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DoD News Briefing with Brig. Gen. Sherlock from the Pentagon

Presenter: Director for Operational Planning Joint Chiefs of Staff Brig. Gen. Richard Sherlock
August 23, 2007 1:00 PM EDT
            GEN. SHERLOCK: Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon. Thanks for being here today. I have a few comments regarding this week's operations in response to Hurricane Dean, the earthquake in Peru, and some brief points regarding ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then I would be happy to take your questions. 
 
            First, however, I would like to say that our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the 14 soldiers who were killed in a helicopter accident west of Kirkuk yesterday. That accident is currently under investigation, and preliminary reports indicate that it was due to mechanical problems and was not due to enemy action. 
 
            We should all remember our service members who have died, those who are injured or whose whereabouts are unknown. 
 
            As Hurricane Dean approached, NORTHCOM, at the request of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, coordinated with TRANSCOM to provide airlift support to move FEMA communications and other equipment to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. They helped establish a joint and interagency air-ground coordination cell in Austin, Texas, to facilitate evacuations, if necessary, and coordinated for the use of additional aircraft to provide situational awareness and assessment, as well as a mobile command and communications platform. 
 
            NORTHCOM is continuing to monitor Hurricane Dean and is prepared to respond to any requests for assistance that may come from civil authorities. 
 
            SOUTHCOM dispatched a 25-person assessment team and three helicopters to Belize to assess damage caused by the hurricane. It will evaluate the amount of possible assistance needed from U.S. forces, including search and rescue, medical, engineering and communications. 
 
            For the past several days, SOUTHCOM has also provided medical and airlift support to Peru in the aftermath of the 8.0 magnitude earthquake. SOUTHCOM dispatched two medical teams that provided treatment to more than 2,400 patients and two C-130 aircraft to assist the transport of relief supplies and medical equipment from Lima to Pisco.   
 
            One team remains in Peru and continues to treat approximately 600 patients a day. A DOD medical team of 18 personnel already deployed to Peru in support of ongoing operations also provided relief assistance.   
 
            As of August 20th, DOD has provided over $600,000 in technical and financial assistance to Peru.   
 
            In Afghanistan, focused operations by coalition and Afghan forces concentrated in the area of Tora Bora -- that -- those operations have concluded, and the battlefield assessments are still ongoing. Our initial assessments indicate that those operations inflicted approximately 100 casualties on the forces, on the enemy forces. Combined follow-on operations will continue in that area.   
 
            In Iraq, Operation Phantom Strike continues with the goal of further pressuring al Qaeda and other extremist groups as they try to influence events to the benefit. Overall violence in Iraq has continued to decline and is at the lowest level since June 2006. However, for the last few years, the Ramadan period has tended to be the most violent time of the year in Iraq.   
 
            And with the upcoming assessment from Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus, the start of Ramadan in mid-September and the sixth anniversary of the September 11th attacks on our nation, we can expect the enemy to increase their attempts to create both sensational attacks and large numbers of casualties in order to affect the reception of that report and the will of the coalition and the people of Iraq.   
 
            And with that, I'll be happy to take your questions.   
 
            Yes, ma'am.   
 
            Q     General Sherlock, what -- you said that violence is improving in Iraq. But what can you say about this appearance of a shift where there's more violence in the North? And what is the capability of the Iraqi security forces to handle that, considering some of the comments in the recent -- the NIE assessment that just came out today suggesting that the Iraqi security forces are not going to be ready probably until next year to take over?   
 
            GEN. SHERLOCK: Overall the trend of violence is down in Iraq countrywide. As the multinational corps and multinational force and the different units conduct operations, the enemy will find or try to seek areas where there are fewer coalition or Iraqi security forces. However as we continue to conduct operations in Operation Phantom Strike, we're moving into those areas and continue to keep them off their gameplan and try to continue to pressure them.   
 
            The capability of the Iraqi security forces is continuing to grow. They're in the fight every day. They're taking casualties at three to four times the amount of coalition forces in those operations. And as they continue to operate and in many cases in the lead role, with coalition forces just in a support role, they'll continue to gain in capability, and we'll turn responsibility over to them as fast as we can.   
 
            Q     Well, do you have any specifics on the number of Iraqi security forces in the brigades or units that are in the lead operating independently?   
 
            GEN. SHERLOCK: We have some of that data. I'll get back to you with that. Also with regard to specific numbers or operations, I'd have to refer you to Multinational Security Transition Command, who has those numbers readily.   
 
            Yes, sir.   
 
            Q     General, Guy Raz from NPR.   
 
            Going back to this -- the comment about the violence being at its lower level since June 2007, can you sort of break down how that figure is assessed?   
 
            In other words, how you reach that conclusion, what do you base it on? And is there any way to know how the violence today compares to violence two years ago or three years ago or four years ago? 
 
            GEN. SHERLOCK: Well, as far as what it's based on, it's based on the number of attacks in each district. As far as the specific -- 
 
            Q     (Off mike.) 
 
            GEN. SHERLOCK: -- well, attacks on coalition, civilian and Iraqi security forces. Those are Multinational Force statistics, so for specific numbers, I'd have to refer you to them. 
 
            Yes. 
 
            Q     General, last week, Lieutenant General Odierno said that there are plans to withdraw one brigade per month, beginning from April to August, to remove the surge brigades. Does DOD have a plan to maintain the surge brigades come April? 
 
            GEN. SHERLOCK: Those plans are largely speculative at this point and will be based on what recommendations Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus make during their September report to the president. As they make their recommendations and they make their report to Congress, the decisions that will be made from that will be supported by the military, and that's when those -- that's when I think those plans will be best talked about. 
 
            Q     But to follow up, last week, Lieutenant General Ham said that DOD's plans are to maintain the five surge brigades until April unless the political decisions say otherwise. Isn't the Petraeus- Crocker report a formality at this point? 
 
            GEN. SHERLOCK: No, not at all. In fact, a lot of the decisions that will be made this fall will be based off the recommendations made in that report. 
 
            What General Ham was referring to is that given the current levels of force and given the turnover that will occur as units reach the end of their tenure in Iraq, five brigades over the course of the next three or four months will be replaced. That is what he was referring to as the baseline number of soldiers. That may change or not, based on what recommendations are made in September. 
 
            Yes. 
 
            Q     General, the -- I know that the intelligence estimate that just come out today -- I know it's not your report, but it talks in there a little bit about Syria cracking down on some Sunni extremist groups attempting to infiltrate into Iraq, but it also talks about Damascus providing to support to non-AQI groups inside Iraq in a bid to increase Syrian influence. Can you just give us your read at the moment of Syria's level of effort in stopping fighters, foreign fighters from going into Iraq? Have they actually made improvements that you've seen from where you sit? And have they shifted their strategy about who they're supporting inside Iraq? 
 
            GEN. SHERLOCK: Well, first of all, I'd have to say I haven't read the NIE, and I'd have to refer you to that intelligence community document, to the intelligence community for questions. 
 
            With regard to the actions of nations outside of Iraq, I'd have to refer you to the State Department as far as what their actions are and what their read is, and that's really not something I can comment on. 
 
            Q     You don't keep track of that, I mean, in the operations part of the Joint Staff, about Syria's efforts to crack down on -- or Syria's lack of effort to crack down on fighters going into Iraq? 
 
            GEN. SHERLOCK: We track operations inside Iraq. We track fighters that come into Iraq and the different insurgent groups and the different terrorists operating within Iraq. If there are terrorists operating inside of Iraq from Syria or other countries, we will target them. For those organizations or groups that are operating outside of Iraq, I'd have to refer you to the State Department.   
 
            Yes, sir? 
 
            Q     Also on the NIE, General, it says that the bottom-up security initiatives, such as the Sunni tribal leaders banding together against al Qaeda in Anbar, represent the best prospect for improved security over the next six to 12 months. But it also says that under some conditions those same bottom-up initiatives could pose risks to the Iraqi government because these Sunni tribal elements could then become a threat for the central government, or at least a perceived threat by the central government. And as you can see, it goes on from there. 
 
            Do you believe that there's a real danger inherent in this bottom-up initiative being undertaken in places like Anbar? 
 
            GEN. SHERLOCK: A lot of the events that have occurred in Anbar, I believe, are truly transformational events. Looking at where Anbar was in January versus where it is today, and then events as they're starting to unfold in Diyala province and Baqubah, again, I think, are tremendous leaps forward. 
 
            The key to this working and the key to reconciliation is, it has to be both a top-down reconciliation and a bottom-up reconciliation. And the key to making and furthering the successes we're seeing with tribes who are starting to realize that al Qaeda and other extremist groups aren't targeting coalition forces, they're targeting innocent Iraqi men, women and children, and throwing off and throwing out those people from their provinces is key to that success. 
 
            What we have to do and what Multinational Force is trying to do is make sure that they are then tied and supported by the central government, so that that doesn't become an issue in the future. 
 
            Q     Do you agree that this assessment seems to indicate that while there is a bottom-up, there's little in the way of top-down? 
 
            GEN. SHERLOCK: Again, I haven't read the assessment, so I'd have to refer you to the intelligence community for that question.    
 
            Yes? 
 
            Q     We've been seeing -- stepping away from Iraq for a second, we've been seeing a lot of reports recently about Russia's attempts to step up their air force. And we've seen reports that they're flying into British areas in the North Atlantic. We've heard reports about them being in Guam -- specifically, it's Russian Bear bombers -- and lately, I've heard, in the ADIZ in Alaska, our air defense zone there.  
 
            Does this -- do these recent flights cause any concern at the Department of Defense? And can you tell us specifically anything that did happen around Alaska with Russian bombers? Was there an intercept there? Do you know? 
 
            GEN. SHERLOCK: The -- militaries all over the world conduct a variety of operations. This is not something new.   
 
            There have been approaches by Russian bombers. We have the appropriate air sovereignty levels in place.   
 
            The Russians have respected those air sovereignty measures, and we're not concerned about that.   
 
            Yes, sir.   
 
            Q     Can I go back to Iraq, talk a little bit about the South but particularly the situation in Basra? How much of a cause for concern is that? Has that been discussed within the Joint Staff and perhaps bilaterally with the British, who have primary responsibility for Basra at the moment?   
 
            GEN. SHERLOCK: Events as they occur in different regions -- again the best people to answer that would be multinational force or multinational corps. The -- as General Ham said last week, as we look to position forces and as we look at conditions in each area, we have to pay attention to what he referred to as the battlefield geometry so that we don't lose the gains in an area that we've made, and that's something that the corps pays attention to. So again I'd refer you to them.   
 
            Yes, ma'am.   
 
            Q     General, I just wanted to get back to David's question about Syria if I could. Clearly there are -- there is at least some knowledge among the Joint Staff and among the operations folks about whether or not Syria -- there are more challenges from Syrian insurgents within Iraq or not. Can you give us any sense as to whether or not the Syrian influence and the foreign fighters coming over the border have gone up or gone down?   
 
            GEN. SHERLOCK: Specifically, no, I'd have to refer you back to the corps. But I will say that the people of Anbar, along which -- in several provinces along both borders, the east and west border of Iraq, there are thousands-year-old smuggling routes through that area. And so the traverse of people back and forth across those borders is not something that's new.   
 
            As far as the effects that that has, as far as the exact numbers of foreign fighters that come through, the multinational corps tracks that specifically. What we've seen in Anbar though is the people of Anbar have decided and have risen up and said, we don't want these people operating in our area anymore, because their interests and the things that they want to do are harmful to us. And so the transformation of Anbar with regard to the tribes resisting al Qaeda, resisting extremist groups, again, I think, is a very transformational event.   
 
            Q     And then, I guess, what then are the groups that you see are the ones who are being -- getting increased support from the Syrians?   
 
            GEN. SHERLOCK: Well, there are a variety of groups in Iraq. I mean, it's not a simple insurgency. You have a variety of Sunni groups; you have a variety of Shi'a groups; you have foreign fighters, al Qaeda in Iraq; you have a large criminal element that was released from jail just prior to the start of the first Iraqi operations in 2003. And so all of those things mix into what is a very complex area. With regard to specific Syrian support for different groups, again, I'd have to refer you to the corps.   
 
            Yes, sir.   
 
            Q     General, in Baghdad, power is still intermittent. The New York Times reports between three and six hours per day.   
 
            They cite warring militias and various parts of the country that are hoarding electricity. How can the coalition stabilize Baghdad when it can't provide residents' basic needs? 
 
            GEN. SHERLOCK: The electrical grid and the services provided, again, are a changing situation. When Saddam was in power in Iraq, the electric demand was capped at what the country could produce. Shortly after he was removed from power, what you saw in Baghdad, for example, is that every single balcony of every single apartment building sprouted a satellite dish, and everybody started to be able to buy things that they weren't allowed to buy under the previous regime. So the demand for electricity doubled or more from the time Saddam was in power. 
 
            The infrastructure of that country was so poorly maintained for the time Saddam was in power that, you know, we're repairing that as fast as we can. And again, that is a monumental process in itself, let alone when there are folks trying to break it down at the same time and destroy it. So what you have is a situation where different provinces are able to produce different levels of power. That isn't always -- they aren't always eager to share that with other provinces or with Baghdad, who may have less power. That creates a very fragile electric grid.   
 
            What they're doing in Iraq is they're going back and making sure that the technical equipment's in place and then the processes are in place to be able to share that power and establish little stability for the grid. And again, that's not a simple issue, but it's one that will take some time to fix. 
 
            Q     I understand. But if a Baghdad resident came up to you and said, "It's been nearly five years; at least when Saddam Hussein was in power, we had reliable electricity," what would you say? 
 
            GEN. SHERLOCK: I'd say that right now they're getting a number of hours of power a day. I think the latest figure I saw was around nine to 11 hours of power a day. That varies by different provinces in Iraq. Again, the demand has increased, too, because under Saddam they weren't able to own satellite dishes, televisions and a variety of things that cause the demand on the system to be so great. We're repairing that as fast as we can. I know that the coalition and the Iraqi Ministry of Electricity is working on that as hard as they can, and it just takes some time to repair. 
 
            Yes, sir? 
 
            Q     Can you tell me what the -- what percentage of casualties, U.S. casualties, are caused by Shi'a extremists vice al Qaeda in Iraq? 
 
            GEN. SHERLOCK: No. As far as operational numbers, as far as the people that are being killed or the soldiers being killed or the civilians being killed by different groups, again, that gets a little too close to letting the enemy know what successes in what areas. I'd rather not go into that. I'd refer you back to Corps. 
 
            Q     A general percentage of overall violence, perhaps? 
 
            GEN. SHERLOCK: Again, as I referred to earlier, the overall level of violence is down. But as far as specific number goes, I'd refer you back to the Multinational Corps. 
 
            Yes, sir. 
 
            Q     General, I'd like to go to Anbar and the Sunni tribes uniting against al Qaeda which you call "truly transformational." But all of that progress there appears to be on the security side. What is the U.S. military's assessment that this could actually lead to any kind of political progress, reconciliation just beyond the security issue involving al Qaeda? 
 
            GEN. SHERLOCK: Again, the reconciliation has to occur both from the top-down and the bottom-up. What we're seeing with the tribes in Anbar and beginning to see with the tribes in Diyala and other places is that bottom-up reconciliation. That's occurring sooner in some of the pure areas as opposed to some of the mixed areas. 
 
            And again, this is a -- groups that have been fighting with each other for a long time. As that security grows from the bottom-up, what I believe you'll see over the course of time is that that will enable the top-down reconciliation to occur. The key to that is tying that bottom-up reconciliation to the central government's efforts so that they don't become splintered again. 
 
            Q     But if, as this NIE Estimate says, it simply raises the suspicions of the Shi'a-led government, that they are going to be facing sort of an armed insurrection from the Sunnis -- I mean, what is the likelihood that that's ever going to happen? 
 
            GEN. SHERLOCK: Well, again, you have to tie the efforts of those groups, and you have to tie that bottom-up growth and security of the different Sunni tribes in Anbar and Diyala and elsewhere to the central government. The central government support for those efforts is ongoing, and in fact several of the cabinet ministers have talked about support for those tribes. As that support continues and grows and this tribal security continues to grow, I think that gives the opportunity for both of those to come together. 
 
            Q     So is the U.S. military sort of putting all its eggs in this bottoms-up initiative? I'm just talking about the security aspects now. 
 
            GEN. SHERLOCK: Well, our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are designed to provide security and to provide the breathing space, if you will, for both of those to occur. What we're seeing is more and more recognition by different tribes, that their interests align more with the coalition and don't align with al Qaeda in Iraq and don't align with JAM extremist groups. 
 
            Yes, sir. 
 
            Q     General, I want to get back to the issue of violence and to get a sense of how you interpret what that means and how you understand it, because of course saying that violence is down from a year ago can mean a number of things. So is it that violence is down because of the increase in the number of troops or is violence down because traditionally the month of July, for example, has been a quieter month, another month in Iraq? 
 
            I mean, what does it mean that violence is down, in your view, from your perspective? 
 
            GEN. SHERLOCK: Well, I think that's due to several things. First of all, I think we are seeing some results of the surge in the reduction in violence as we move into areas that have previously been safe havens or have previously not seen a number of coalition or Iraqi security forces. We're throwing al Qaeda and we're throwing the other extremist groups off their games now by having a sustained presence in those areas. I believe we're also seeing, as a result of the bottom- up reconciliation that I've talked about, a recognition by the Iraqi people that the extremist groups and al Qaeda in Iraq and their interests don't ally with the peoples of Iraq's interest. So you have a combination of factors that's all contributing to that. 
 
            As again, as the -- as Ramadan approaches, as the September assessment approaches, as the anniversary of 9/11 approaches, we should expect to see an increase in the level of violence as the extremists try to paint that to their advantage, but we'll have to wait and see. 
 
            Q     But we've heard -- I mean, we've heard in the past there have been periods of time when violence has actually decreased or declined as a result of certain operations or slight changes in tactics. But is it the sense from an operational perspective that this decline is different, that it's actually something more tangible and meaningful and perhaps long term? 
 
            GEN. SHERLOCK: Well, the difference in operations since the last surge brigade arrived in Iraq is that we're able to have sustained presence in different areas of operation where we didn't have sustained presence before. We have a number of Joint Security Stations. We have a number of joint bases throughout Iraq -- in Baghdad, in Diyala and other places -- where we are no longer going to let al Qaeda and other extremist groups operate with freedom of maneuver. Because of that, again, we're forcing those forces and we're forcing those groups out of areas where they previously operated comfortably from, and we're throwing them out of their game plan, which is having beneficial effects. 
 
            Q     So in your view, it's something that is different than previous situations -- 
 
            GEN. SHERLOCK: Because of the increased capability of the Iraqi security forces and because of the sustained presence in those areas, yes, I do. 
 
            Q     General, speaking of Iraqi security forces, our multinational force has put out a press release this afternoon that said yesterday coalition forces took 11 suspects into custody in Baghdad in connection with an IED explosion. Nine of those are Iraqi police officers. What does that say about the reliability even now of the Iraqi police? 
 
            GEN. SHERLOCK: The reliability's growing, their capability is growing. We go through -- multinational force goes through and the Iraqi security forces themselves go through a very extensive vetting process as they bring people into the police and army. I think what we're seeing by us apprehending those individuals is that the capability of the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army to police themselves is growing, where we're going and identifying people who may not have joined for altruistic reasons and taking them and confining them. 
 
            So I think that is a growing capacity of us to identify people within those forces that may be extremists and to police their own ranks. 
 
            Q     Doesn't it also say, though, that infiltration by extremists into the Iraqi police is still a significant problem there in Iraq? 
 
            GEN. SHERLOCK: I don't know that I'd say it's a significant problem, but the people who may be able to answer that better are MNSTC-I -- Multinational Security Transition Command -- and MNF-I. 
 
            STAFF: We have time for one more question. (Pause.) Okay. Thank you, everyone. 
 
            GEN. SHERLOCK: Thanks very much, everyone.
 
 
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