DoD News Briefing with Brig. Gen. Wiggins from the Pentagon
GEN. WIGGINS: Good afternoon. I'm Brigadier General Perry Wiggins once again, and I'd like to start off with an update on the buildup of coalition forces in the Baghdad area.
Since we last met, the fourth of the five additional U.S. combat brigades has arrived and is operating in and around the northern Baghdad area. The 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division includes about 3,700 soldiers. They're operating out of the Stryker armored vehicles. And their mission is to assist the Iraqi security forces in reducing violence through clearing, controlling and retaining key areas of the capital city.
Our ground commanders are pleased to have this type capability in the sector because it provides them tactical range and it provides mobility provided by the Stryker brigade vehicle.
The fifth combat brigade, 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, is completing its arrival in Kuwait and is expected to be fully operational in the Baghdad area by mid-June.
With these reinforcements, our forces in Iraq will have gone from about 133,000 in December 2006 to 155,000 by the middle of June.
As you already know, a massive effort is underway to locate three missing American soldiers. And let me start out by saying that our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of those who are missing or were killed in this attack. It's important for the American people to know that we're using every asset and resource available to the United States and our Iraqi partners in our efforts to find our soldiers. Search efforts are ongoing, and I will not get into specifics that will jeopardize their efforts. The details I can share are the following.
At 4:45 a.m. on May 12th, seven U.S. soldiers and one Iraqi army interpreter were attacked 12 miles west of Mahmudiyah, Iraq.
As a result of the attack, four of our soldiers and the Iraqi army interpreter were killed in action, and three U.S. soldiers are missing. Based on credible evidence through our intelligence, we believe that they were abducted by al Qaeda or an associated group.
Thousands of our soldiers and our Iraqi counterparts are focused on this search. We're using all intelligence resources at our disposal, including aerial platforms and human intelligence teams. Checkpoints have been established throughout the area to focus the search and prevent potential transport of our missing soldiers.
As a soldier myself who has commanded in Iraq, I can assure the American people, particularly the families of the missing soldiers, we are committed to the soldiers' creed of never leaving a fallen comrade. And I know that every soldier involved in the search is living by that creed as well and doing everything they can to find these brave soldiers.
While our additional combat forces reinforce Baghdad, Iraqi security forces have continued to mature as well. The Iraqi army now has about 140,000 troops trained, equipped and on the ground. Currently there are 89 battalions where Iraqi forces are either in the lead or are independent; more specifically, there are nine independent battalions and 80 battalions in the lead.
With our Iraqi partner forces, we have employed new joint security stations and combat outposts. These locations are where Iraqi army, Iraqi police and coalition forces operate together in districts across Baghdad and form a security presence. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, we are operating. Our objective in Baghdad, partnering with our Iraqi security forces, is to improve security and stability so that the necessary political and economic progress can take place.
What I'm going to do next is focus on an element of the war that I believe is fundamental to understanding the way we operate, both in Iraq and Afghanistan -- which I'll speak to a little bit later -- and that element is the barbaric nature of the enemy we face. Unfortunately, this describes both al Qaeda in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
In Iraq, al Qaeda is responsible for the wanton targeting of civilians. Last month alone, approximately 1,500 to 2,000 innocent Iraqi civilians were either killed or injured from car bombs and suicide vests, which are the signature weapons of the al Qaeda.
Accordingly, we continue to take the fight to the enemy.
Let me give you another insight into the way our enemy, al Qaeda, operates. Some of you may have heard from Major General Caldwell and Multinational Forces Iraq -- refer to the recent incident at the Huda Girls School. This school was being built about 30 miles north of Baghdad. Well, it's worth amplifying, because it shows you just how callous our enemy is, and it shows why the fight is difficult, vicious and must be won. It also shows humanity at its lowest point.
A couple of weeks ago, some of our troops from 1st Cavalry Division found detonating wire across the street from the Huda Girls School. They followed the wire to the school, where they discovered it was connected to an elaborate premeditated death trap wired throughout the building. The explosives included numerous artillery shells rigged in classroom ceilings, explosive projectiles wired in the hallway between classrooms and two explosive-filled propane tanks buried underneath the flooring. Fortunately we removed and disposed of all the explosives before it could be detonated.
Turning to Afghanistan and Mullah Dadullah Lang, who has emerged as the functional leader of the Taliban. He is dead. On May 11th, he was killed by U.S. forces while crossing through the – Ganstrah district of Helmand province in Southern Afghanistan. He was the Taliban's top military commander and had overall operational control of Taliban forces in Southern Afghanistan.
Dadullah Lang was responsible for the ethnic cleansing of the Hazaras in Bamyan province when the Taliban was in power. He was the lead proponent of suicide bombings and supervised dozens of Afghan beheadings. He was also behind the recent kidnappings of a Western journalist and French aid worker.
Over the past months, several high-level and mid-level Taliban leaders have been killed as a result of the counterinsurgency operations. Though the Taliban is expected to try to replace these losses to its hierarchy, the death of Dadullah Lang represents a significant setback. This is due to his role as a top military commander and his widely recognized persona as the face of the Taliban.
I'm sure all you know, there's been a lot of recent coverage about civilian casualties associated with the counterinsurgency operations against the Taliban. Here's an illustration of how we actually operate against the barbaric enemy that we face in the Afghanistan theater, and shows the restraint and precision exercised by our forces with respect to the civilian populace.
On May 8th and into May 9th, a combined patrol of U.S. Special Forces and Afghan national army forces killed over 150 Taliban fighters in an engagement north of Sangin, in Helmand province of Afghan's southern province. This enemy contact was in support of NATO's international security force, Operations Achilles. During the fight, U.S. forces initially encountered high-capable Taliban in the Sangin valley, who pursued our units in an effort to seize an offensive advantage. Our forces repelled the initial Taliban assault and, using terrain and close air support, engaged the enemy with devastating effect.
During this engagement in Sangin, intelligence indicated there was a major or a senior Taliban commander for Helmand province at a particular target compound.
What you see here is an actual snapshot from the full-motion video asset, which was able to confirm the presence of 10 to 20 Taliban, circled in green, at this target compound.
Through the same -- through the use of the same full-motion video asset, children, circled in red on the slide, were identified near the objective. Consequently, U.S. Special Forces did not engage the target compound, due to the risk of harm to civilians. This is an example of the care taken to prevent civilian casualties and mitigate risk to them amid a long and intense battle with the enemy.
It was learned after this engagement that the Taliban fighters were taking refuge among local villagers, using them as human shields. This angered the Sangin tribal leaders, who blamed the Taliban for deliberately involving civilians and bringing the fight to the area. In response, the local elders mobilized an anti-Taliban militia that reportedly killed three Taliban leaders and captured 15 Taliban fighters.
The event in Sangin, local citizens taking the fight to the enemy, paralleled those in the Anbar province in Iraq, where what is happening was simply unthinkable even six months ago. Sunni sheikhs and local residents have turned against al Qaeda and taken the side of the Iraqi security forces. Recruits from Anbar from the Iraqi security forces have gone from 500 to more than 1,500 candidates.
The same thing is also starting to happen in the Salahuddin province. This type of progress will and can make a difference.
With that, I'll take your questions.
Q Sir, can you tell us, regarding the kidnapped and killed soldiers in Iraq, do you have any indications that they may still be alive, or can you tell us whether there is any reason to be optimistic that they might still be alive?
GEN. WIGGINS: Well, as an American soldier, I'm always optimistic.
Now, to answer your first point, you know, I don't know. I think the Multinational Force Iraq and General Caldwell has been providing updates periodically. And we pray for their safe return, and our thoughts and prayers go out to those family members.
And I know that each soldier out there who is searching for these soldiers is praying for their safe return as well.
Q But you haven't -- can you just not say or you haven't been given any indication, either perhaps from the captors, whether they may still be alive?
GEN. WIGGINS: What I told you pretty much in my statement is about all I have right now.
Q Sir, according to your surge operations, do you know or do you have any information in what area, what province the missing soldiers might be?
GEN. WIGGINS: Sir, based on the operation ongoing, I don't want to discuss operational specifics. They are searching. They're searching the area in the vicinity of where the attack occurred. But to get into specifics, I think, would jeopardize the efforts, and I don't necessarily want to do that.
So, yes, ma'am.
Q Sir, can you tell us if there have been any communications between U.S. forces and the people who have claimed to have captured the U.S. soldiers?
GEN. WIGGINS: No, no, I can't confirm or deny that.
Q Sir, was there any evidence at the scene of how these soldiers might have been seized, indicate how they were taken?
GEN. WIGGINS: Well, I can tell you that I know that, as all commanders do, when things like this happen, they investigate -- or they go to the scenes, they take a look at it, they investigate, and they gain the facts. And they don't normally produce anything until they have the facts in hand, and I think that's probably the case here. And I'm sure as soon as the commanders and folks that are down range have an opportunity to assess, they will provide the information as it becomes necessary. But right now, I do not know, and I do not have the specifics or facts.
Q General Wiggins, how do you think the appointment of a war czar would affect operations on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan?
GEN. WIGGINS: Well, you know, I don't want to speculate from my foxhole, but I can tell you that General Lute's my boss. He is a -- he's a great boss, and I'll say that on -- (laughter). But he is also a very competent, experienced operational commander, and I'm very pleased to work with him and fortunate. I know he'll do great things for our service men. He has a great instinct, and I know that working for the president he'll do extremely well, so.
Q Sir, there was another series of attacks on the Green Zone today, apparently a couple people killed. Do you have a sense, are we seeing an increase in targeting of the Green Zone or an increase in the effectiveness, perhaps?
GEN. WIGGINS: Well, I took a look at this several months back. You know, it goes in cyclic. It's not something that's extraordinary.
I mean, it's something that happens, and it ebbs and flows. The fact that they use a system that's an indiscriminate killer -- an area weapons system, you know, to me is a little disconcerting. And the fact that most of the time when they launch these type of weapons systems, they launch from populated areas around civilians and in built-up areas is also is a little disconcerting to me as well.
Q Do you have any numbers, though, on the number of attacks on the Green Zone recently compared with attacks before the surge began?
GEN. WIGGINS: Well, I don't have those with me. I can tell you that they're relatively constant. They're -- the average over the months is relatively the same. Some months, we have zero; it goes on, and then some months, we have several. So I don't have the exact number.
Q Can you tell us what the average is?
GEN. WIGGINS: Well, I don't -- I'm not armed with that information, but I can try to get that back to you. Off the top my head --
Q General, on the question -- or issue of General Lute, because he's a three star, is he able, in his new position, to give orders to a four star like General Petraeus or is he subordinate to General Petraeus? Or do you see a situation emerging where that would be a problem?
GEN. WIGGINS: Well, I can tell you, I don't think I'm the one that's necessarily qualified to answer the question. I think that's probably something better served to ask somebody well above me and where I'm at in my foxhole.
But I can tell you, we're all working together in the same fight, and we're all working together for the same goals. And, you know -- so as far as I'm concerned, you know, I'm losing a great boss, and he's going over and doing a great job for our servicemen.
Q A little over a year ago -- or about a year ago, when there was a similar incident where a small group of American soldiers was attacked and two were taken into custody and later found dead, it was decided at the time that it was probably improper to have such a small group left alone in that area overnight, when that incident occurred. Is somebody taking a look at the tactics that were used this time, where you had seven American soldiers pretty much isolated and separated from the rest of their unit for some period of time before the attack occurred?
GEN. WIGGINS: No, sir, that's a good question.
We don't necessarily like to talk about tactics, because we know the enemy watches your news stations as well. But as a ground tactical commander -- I can tell you of my time in Iraq -- the enemy is an adaptive, thinking enemy, and commanders are continually starting to adjust and adapt to the techniques that they use.
So I am sure there's a commander over there right now that's assessing this situation, they're inputing the necessary measures in place in order to protect our soldiers. And I want the American people to know that. Commanders are out there. We're with our soldiers, concerned for our soldiers, and we're absolutely going to do everything we can to protect our soldiers. And I'm sure that commander's doing that.
Q Okay. But as a ground tactical commander yourself, when you saw the circumstance did you say, "Oh, yeah, I've done that before," or "I would never do that," or "That's something that shouldn't be done," given the fact that this was an operation in the so-called Triangle of Death? It was known to be a very hot area.
GEN. WIGGINS: Yes, sir. Well, I'm also here at the Pentagon now, and I don't like to take a 9,000-mile screwdriver and ratchet it down.
So I'm sure there's commanders that are addressing that. I'm sure they're working those things to protect our soldiers and put forth those necessary force protection measures to protect them. And I don't want to speculate that. I don't think I'm necessarily qualified from right here to talk about what's going on now. I can tell you what I did in 2004 with my soldiers. I was a aviation brigade commander, a little bit different. But I can tell you the enemy is constantly adjusting TTPs and constantly trying to find weaknesses, and we are constantly adapting and adjusting in order to not provide vulnerabilities for our soldiers, and we'll continue to do so while we're downrange.
Q Can I just follow up on that? The previous incident that Jim is talking about last year, there was an investigation by the Army or by CENTCOM into whether or not the proper tactics were employed there and whether or not there should be some adjustment. That was in June of last year. The investigation apparently has been complete, but we've never heard what the conclusion was. Do you have any information about, in that previous incident involving Privates Menchaca and Tucker, what the conclusion was of investigators who looked into that?
GEN. WIGGINS: Sir, I'm familiar with the incident and I don't have that information. I think that that's probably best served to go down to Multinational Forces Iraq and ask them the specifics. They're probably armed and can probably better answer that question, but I am not.
Q You've been talking about and everybody's talking about the June time frame is when all of the brigades get there and kind of this full surge is in place. Can you talk a little bit about how long it will take them to actually get going once they hit the ground? And also, going into this, can you give us an assessment of the Iraqis' logistical capabilities, which has been a concern all along?
GEN. WIGGINS: I can tell you from my experience, when you go into Kuwait, the training doesn't stop. You're going in training, you're re-bore-sighting your weapons, you're doing a lot of training requirements to prepare your soldiers as you move across into Iraq and then on into sector.
And when those soldiers get there, they will be ready to take part in the security of Baghdad. They know what they're going to be doing already. They've been going through it, (training, rehearsals ?), different things to get them familiar with the terrain to get the soldiers familiar with operations and what they'll be doing. And then it's just a matter of getting up into that area and starting to provide the security.
This particular piece, and with that fifth brigade up there, we're getting more and more at areas where the enemy has had an opportunity to sit back and plan and execute attacks, and now we're getting into areas where they're not going to -- we're going to interdict their freedom of maneuver and movement. We're going to put soldiers out there that are going to be able to negate their opportunities to sit back and plan and do these things.
Now, as far as the logistics of the Iraqi security forces, once again, I don't know if I'm necessarily the person qualified, because I have not been looking into that necessarily. But it's probably the Multinational Force Iraq or folks downstairs that work hand in hand with the Iraqi security forces that can better assess where they're at logistically as well as their combat forces.
GEN. WIGGINS: Yes, sir.
Q A question on numbers verification. You said 155,000 by mid-June when the fifth brigade is on hand; is that pretty much the peak level we're going to see? Is that --
GEN. WIGGINS: Well, I think -- you know, we have enablers that go along with that as well. That kind of puts those pieces -- you know, we're talking about MP-type folks, aviation-type folks that go --
Q But 155,000 will be the number -- I mean --
GEN. WIGGINS: No. No, sir, I don't -- you know, I'm not going to -- that's not in the -- we're going to continue, as we start to go through and operate, there'll be an opportunity and time where we'll have additional forces that come up that probably work to replace the steady state brigades that are in place, the 15 that's not a part of the five-brigade plus-up. And when we do that, we do at some point in time have forces that overlap, and those numbers will flow -- may increase, may decrease based on the time that we're at.
I don't want to speculate exactly the numbers they're going to go up to, but I will tell you that -- you know, I can't give you a specific number.
Those ebb and flow, as we have forces come in, to replace forces, and we have forces that flow out.
Q Let me ask a question.
GEN. WIGGINS: Yes, sir.
Q The images that you showed, was that the same operation where there were reports that 20 civilians were killed?
GEN. WIGGINS: Sir, one of those operations, there was an allegation that civilians were killed. And that was addressed about two weeks ago, I believe, at the last press conference I gave. And I said I would go back and take a look into that particular piece.
What I can tell you, and first and foremost I want to put up front that the bullseye needs to be squarely placed on the Taliban, with regards to these types of putting civilians at risk. The enemy is operating in high concentrations of civilians. They're doing it premeditatively. They are putting civilians as human shields. And that is very disturbing to all soldiers, because we go to great lengths as commanders and as soldiers on the ground to protect the lives of civilians through the course of our operations.
And you saw that example I just gave you right there, where a commander did not fire upon those particular targets because of the close proximity of civilians. That's not an isolated incident. That happens time and time again. And it is -- like I said, it's -- where our ground commanders have aircraft that come into sector also, we have four air controllers that are trained to bring those ordinances onto target. We positively identify those targets, and before we launch those particular munitions onto the target.
Q And is that what happened in both those incidents, the incident in Shindand, in Herat, and the one in Helmand province where -- the one in Shindand, I think it was 50. And have you reached any conclusion as to how many civilians were killed in each of those instances?
GEN. WIGGINS: Sir, I know that both of those are still under investigation, so I'm not -- you know, I'm not really going to qualify and I'm not going to discuss what's under investigation. I'm sure, once they determine what's happened in those cases, they'll provide the information. But what I can tell you is that commanders, as I said, go to great lengths. And when these-type allegations come up, they do look into these-type situations. And they get to the bottom of them, because that's what we're charged to do.
But I can tell you that commanders out there on the battlefield understand. They protect the civilians.
Unfortunately, the enemy does not play by the same rules, and they have no concern for loss of civilian life. As a matter of fact, it -- they feel that loss of civilian life plays into their hands. And that's a very unfortunate thing.
Q Can I just ask about your photograph up there?
GEN. WIGGINS: Yes.
Q And I mean this very seriously. You put up there that these were children.
GEN. WIGGINS: Yes, ma'am.
Q What do you have to verify that? What overhead asset addresses the age of what you see on the ground, as opposed to the height?
GEN. WIGGINS: Yes, ma'am. I don't want to get into specifics with regards to an intel asset, but I can tell you we have trained analysts take a look at this. They do it. They have years of experience. They are able to make that determination.
And I will tell you that probably -- and this is talking from me, as an aviator -- operating in Iraq in 2004, if I had a question whether it was a civilian or whether it was a target, I would err on the side of not engaging a target, so that I would not create civilian casualties.
Q Do you know for a fact that these are children?
GEN. WIGGINS: Ma'am, I was told that that's what that was. So --
Q Can I just ask one other question? And I also mean this seriously. What is the -- about the soldiers who are missing in Iraq, what is the level of information? You haven't been able to share much, for reasons you've stated. But what's the level of information coming into this building? Is the Joint Staff, is the chairman, is the secretary, are you -- are you getting regular updates on the search? How much information does this building actually have, hour by hour, day by day, about what's going on?
GEN. WIGGINS: Well, ma'am, I can't speak on behalf of every piece of information that comes in here and comes to the chairman. But I can tell you that there is great relationships with our COCOMs and the information --
Q Sir, in the job you have as the day-to-day --
GEN. WIGGINS: Yes, ma'am.
Q -- watching day-to-day operations, you yourself -- are you getting regular updates?
GEN. WIGGINS: Yes, ma'am, I am.
Q Well --
GEN. WIGGINS: And as I stated in my speech, what I said in my opening statement, some of that I'm not going to provide. And what I provided is what I have at hand. The other I don't want to provide, because it may jeopardize the operation. And I owe that to the soldiers that are on the ground.
I owe that to the soldiers who are missing, and I owe that to their families.
So I don't want to get into specifics because I want to bring those soldiers back safe and sound to their families, and you know, to me it's personal.
Q I just wanted to see if I could get some clarity on these numbers again. We were initially told that the five brigade plus-up would add about 20,000 troops. Then we were told that if you actually counted the support troops, it was more like 30,000 additional troops that would be part of this strategy. You just told us the numbers are going to go from roughly 135,000 to 155,000, which, according to my high school algebra, is about 20,000 more. So I'm just trying to get at what is actually -- if you add all the troops that are going to be going, when the plus-up strategy is at its full peak, what is the actual troop level going to be in Iraq? Is it 155,000 or more?
GEN. WIGGINS: Sir, like I stated previously, it's about 155,000, but it may surge or flow a little bit more than that. We do have enablers that go in. The ground commander, conditions-based, will make assessments as well. We have the steady state 15 brigades that we had in Iraq. These -- plus these 20 -- or go up to 20 with the addition of the five brigade combat teams that went in.
I think, to tell the truth, it's hard to caption; those numbers fluctuate. And to get into specifics as well, I don't -- you know --
Q When we're talking about the plus-up, should we describe it as 20,000 additional troops or 30,000 additional troops or something else?
GEN. WIGGINS: Yes, sir. You know, based on the numbers and based on the math, you know, I understand where you're coming from. But to be honest with you, it's a hard -- it's more difficult than just taking the numbers. And so to provide you an accurate answer today -- it may be different from tomorrow, it may be different from the day after tomorrow, so.
STAFF: We have time for about one more.
GEN. WIGGINS: Yes, ma'am.
Q Can we go back to the issue about civilian casualties? And I appreciate the fact that the Taliban and al Qaeda target civilians, but moving beyond that, can you at least tell us what the scope of the investigation is? Are you looking at whether or not U.S. service members employed proper tactics, and are you also looking at whether or not those tactics, if they were not -- or if they were deemed proper, are appropriate in the current environment?
GEN. WIGGINS: Right. Let me see if I've got something here that will help you out.
With regards to Shindand, for example, coalition ground force was continuously engaged by intense enemy fire after entering an area of known Taliban activity. On-scene commander used all necessary means available and took all appropriate actions necessary to defend his unit. The on-scene commander demonstrated sound judgment throughout the engagement. All targets were positively identified as hostile and were under observation at the time of the engagement. The on-scene commander used appropriate level of force to respond to the continuous enemy threat and protect his unit. The on-scene commander assessment of the enemy situation was consistent with and supported the reliable intelligence from varied sources.
The thought process, the process that commanders go through is very calculated and very methodical. And in this particular case, this commander I think did that.
Q Is that incident -- I'm sorry, I'm confused. Is that incident that you just detailed, is that under investigation?
GEN. WIGGINS: It was, ma'am. And I don't know if that investigation has been complete.
Q Well then my question is, given what you just read to us, if it's not complete, it sounds like the department's -- not you personally, sir; I don't mean you personally -- but I mean it sounds --
GEN. WIGGINS: Right. These are the legal findings from the recent engagement. So I'm mistaken, they are the legal finding.
Q They are?
GEN. WIGGINS: Yes, ma'am.
Q And did it find that there were civilian casualties there?
GEN. WIGGINS: Sir, like I said, I don't -- it doesn't say anything here. Matter of fact, there's no mention of civilian casualties.
Q Thank you.
GEN. WIGGINS: Thank you.
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