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DoD News Briefing with Col. Hickman from Iraq

Presenters: U.S. Army, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Multinational Division-Baghdad, Colonel William Hickman, Col. William Hickman
October 22, 2008
 (Note: General Salmon appears via teleconference.)  
            MR. WHITMAN: Well, good morning. Thank you for coming this morning. Let me check with Colonel Hickman and make sure that he can hear me okay.   
            Colonel Hickman, it's Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon.   
            COL. HICKMAN: Okay. Yeah, I can hear you loud and clear. Thank you.   
            MR. WHITMAN: Very good. Well, Colonel Hickman, thank you for taking some time today to be with us here in the Pentagon briefing room.   
            This is Colonel William Hickman, who is the 2nd Brigade Combat Team commander, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Multinational Division in Baghdad. He's been in Iraq since November of 2007. And this is his first opportunity to meet with you in this forum.   
            And so we appreciate you taking the time to do that. He is at Camp Victory today and is going to give you a brief overview, of what his unit's been doing, and then take some of your questions.   
            So with that, Colonel Hickman, let me turn it over to you.   
            COL. HICKMAN: Okay, thank you.   
            Good morning. It's a pleasure to spend some time with you today to discuss our operations in Northwest Baghdad. As mentioned, I'm Colonel Bill Hickman. I command the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), also known as the Strike Brigade Combat Team.   
            We're out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and currently attached to Multinational Division-Baghdad. Our brigade has been operating in Northwest Baghdad for the past 11 months. And I feel it's important to update you on some of the changes, since our arrival, and entertain any questions that you have.   
            First, I'd like to comment that the trends you see, on the reduction of violence, across Iraq, are certainly present here in Baghdad and especially visible in our area.   
            Across the Multinational Division-Baghdad area, there's been an 83 percent decrease in overall attacks from a year ago. Enemy attacks in our area are down more than 62 percent, since our arrival, and over 92 percent since January 2007.   
            All in all, security in the area is vastly improved, as a result of the great work of our soldiers and increasingly competent and capable partners, the Iraqi security forces.   
            We are responsible for a heavily urbanized area of 52 square miles and more than 1.9 million people.   
            We are partnered with eight Iraqi army battalions, and two Iraqi army brigades. The Iraqi security forces are deployed across the Kadhimiya, Mansour and Karkh security districts. These districts are commanded by highly competent Iraqi generals, who consistently demonstrate their will to deliver security and facilitate reconstruction efforts in northwest Baghdad. We have several safe neighborhoods that disrupt and ultimately deny extremists and criminals the free access to the population. These neighborhoods have joint security stations inside to provide our soldiers, Iraqi security forces and local citizens continuous access to each other.   
            Also, the Sons of Iraq program played a critical role in improving security throughout northwest Baghdad. This program was funded by the coalition forces until October 1st, when the government of Iraq assumed responsibility for their payments. The SOI volunteers in our area partnered with the Iraqi army and Iraqi police early on. This allowed for a more unified security effort. The Iraqi army actually held a ceremony on Muthanna Air Base on October 11th to demonstrate their acceptance of the SOI and commitment to work together.   
            We have a total of 1,914 SOIs that signed the government of Iraq contracts in our area. We also have 23 police stations that are open in our area. Seven of those stations opened under our watch, and two more are scheduled to open in the next 90 days. To man these police stations, we had 870 Sons of Iraq attend Iraqi police training and were assigned the security for their communities.   
            Our soldiers, in conjunction with our Iraqi security force partners, have set the conditions for increased positive growth here. The Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team, well led by Ambassador John Bennett, who unfortunately was not able to join us today, delivers tremendous capability to help us understand and effect reconstruction and reconciliation efforts. They provide us the savvy necessary to understand and integrate resources from various joint and interagency actors to assist us in achieving our objectives.  
            With the EPRT, we are focused on extending the reach of the government, providing businesses access to financial capital, and to the development of public work stations. These stations employ locals in the local areas to provide essential services within their capacity.   
            Since our BCT transfer authority on 17 November 2007, we've initiated over 1,700 projects worth nearly $24 million. The largest impact in regards to projects is an economic line of operation. We provide over 1,500 microgrants valued at $3.3 million. These grants provide money to small-business owners, who are almost immediately affected by the assistance. We've also renovated over 50 schools in the last year, using over $8 million of Commander Emergency Response Program money, known as CERP, and plus Iraqi CERP was directed toward these schools.   
            In addition to these renovations, we partner with the Ministry of Education to develop an outreach program between Iraqi schools and U.S. schools. There are presently 19 Iraqi schools in our area that are establishing a partnership with a school in the United States. Because of the improved security situation and the government of Iraq's support for resettlement, we've also had a total, we think, of 16,000 families return to our area. 
            Since September 1st, we're tracking -- 2,100 families have returned. Most of them return to the neighborhoods of Hurriyah and Ghazalia.   
            With our Iraqi partners, we are fully engaged and committed to the security of the Iraqi people and the reconstruction of northwest Baghdad. It has been a solid year that we -- we think we made a difference in Baghdad. The situation's certainly fragile. We have a critical mission here in the heart of Baghdad.   
            I can't tell you how proud I am of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilians who make up our combat team. They do incredible work every day in support of their nation's call and I'm pleased that they have -- what they've accomplished this year. 
            At this time, I'd like to open it up for questions. 
            MR. WHITMAN: Well, thank you, Colonel. We'll get started here. And I'm -- first question go to Mr. Burns. 
            Q     Colonel, this is Bob Burns with AP. As you know, the SOFA agreement that's being worked on, one of the features is that it would require U.S. forces to leave the cities by June. I realize by that time you will -- you'll no longer be there, but in your estimation, would your area be ready to -- for U.S. forces to leave by that time and to leave it entirely to the Iraqis? 
            COL. HICKMAN: Well, I think the -- I mean, the SOFA agreement is obviously a national-level issue. But what I understand is we will continue to operate -- or some of the larger bases -- clearly Victory will have U.S. soldiers here. But the key point is we will have embedded teams, and those teams will remain with Iraqi army and the Iraqi police in execution of their missions. So that is how we're seeing it; our situation here is to continue to focus on the training of Iraqi security forces so that they are prepared as we go into the spring and summer of next year. 
            MR. WHITMAN: Very good. Al? Do you have a question? 
            Q     Yes, I want to ask -- Colonel, this is Al Pessin from Voice of America. Let me ask you about the other major issue that we hear about regarding the SOFA agreement, and that's the extent of the immunity that U.S. troops would or would not have from Iraqi courts. From what you've read and what we're seeing here is that for major crimes committed off-duty, the Americans might be subject to Iraqi jurisdiction. Is that something that you, as a commander, would be comfortable with in a situation like you have there in Iraq? 
            COL. HICKMAN: Well, again -- (inaudible) -- let it work at a national level, and I obviously trust how that's going to work out based on our leadership. I would tell you, though, it is important that we have ability to conduct operations. And I would -- I would tell you that I think in the end it's going to be -- we already conduct a lot of joint operations and I think we'll go almost exclusively to joint operations of Iraqi army, so that when we go out and do these operations, our soldiers will be in coordination with Iraqi army soldiers. And I think that's going to be the key to that. 
            As far as the immunity piece, I think I'll leave that to our national leadership to work that out. 
            MR. WHITMAN: (Off mike) -- Andrew?  
            Q     Colonel, it's Andrew Gray from Reuters here. You had some pretty dramatic statistics on the decline of violence there. Can you explain why, given that dramatic reduction, you still describe the situation as fragile? What are the factors that mean that you still require substantial presence there? What are the areas that you're concerned about that could reverse those trends? 
            COL. HICKMAN: Well, I still think there are small very disrupted cells that do not want to -- this to progress forward. And those cells right now we continue to target with the Iraqi army, Iraqi police. 
            I would tell you what I think, if I could get into it, is -- take that, is the reconciliation that's occurring in northwest Baghdad -- I think that's the key. And I think the key is going to be -- and there are really four areas. I think it goes back to what you asked. It's the resettlement, and I'd like to go into more detail, if you'd like to, in a few minutes on that. It's the election piece. It's integration of the SOIs, the volunteers, into the Iraqi security forces and other ministries. And it's the release of the detainees that the coalition force have. I think those are the four key areas that we have to work in northwest Baghdad. And as we progress down the road and are successful in those areas, I think security then will become more evident as we go forward. 
            MR. WHITMAN: (Off mike.) 
            Q     Sir, this is JJ Sutherland with National Public Radio. I just wanted to talk about the SOIs. I mean, a lot of the people that our bureaus talk to in Baghdad, members of the SOIs, were very concerned about their relations with the mainly Shi'ite police, especially since, you know, you oversee Mansour and some, you know, mixed areas and Sunni areas there. What has been the reaction so far? I mean, admittedly it's early days yet. 
            COL. HICKMAN: Right now it's been very positive. I think each area is different. Each brigade area is different, though -- I'll give you a couple of facts here. We had 3,500 SOIs in January. We had -- 870 of them actually in January and February were inducted into the Iraqi police force and actually went through the training and now are police officers. So that showed early success in our area that the SOIs, which are primarily Sunnis, were going to be accepted by the government of Iraq. 
            Over time we had -- we now have 1,914 that are actually -- (inaudible) -- the government of Iraq. We anticipate again that the government of Iraq will reach out to these individuals and welcome into either Iraqi security forces, other ministry jobs. 
            Since 1 October there have been no issues. They have continued to work hand in hand with the Iraqi army and Iraqi police in our area.  
            One thing also in that is -- our area -- since January all the SOIs have worked with the Iraqi army. There's been no change in the tactical use of the SOIs since 1 October. They work at joint checkpoints. They work primarily the inter-mahala roads, which in the United States would be like a neighborhood road, to in fact provide security to the local neighborhoods. They'd work on the main streets in the area, which is good. I think that's what their focus is, is in the local neighborhoods and local people. 
            MR. WHITMAN: Back to you, Al. 
            Q     Colonel, it's Al Pessin again.   
            Do you feel like there's enough control, enough discipline among the SOI to trust them to be, you know, sort of operating on their own, back in the back alleys?   
            COL. HICKMAN: Right.   
            They don't do that. That's the point for us. We're fortunate. We have eight Iraqi army battalions that work in our area. And every SOI is at a checkpoint, working with an Iraqi army sergeant or lieutenant. And that Iraqi army lieutenant or sergeant is in charge of the men that are at that checkpoint, whether it be Iraqi army, Iraqi police or the SOIs. And we've been able to conduct this since last January.   
            So we've been doing it almost 10 months now. And so they don't operate on their own. And it's been, that has been very successful in Northwest Baghdad.   
            Q     Colonel, it's Bob Burns again from AP.   
            If I recall correctly, there was an area of your -- in your area that was a JAM influence, particularly troublesome, a number of months ago. It may have been Khadimiyah or maybe to the, to the west of there.   
            Is that -- have you seen any return of JAM influence that was sort of weeded out over the recent months? Has it come back again in any way?   
            COL. HICKMAN: Right.   
            The area you're talking about is probably, most likely Shu'ala -- (inaudible) -- which is in the Khadimiyah security district. Those areas were affected by the special groups criminal elements, the individuals who do not respect the law of Iraq. And we've been very successful.   
            The Iraqi army has been very successful now that they've -- we actually have a joint security station in Shu'ala, where an Iraqi army company and a coalition company are stationed together. And they have other combat outposts, the Iraqi Army has there.   
            Since June when there was a -- really as the action got going in Sadr City, it actually occurred in Shu'ala also. And the Iraqi army, with our assistance, went in and controlled Shu'ala now. And I think we've been very successful there.   
            There's been a big outreach now that the Iraqi army now goes and attends all their neighborhood council meetings with the coalition, with one of my company commanders.   
            Microgrants are going now. Services are starting back in that area. And it really is. It's been very successful. And we'd welcome anyone who would like to walk through the streets of Shu'ala, with us, and just see it for themselves.   
            Q     Sir, Donna Miles, American Forces Press Service.   
            You mentioned one of the four key areas as being the release of detainees. Could you elaborate a little bit, on where this stands, what the challenges are, and how you're making sure that these folks don't in fact return to the fight against our forces?   
            COL. HICKMAN: This has, this has, detainee release has been a fantastic program.   
            We've released 246 detainees from both sects, Sunni and Shi'as, not -- so it's Iraqi civilians across northwest Baghdad.   
            We do it to three key areas. Before they're released, we have a(n) exit survey. They come back and tell us where they're from, where their family lives and then we can go out and find their family before they're released and tell them that their -- this individual's getting ready to be released. We find a guarantor -- it's usually a respected member of the community -- that will sign documents stating that he will guarantee this individual will not go back to criminal or insurgent ways and he will sponsor him back into the community. 
            Once we -- then we have the detainees brought from -- we pick them up at Camp Cropper here and we take them to a local community area -- sometimes a police station, sometimes one of the local -- a building next to one of the local mosques, where the local leaders meet. And then they go in the room and we usually -- we try to have the media there also, make it a big event where the family gets to meet their -- the detainee and bring him back to society.   
            And it really -- I kind of kid with my soldiers; it's got to be like the first day of -- when you go to a large amusement park. You know, every day you want to go there, you want it to be the best day that park's ever opened, even if it opens up every day. So every one of those ceremonies we have needs to be the best ceremony we've ever had as we reintegrate these detainees back in it. 
            And then finally, we have a -- we have a program where we have -- we've hired Iraqi rehabilitation managers. And each battalion has these individuals. And they're Iraqis. One of them we have in Amiriyah is a lawyer that's lived in Amiriyah for 19 years. And he's responsible for tracking and meeting this detainee and their family over the next several months and assisting him in getting a job, if required, if he -- if he can't get a job with his family. So we actually -- we actually track them and make sure that they don't have any issues, that they reintegrate -- reintegrate back in their area for the first three or four months. 
            MR. WHITMAN: (Off mike) -- then we'll go back to Al. 
            Q     Colonel, I just wanted to follow up a little bit on resettlement. I know it's -- in some of your area of responsibility there was amazing ethnic cleansing that went on in 2006 and 2007. With the drop in violence, are you seeing those Sunnis and Shi'a moving back into their old neighborhoods? 
            COL. HICKMAN: We are. We -- I quoted several figures. The best one is on 1 September when the government of Iraq issued a(n) order -- the prime minister did -- to start the resettlement process officially and they gave the Iraqi army the authority to go out as a lead element to do this. And they're doing a fantastic job.   
            I think we've had about 2,100 families come back to northwest Baghdad. No one knows exact figures, but there could have been -- the Iraqi army tells me it could have been up to 70,000 families that were -- that moved out of northwest Baghdad to safer areas over the last -- for two years there.  
            So we think the process has started to bring those families back. And I will tell you, everyone you talk to in all the three districts, either Mansour, Kadhimiya, Karkh, they want their neighborhoods back the way they were. They want their neighbors back. They want to welcome them back.   
            There's been a low level of violence. There's clearly a low level of tension. So I'm -- that's the part that's fragile. But every day the Iraqi army works hard to bring these families back.   
            And they've set up resettlement centers. There's one in Karkh at the 6th Division headquarters, then each Iraqi army battalion has set up one in the local neighborhood, where the family comes back and registers with the Iraqi army. And then they welcome them back to the neighborhood. They verify that their documents are correct, that they do actually own that house, and then they assist them in moving back in that house. 
            And I think this is going to be a long-term project over the next several months, but the government of Iraq with the Iraqi army is taking the lead and, I think, doing a fantastic job. 
            Q     Colonel, it's Al Pessin again. And I'm going to ask you a question that you may feel it's -- you know, it's above-your-pay-grade kind of question, but think of it in terms of your AOR, where you say you're going to be moving towards only joint operations, where you said a little bit earlier that it might actually be possible to get U.S. troops out of the combat business in Baghdad by this coming June except for the embedded training teams. Does that then translate into significant overall reduction in U.S. troops in Iraq? 
            COL. HICKMAN: Well, let me -- I think -- and as I said combat operations, I think they'll become more and more joint, and really they are today, in the future. So I'm not -- I can't predict what's going to happen as far as combat operations versus training. I think continued  training and the embedded teams will become more and more important. So I will tell you I think that's where we're standing right now as we go forward. 
            What I would tell you how we're looking at it here is, with the brigades we partner with, is the targeting piece, as we identify who is breaking the rule of law. We are actually sharing more intelligence today, more information today than we ever have, as I sit down with the brigade commanders, my counterparts in the Iraqi army, and we discuss how we want to go forward in each area. And I think as we do that, as we're able to do that, I think that's what's going to give us success next summer as our national leaders make these tough decisions. 
            Q     Do you know yet whether your brigade will be replaced by a full brigade or something less? 
            COL. HICKMAN: Yes, it will. I think in the next few days they'll make some announcements, but we will be replaced by a like unit. 
            MR. WHITMAN: Andrew? 
            Q     Colonel, another question related to the status of forces agreement. The secretary of Defense said yesterday if there isn't an agreement, the U.S. forces will basically stop doing anything. Have you started to make any contingency plans for the idea that at the end of the year, there might not be an agreement, and you may have to stop operations? 
            COL. HICKMAN: No, sir. We're -- we continued going forward right now with our partnership with -- effort with the Iraqi army, Iraqi police. I mean, I would think those decisions clearly will be made at the national level. 
            Q     (Off mike.) 
            COL. HICKMAN: (Off mike) -- point about what you're -- you're talking about the drawdown. As the -- we came here at the end of this -- what we -- what everybody calls the surge. We've actually reduced about 1,500 fewer soldiers in our area than we had in January. These are combat soldiers out forward partnering with the Iraqi army. And we've been very successful. Actually security's gotten better, and it's really because the Iraqi army and the Iraqi security forces continue to improve every day. 
            So as we go forward, I think the decisions will be made on how many forces are needed here. But I will tell you I'm positive, looking at the last 10 months, that things are clearly improving. 
            MR. WHITMAN: Very good. Do we have any other questions? 
            Colonel, I think you've exhausted our questions back here. Again, I want to thank you for taking the time this afternoon to spend some time with us and to give us some perspective in terms of your area of responsibility there. And we hope that perhaps before you leave, we'll get another assessment from you also. 
            COL. HICKMAN: Okay. Well, I'd like to thank you for allowing me the opportunity to share how I see things on the ground here in this very complex environment. I think the trends are possible against (sic) our area of operation. The violence is down. I think the reconciliation and participation's up, which is all good news, and I think that's the key. 
            I think the grass-roots local reconciliation efforts are clear indications that the citizens of Baghdad have had it with this senseless violence, and I think they feel safe now that they can move around, around our area as they go forward. 
            I think our ISF partners continue to improve their capabilities, control the area, and a larger part of our area and while openly working with the volunteers to increase the capacity of our security. 
            I would like to just tell you our soldiers are making a tremendous difference and remain fully committed to the mission and remain blessed to have this enduring support from our Strike Brigade Family Readiness Groups at Fort Campbell, Fort Carson and Fort Hood, along with the continuous support of the American people. And I would just like to ask all of you to keep telling our soldiers' stories and their families' stories at this time, and I'd like to thank you for this afternoon. Thank you. 
            MR. WHITMAN: Well, thank you for that wrap-up. And again, we appreciate your time and hope to do it again soon. Thank you.

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