(Note: The major general appears via teleconference.)
COL. GARY KECK (director, Department of Defense Press Office): Well, good morning, everyone. It is 10:00, and we are happy to have with us today Major General Andy Salmon, the general officer commanding of Multinational Division-Southeast.
Let me make sure General Salmon can hear us okay. Sir, this is Colonel Keck from the Pentagon. Can you hear us all right?
GEN. SALMON: I can hear you loud and clear. I just wonder whether you could just turn your volume down by one click.
COL. KECK: Okay. Let me -- I think you need the guy on your end to adjust that. How's that sound, sir? Is that better?
GEN. SALMON: That's -- that sounds very good. Thank you.
COL. KECK: (Off mike) -- sir. General Salmon has been in command since August of 2008, and he last briefed us in February, as you'll recall. He's coming to us from Contingency Operating Base Basra Airport. And as is our normal custom, we'll turn it over to him for opening comments before we go into Q&A. So, General Salmon, over to you.
GEN. SALMON: Well, thank you very much indeed. It's my third session with you, and of course it's my last one before returning back to the U.K. So what I wanted to do is give you a quick snapshot on the current situation in Basra and then reflect a bit on our tour over the last eight months and what's been achieved, and then look ahead as we approach transition.
I think in Basra City right now it's very positive. The atmospherics are very good. But of course people do have very high expectations about the future. People are content with the security situation here, very confident in the way the Iraqi security forces are delivering that, but they're also focused on jobs, health and education for the future.
Security itself is stable, and I think what's been very impressive is the way that the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police have been working together and harmonizing some of their activities. Where we've been able to use our military transition teams, both U.S. and the U.K., and to use police training teams around the joint security stations that have been built, we've seen the greatest progress in the police and military working together. Intelligence structures are better, and the ability to fuse intelligence both on the Iraqi side and with the coalition forces as well has improved, as has the logistics and enablers too.
Of course, there's still a long way to go.
But I think overall the Iraqi security forces can still conduct high-tempo operations. They're now starting to deal with crime, even corruption, in places like Umm Qasr port, down in the south, and, of course, keeping an eye out for any resurgent terrorist activity.
In terms of social or economic development, there is more reconstruction in the city. If you drive through, you can see houses being built. Prices have gone up considerably. There are more small businesses, partly fueled by some of the micro-loan work that we're doing. Malls are opening where there are some Western goods on display for sale. And there's even a great five-star hotel being built by a rather entrepreneurial local Basrawi.
Last time I spoke to you, of course, we were feeling very positive indeed after having a very successful set of elections. And we still await the sitting of the new provincial council and the selection of the governor, and we're hoping that that's going to happen over the next 30 days.
So that's the current situation. When we look back now, in particular when we came eight months ago, what's been quite extraordinary has been the scale and the pace of change. But indeed, then, security certainly was not irreversible. And after Charge of the Knights there was a good six months of full-spectrum counterinsurgency work that had to be done. The Iraqi security forces had to raise their game, and they did so. Of course, we helped with creating a security architecture, better command and control structures, which has now enabled them to sustain their operations on a more effective footing.
I think in retrospect, looking back now, we saw a turning point around September/October, when the violence really changed. The attacks became infrequent, fortunately. The Iraqi security forces were very much on top. And for the average Basrawi on the street, security ceased to be an issue. And in the parties that happened after Ramadan, as I said before on this program, people were starting to make comparisons with not just the year before or even the six years previous, but actually 30 years. This is the first time for 30 years that they've really started to enjoy themselves. So there's great optimism as they look forward.
I think we've also helped to energize reconstruction through initiatives such as our joint reconstruction action teams, working with the provincial authorities and the provincial reconstruction teams as a kind of convening authority to bring people together and energize the whole of the reconstruction process in the city. We've seen heightened investor interest and confidence at the port of Umm Qasr. We've seen many more goods come in, and the real expansion as the port has begun to rehabilitate and started to think about being more of a commercial entity.
We handed over Basra International Airport on the 1st of June, and we've now got bids from several companies looking to commercialize that, which are sitting with the Iraqi government in Baghdad. We've also helped to deliver safe and secure elections, and I've talked about being able to bring people together.
We work very hard with the U.S. regional embassy office and our own consulate general to ensure that the security pillar and civil authority -- the political parties, the governorate -- started to come together to manage that process well.
Now, of course, Iraqis have done this for themselves -- that's been the very encouraging thing -- but I have to say with quite a lot of help behind the scenes from U.S. and U.K. forces working together and of course with lots of different agencies as well. And I think what we've been able to do is to join up and integrate and give everybody a clear sense of purpose about what needs to be achieved. So that's a bit of looking back.
Now, in terms of transition and looking to the future, the U.K. military tasks are complete, but the coalition mission as a whole will continue. Of course, there are still challenges, but the U.S. police training teams, the border training teams, the port-of-entry training teams that have been coming here for some time now -- indeed, some have been with me the whole of my tour -- will start to attend to the rule of law issues, greater improvement that we need to see in police forces, better border security and much better control at the ports of entry, places like Umm Qasr and Shalamchah.
There will be a new headquarters forming called Headquarters Multinational Division-South toward the end of the month, which will stand up and will look at the coalition forces' activity in support of Iraqis, of course, for the whole of the southern nine provinces, from the Baghdad belt right down to Basra here.
There will be a few more U.S. troops coming in, of course, and they will be concentrating on situational awareness and attending to some of the longer term sustainability issues that confront the Iraqi army -- joint intelligence structures, maintenance, logistics, resource execution and also training for the longer term.
But overall, the U.K. partnership will continue. We'll still look at helping investors come down here to boost the economy of Basra. We'll be working alongside the U.S.-led Provincial Reconstruction Team with our commercial elements and a new U.K. consulate. We'll also be working hard to encourage better governance and continue to try and grow and build civil capacity. We'll be continuing to support constructive politics. And all of this is designed to deliver a better quality of life to Basrawis.
So if I sum up, really, from where, you know, I started, I think what we've been able to do -- by U.S.-U.K. forces working together with a whole bunch of agencies -- we've been able to establish a much better foundation for a more stable future for Basra. So I'm happy to take questions now.
COL. KECK: Well, thank you, sir, for that overview. Let's go ahead with Gordon.
Q Sir, Gordon Lubold from the Christian Science Monitor.
Can you speak a little bit to the notion that the port there will be used as the U.S. draws down? And kind of what preparations would need to be made to kind of prepare that port perhaps better, to accommodate all the ships and everybody using it to begin to draw materiel down from Iraq?
GEN. SALMON: Yeah. I just wanted to make sure that I understood the question. You're talking about the capacity and the preparations at Umm Qasr port to assist with the American drawdown. Is that correct? Over.
Q That's correct.
GEN. SALMON: Yeah. I'm probably not the best person to ask that question of, because I think that's probably one for a U.S. logistician sitting in Multinational Division Corps to ask. But I know that part of the rehabilitation of Umm Qasr will mean that the ability to use it as a port to, you know, offload lots of kit and take it back through will be considerably enhanced. And of course, it's Kuwait as well.
So I think all of that work that is being done, at Umm Qasr, and the work that needs to continue will pay dividends, in the long run, for any logistic challenge.
Q Hi, General. This is Courtney Kube from NBC News. You mentioned that the U.S. troops that are going to be coming in, after you, are going to have to face a lot of longer-term sustainability issues. That's one of the things that they'll be facing when they come in.
What -- where does Iran fall into that, any kind of Iranian influence in that area fall into the security and sustainability of that area? What kind of advice would you give, to the Americans who are coming in after you, on how to deal with that and what they may face?
GEN. SALMON: Yeah. Well, I think, what I'd say is that the American troops that are attending to some of the issues, on border security, are already here. And they've been here for some time now.
So they -- I've been fortunate enough to have some of those guys under command. And basically what they're doing is improving the performance and enhancing the capacity and the capability of the department of border enforcement and indeed making sure that there's a coherent border security strategy in place which links up, you know, the folk that are manning the forts, on the border, with the Iraqi army, the Iraqi coastal forces, the ports of entry, the customs and excise people, to make sure that we're able to help the Iraqis to control access into Iraq from the other side of the border in Iran.
So I think a lot of that work has been going on. And it has been going very well over the last six months and obviously will continue. And I think the second part of that, but of course, this is not for a little while yet, because I suspect that it won't be until after national elections that we see more demilitarization of the city.
But as things improve in the city and the police get more effective, then Iraqi troops will move out. And they'll be put into some kind of readiness and training cycle, and then they'll be able to help much more with the work that is already being done on the border.
That's all I've got on that.
COL. KECK: Jim?
Q Sir, this is Jim Garamone, from American Forces Press Service. Who is the threat right now? Is it Shi'a groups? Is it -- is it just crime? How do you describe the threat to your command?
GEN. SALMON: Well, I think what we've seen is a very much diminished and incapacitated militia threat. And I mentioned the six months of full spectrum counterinsurgency, where I think we saw that diminish to virtually zero.
But I think what you do have is a residual threat. We know that there are some cells out there who are still intent on creating havoc. But I think that's what we're dealing with, which, I suppose, if you think about the progress that has occurred on the security front, it is to a certain extent to be expected. You know, the -- there's -- we've haven't got the -- or the militias don't have the ability to or the freedom of movement to run around Basra, so they have to adjust some of their activity.
I think what we've seen is a lot of these groups encouraged by the political process as well, so a spirit of reconciliation and amnesty has taken place and is still continuing. We're obviously aware of that.
But I think what you're also seeing is good old crime, corruption. And if you look at broader areas around the world, you see smuggling take place. It's a way of life. And we've just got to make sure that that is minimized, in terms of being able to smuggle lethal accelerants and that sort of stuff, which impacts on security and ends up killing coalition forces in Iraq.
So the nexus of crime, corruption and a little bit of terrorism is probably something that is going to have to be dealt with for the foreseeable future.
And what is really encouraging is that as the Iraqi security forces have dealt with the militias, they've prevented them from really being able to prosecute their trade on the streets. Then they are turning to good old crime and corruption. And of course, you know, that's a lot of forensic, deliberate, patient policing required there. But they're certainly up to the task, and they're dealing with it.
COL. KECK: Jeff?
Q General, Jeff Schogol with Stars and Stripes. Can you talk about, after July 31st, how many British troops will be in southern Iraq and how many U.S. troops will be there to replace them?
GEN. SALMON: Yeah, okay. Well, I think, first of all, headquarters Multinational Division South is going to stand up. That'll stand up in Basra. And of course that will be a divisional- level headquarters which will run the whole of the southern nine provinces.
We've already got roughly 1,500 U.S. troops here on the ground, and we've had those troops under my command for some time now. We're going to see some troops come in, probably around 2000. It's -- you know, we're just working through the final numbers now, which will be roughly half the size of the U.K. brigade which is leaving.
In terms of the residual U.K. presence, still up for negotiation at the moment, but we're very keen that we are able to help the Iraqi navy and the marines continue to develop. So we'll have a few people down at the port of Umm Qasr in the coalition national advisory training team with the U.S. Marines, the U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard folk. And then we're looking at seeing what we can do on the officer- training side at a place called Rustamiyah. So overall a few hundred compared to the 4,000 odd U.K. forces that are here at the moment.
Q If I could follow up, the last time you spoke I asked if U.S. troops would be replacing U.K. troops in Basra.
And if I understood you correctly, you said "No." So now it looks like there will be about 2,000 U.S. troops -- additional U.S. troops -- sent to Basra, on top of the 1,500 already there, and they will replace the 4,000 British troops now there?
GEN. SALMON: Yeah, I think I didn't actually say "No." I think, if I remember correctly, what I did say is that they wouldn't be doing the same things, and that the U.K. military tasks were complete. So I think, as I suggested in the opening statement, what we're seeing is partnering with the Iraqi army to attend to some of the long-term capacity building issues. They'll obviously need some situational awareness. Any good commander will do that, so there'll be some U.S. troops alongside the brigade headquarters, the divisional headquarters, and the Basra ops center. That's entirely natural, liaison situational awareness.
But the main focus will be on police training, border training, ports of entry training. And obviously, a commander will still need a quick-reaction force, just in case anything happens. So what we're seeing is -- is probably, you know, broadly half the number of U.S. troops to replace what the U.K. has been doing in terms of numbers. But of course, the U.K. military tasks are complete, but the coalition mission, security assistance, capacity building, stability type operations, advice and assistance will continue.
Q If I understand you correctly, you said the number of U.S. troops will go from 1,500 to 2,000, or 1,500 to 3,500?
GEN. SALMON: What we're looking at is from 1,500 to about 3,500, so far. I mean, that's just an approximate figure. The final details have still got to be worked out.
COL. KECK: Jim?
Q Sir, Garamone again. When you talk about the reconstruction aspect of the effort there, one of the things since 2003 that people have been talking about is opening up the port facilities in Basra itself. Are those open, or are those things that you're working on? And is the channel from Umm Qasr up to Basra open yet?
GEN. SALMON: Yeah, what we've been able to do is to help regenerate the port of Umm Qasr. We helped, making sure that a lot of the wrecks were cleared. We've been helping the Iraqi port authorities to lease berths, and indeed there's some berths being built there, too.
So that's one aspect, and I think we're seeing great growth down at Umm Qasr.
The other challenge, of course, is in places like the port of Al Ma'qil and Al Basra itself along the Shatt al-Arab, which has been paralyzed because of the work that Saddam did in building pontoon bridges to -- really to silt up the ability of Basra to trade, in particular after the uprising of the marsh Arabs at the end of Gulf War I. So Saddam really punished Basra through some of the things that he did.
What we've been working with a local company called Ibn Majid is to build a bridge over the Shatt al-Arab, which will open up the whole of the Shatt -- the -- you know, and improve the access into the port of Al Ma'qil, which is one -- was once one of the best commercial trading areas in the whole of Iraq. So we're seeing gradual improvements on that. Of course there's still a long way to go, but I know that the Iraqi port authorities are beginning to develop some better plans, and there's a big Japanese soft loan available to make sure that Umm Qasr is properly rehabilitated and put on a commercial footing.
COL. KECK: Gordon?
Q Sir, Gordon Lubold again. If I could ask a broad question about the British military and the experience in Iraq, fairly or unfairly, some counterinsurgency experts have criticized the mission -- the British mission there over the years, saying that it wasn't as coordinated or as focused as it could have been. I just wondered if you could speak to the kind of adaptability of the British mission there and, you know, what lessons learned have you learned and are taking away with you now.
GEN. SALMON: Yeah, of course, I think what I'd say is that, you know, the U.S. and the U.K. have faced very similar challenges. From 2003 we've both been through ups and downs. I think we've been through some tough times, and I think we've stayed the course. And I think when Charge of the Knights occurred, we, you know, reoriented our mission really quickly within a few days. We had people on the ground working with the U.S. forces to be able to really bolster up the performance of the Iraqi security forces as a result of Maliki's decision.
And I think what we've seen is a huge amount of adaptation, where we've really got joined up, we've deeply embedded and adapted what we've done in very different ways, and really try to understand what the Iraqi needs are and then focus on delivering those needs with the military capacity that we've got, plus some of the other resources.
And I think the other thing that we've been able to do is to work as part of a coalition very effectively, to make sure that we've maximized the opportunity since Charge of the Knights.
Now I'm not going to deliberate on all the lessons identified, because I know that there are folk, you know, organizations examining that and they will continue to examine that, to make sure that we really learn from it.
So the main thing is to finish off the job here and to make sure that institutionally -- not just as the armed forces, but, you know, across all levers of power -- that we learn the lessons to make sure that we can apply them into any different type of campaign for the future. And that process is going on.
Q Do you have a sense that that is being undertaken now to help the British mission in Afghanistan?
GEN. SALMON: Well, I think -- we all get together as commanders to discuss issues, and a while ago I sat down with the commanders in Afghanistan. And we looked at the things that have worked here; we looked at the things we needed to do better here. And we're obviously making sure that we cross-reference and cross-brief to enhance the performance of our guys in Afghanistan. And of course, again, it's part of a coalition construct.
So I think there's been an awful lot learnt. I think, you know, we've had some ups and downs over this campaign. Some of it's been very difficult. We've lost a few people. The U.S. forces I've been incredibly impressed with in terms of how they've adapted and they surged and they wrote their counterinsurgency manual. We've been learning from them as well and, I think, working as a coalition together. And I think we've made sure that we've, you know, continued that adaptation process. And we'll take it forward to whatever we do jointly in the future, including Afghanistan.
COL. KECK: Jeff?
Q General, Jeff with Stars and Stripes again. I believe the British mission in southern Iraq is expected to end on May 30th, and then the withdrawal will be complete by July 30th. What will British troops be doing between the end of May and the end of July?
GEN. SALMON: Well, obviously, there's an awful lot of logistic clearing up to do between the end of May and the end of July. There's the painstaking and assiduous work of manifesting all the equipment, making sure it goes in the right container, making sure that when it arrives in Kuwait or the other end it's properly rehabilitated and goes into, you know, the long time -- the long-term third line logistics system. Some of it will be used elsewhere but, you know, those are kinds of activities that the guys are going to be involved in from the end of the mission, May 31st, to when we're all out of Iraq by the end of July 31st, bar the residual missions that I've just talked about.
Q How many British troops are in southern Iraq right now?
GEN. SALMON: There's 4,100 troops in southern Iraq right now.
Q And you said after July 31st, they'll -- about a few hundred will remain.
GEN. SALMON: That's what we're anticipating, subject to final negotiations with the government of Iraq on the naval assistance training team and officer training.
COL. KECK: Okay, sir. We have come to the end of our time. And as is customary, we'd like to turn it back over to you for any final comments or observations you'd like to give us.
GEN. SALMON: Well, thank you very much indeed. It's been a real privilege to be able to speak to you on this -- on my third and last occasion.
I think what I've really enjoyed and what our forces have all enjoyed is working with the U.S. Army, U.S. Marines and every agency from the U.S. We've been absolutely amazed at the professionalism and the adaptivity of the U.S. forces and the support that we've been given. And so I, you know, felt honored to be a coalition commander delivering coalition intent down here and receiving the full weight of the United States behind me.
So working together has been a real satisfying experience.
The other satisfying thing, I think, for all of us here is to see the progress that has been made here in Basra, the confidence that now exists within the Iraqi security forces as they've started to stand on their own two feet.
But of course, much work remains, and I know that the U.S. folk who are coming down into Basra will continue to create effective and cooperative partnerships with the Iraqis, listen to what they need, and will continue this mission and creating a much more stable Iraq. So it's been a real privilege for me to have been a part of all this with the U.S. forces, and I thank them very much for that.
COL. KECK: Well, thank you again, sir, and we wish you a speedy and safe redeployment back to the U.K.
Thank you for coming, folks.
GEN. SALMON: Yeah. Thank you.
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