIGGINS: Well, I can tell you that we have rules of engagement which you don't like to necessarily get into the specifics of the rules of engagement for operational purposes. But I can tell you there have been instances where operations have been delayed in some cases because of the risk to civilian populations. And soldiers do go out of their way in order to reduce the risk to innocent Afghan civilians when they're conducting operations.
Q When did the investigation begin, and who specifically is conducting it?
GEN. WIGGINS: I can tell you that the -- what I got was General McNeill said he was looking into it. Exactly when the investigation was started, I can tell you that it's been within the past few days. But -- and who's conducting the investigation, I don't know if that's yet been determined, and I don't know.
Q So it's begun, but we don't know who's -- but you don't know if anyone has been assigned to conduct it?
GEN. WIGGINS: I don't who specifically, no, ma'am.
Q A question on IEDs. You mentioned earlier, you know, you said they cause about 60 percent of the casualties from IEDs. Do you have any kind of metric or statistic on how many IED attacks result in injuries to Iraqis or how many they experience, or along those lines?
GEN. WIGGINS: No, I'll have to -- I don't know, to be honest with you. I don't know if we track that information or not.
Q It's a knowable number.
GEN. WIGGINS: Well, I don't know, and I'd have to get back with you, take a look at it. But, you know, as you're well aware, the IEDs create a huge amount of casualties. And we do track those I know on the U.S. side. I don't necessarily know on the Iraqi side to civilians.
Q Following up on the IED, can you talk to us a little bit about the progress or the lack of progress that's been made in countering IEDs? I mean, we continue to hear over and over again it's accounting for 60 percent, that level of casualties. What's the biggest barrier to your making any progress in countering those?
GEN. WIGGINS: Well, I think, honestly, it's a balance, when you -- between security and then freedom of movement.
And we're trying to strike that balance with -- in Iraq; providing the security necessary in order to protect the civilians, at the same enabling the freedom of maneuver that's associated -- or freedoms among the Iraqi people to move throughout their neighborhoods.
I think getting at this we're getting at the networks. I think that's important because I think that's one of the keys to disrupting these IED cells, and so we're working hard to get at it. As I said earlier in my statement, we'll continue to work at that, and we'll continue to try to provide the security necessary to protect the Iraqi people.
Q But following up on that, I mean, we're constantly hearing week after week that you're finding stashes of equipment and material that's used to create these bombs. Did you -- from your assessment, has that had any meaningful impact on production of IEDs?
GEN. WIGGINS: Well, you know, like I said, progress is steady. Trying to determine if the caches or the discovery of these caches has an effect, I have to believe they probably do have an effect. Percentage-wise it's probably hard to determine, but I can tell that we're continuing to work not only discovering the caches but targeting the networks, and then providing the security measures necessary in order to cut down on the freedom to maneuver of these guys to move throughout freely with these particular types of explosives. And that's, we believe, is a key as well.
Yes, ma'am -- yes, sir.
Q In your opening brief, you said that the insurgents are getting support from the outside in leadership and in suicide-bombers. What can you tell us about leaders of the insurgency coming from outside? And you also briefly mentioned the role of the Quds Force. Is there anymore clarity on exactly who's directing that in Iraq?
GEN. WIGGINS: Well, I can tell you that the Quds Force -- I think General Petraeus in his brief talked about the Quds Force and their involvement. So we know that they're involved -- whether training those folks in IED emplacement or providing the expertise.
But as far as high as the leadership goes with regards to this, I don't know. As General Petraeus stated, I don't think that's been determined. But we're getting more and more evidence, we're assessing that, the picture's getting clearer -- the involvement in a lot of these parties -- and so we continue to gain information. We know that we've got equipment in Iraq. We know that we've got Quds Forces in Iraq. But much beyond that, as far as leadership, I can't tell you that.
Q Okay, as far as leadership in Iran, how high it goes, I understand. But I thought you said in your opening brief that these outside groups are providing leadership or leaders to the insurgents in Iraq. Is that what you're saying, that they're actually sending folks in there to direct the operation?
GEN. WIGGINS: Well, I think the influx of foreign fighters is -- has been on-going for a long time. I think what we're talking about is, some of these networks, some of these cells, are being led by other than Iraqis. And I don't think that's a surprise as well or something that's new, but I think that's what I was referring to in my briefing.
Q And is that separate from the Quds Force involvement? Is that something different?
GEN. WIGGINS: No, that's correct, I mean.
Q Has the 13th MEU received orders to go from Kuwait into Anbar? And if so, what is going to be their mission within that province?
GEN. WIGGINS: Well, as I briefed earlier, there's already two Marine battalions that are operating in the Anbar province. As far as the 13th MEU, you know, I don't know. I'd have to get back with you on that and provide you the answer.
Q Is there really expectation that they are going to move up north and stay in Anbar?
GEN. WIGGINS: Like I said, I really don't know. I'd have to get back with you, and we'll get that answer to you.
Q There's been a few reports out that the Army is looking into replacing almost one-for-one their humvees for MRAPs for Iraq. Is there anything you can talk about that? And is that something that's feasible in terms of the budget right now for -- if that is in fact the case?
GEN. WIGGINS: Well, I can tell you that I'm probably not the guy qualified to answer your question. That's probably something better taken up with the Army. But no, I don't have any knowledge of that.
Q The Iraqi government is considering taking a two-month vacation this summer. Setting aside any opinion you have on that specifically, what do you see as the impact on the U.S. military if in fact they take that vacation?
GEN. WIGGINS: Well, you know, to be honest with you, I don't think -- from a military perspective, we're going to continue to push on with the operations at hand. We're going to continue on with the plan that we have at hand, and I think that's where we're at with operations. I don't know of any impact.
Q The Iraqi government taking a vacation, you don't think will have any impact on U.S. operations in Iraq?
GEN. WIGGINS: You're talking about which Iraqis, the government?
Q The Iraqi government.
GEN. WIGGINS: Well, like I said, I don't know. I know that we're going to focus on operations. We're going to continue on with the operations and the plan we have at hand.
Q Admiral Fallon today said that his staff is beginning to take a look at Iraq two or three years down the road, after the surge, basically, and that it's time to begin additional planning at least for that.
I'm wondering if the Joint Staff has begun contingency planning for alternatives after the surge.
GEN. WIGGINS: Sir, no. Not that I know of.
Q Admiral Fallon also said today that 15,000 military and civilian personnel in Iraq have been killed or wounded by IEDs. Could you break that down a little further for me in terms of civilian versus military?
GEN. WIGGINS: And, sir, as I stated previous -- you know, I'll have to track that down. I don't have that answer right off the top of my head, so --
Q Thanks --
Q Can I just clarify one thing? When you were asked about the 13th MEU, did you say you don't know whether they are in -- whether they have moved in or not, or did you say you didn't know where they were going --
GEN. WIGGINS: Well, you know, that's a tactical question for the commanders on the ground. And, you know, like I said previous, I don't really know, and that's up to the tactical commander, where he wants to employ his forces so -- yes, sir.
Q But are they -- have they still not yet moved in?
GEN. WIGGINS: I don't know right now. I'd have to get back with you on that.
Q Thanks much.
GEN. WIGGINS: All right. Thank you very much. I appreciate it.
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