(Note: The general appears via video teleconference from Iraq.)
BRYAN WHITMAN (Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): Well, now that we have everybody seated, General Johnson, let me just make sure that you can hear me okay. This is Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon.
GEN. JOHNSON: Bryan, I hear you fine.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, General, thank you for joining us today, and welcome to the press corps this afternoon.
It is my privilege to be able to introduce to you Major General John Johnson, who is the deputy commanding general of operations at Multinational Corps-Iraq. He assumed these duties earlier this year, in April, and this is our first opportunity to have the general in this format. And we appreciate you taking the time to give us an update and a perspective that we can only get from commanders on the ground there.
He joins us today from Camp Victory in Iraq and has a few opening remarks before he takes some of your questions.
So General, with that, let me turn it over to you.
GEN. JOHNSON: Thanks, Bryan. Good afternoon, and thanks for the introduction.
To the members of the Pentagon press corps, it's my pleasure to be with you and I look forward to talking with you about our operations here in Iraq. As Bryan said, my name is Major General J.D. Johnson and I am the deputy commanding general for operations in the Multinational Corps Iraq.
The withdrawal of our combat forces from the cities in Iraq was a major step in the implementation of the security agreement and recognition of Iraqi sovereignty. Our partnership continues to flourish and grows stronger every day as we work together to protect the people of Iraq and bring stability to this country.
The recent high-profile attacks were an attempt by the extremists to attack the government of Iraq and to intimidate its people. It's encouraging to see the Iraqi people reject violence and continue their forward progress towards peace and stability.
In the aftermath of the Baghdad bombings, we provided the assistance the government of Iraq requested. And we'll continue to partner with the Iraqi security forces to protect the people against all forms of violence. Our shared goal is the safety and security of the Iraqi people.
We've seen many recent examples of success by the government of Iraq. Among them was the security provided for millions of Iraqis as they made the pilgrimage to Karbala. Another was the recent transfer of over 3,300 Sons of Iraq into 18 government of Iraq ministries. These examples help illustrate the maturing capabilities and strength of the government and its security forces.
As for what security forces are doing today, inside cities we continue to work closely with the Iraqi security forces to coordinate, train, advise and provide capabilities that the government of Iraq requests. Outside the cities we're conducting partnered operations with the Iraqi security forces focusing on securing Iraq's borders and denying safe havens to criminal and violent extremist groups.
I'd also like to highlight that we synchronize these operations with the Iraqis through the combined partnership operations center. In this center, U.S. and Iraqi forces are working side by side to share critical intelligence, operational information and logistics information so that we can stay closely coordinated.
In summary, our priority mission is to partner with the Iraqi security forces and provide whatever support the government of Iraq requires to secure its people.
U.S. forces remain committed to help build a stronger, peaceful Iraq, and we're proud of the successes we've seen in our servicemembers and the accomplishments of our Iraqi partners.
And with that, I'm happy to take your questions.
MR. WHITMAN: Who'd like to start us off?
Q General, Peter Spiegel with The Wall Street Journal. Two related questions, one related to your opening remarks. You've mentioned that after the recent bombings, the Iraqis requested assistance, and you provided that assistance. Can you give us some details as to what that was, specifically?
And more generally, about these same attacks, particularly the one in Baghdad, to what extent has pulling out of the cities limited your ability to gather intelligence on these cells, these bomb cells? Because I know sort of when General Odierno in particular was MNC-I commander, he put a lot of intel resources into mapping out these cells and trying to dismantle their financing and whatnot. Is it now more difficult to do that, since you're outside the cities?
GEN. JOHNSON: Well, thanks for the question.
The assistance that we've provided since the bombings has to do with their investigation that's ongoing in the government of Iraq, assisting them with that, forensic evidence that we've helped them obtain from the bomb sites themselves, and developing the intelligence that will ultimately allow us to disrupt the terrorist networks that were involved in this and other attacks.
As far as how it is for us now to gather intelligence, we have extensive networks still in place. We still have the capabilities that we had before. But maybe most importantly, we've worked hard in the past years to train with the Iraqi security forces and develop their own security.
And in many ways -- when it comes to human intelligence, as an example -- they're much better than we are. They speak the language. They're from here. And so it's the combination of their capabilities and the capabilities we still have in place that allow us to continue to operate here.
Q Can I just follow up? You mentioned your involvement in the investigation. The Iraqi government has been rather vocal in accusing the Syrians of either allowing some of these guys to operate out of -- up in Syria, particularly with this Baghdad bombing. Is any of your intelligence pointing in that direction? Frankly, the last -- recent weeks, when CENTCOM sent a mission to Damascus, there seemed to be some cooperation being promised by the Syrians on this front. Can you discuss anything you're coming out with in terms of that part of the investigation?
GEN. JOHNSON: Well, we continue to work very closely with the government of Iraq. And the intelligence that we're tracking will allow us ultimately to identify who did this. There are several groups in Iraq who may have wanted to conduct some type of attack like this.
The purpose is pretty clear, to either embarrass the government of Iraq or to intimidate its people. And the good news is that neither one of those has happened. They've been unsuccessful in accomplishing their intent that they set out for.
We continue to support the government of Iraq, in this investigation, and continue to develop the evidence that we have. And we're confident that it will help point us in the direction of who attempted to accomplish this.
Q On whether any of these groups are either based in Syria or that the Syrians are helping out more proactively, in terms of cracking down on these groups?
GEN. JOHNSON: That's a question I think that's probably better posed to the government of Iraq, with specifics of what Mr. Maliki may have said. Our evidence points so far to elements here in Iraq; where the bombs were built, those kinds of things. And we continue to pursue that, to develop even better intelligence, to know who all was -- who all was involved in this.
Q General, Bill McMichael, Military Times.
Last year at this time, your forces were heavily involved in cities. You were in forward operating bases. You were very, very tied up throughout the web of Iraq. And now you're not in the cities any longer on a regular basis.
Could you kind of describe the posture of the 135,000 U.S. troops in Iraq right now generally speaking?
GEN. JOHNSON: Sure. I talked a little bit about this in my opening comments.
One of the things about cities is, they tend to be really troop- intensive. And so with the Iraqi security forces now focused in the cities, and with us providing liaison officers and assistance to those forces, it's freed up our forces frankly to focus on the potential safe havens that the terrorist groups have tried to use in the past; also helped us -- freed up forces to work along the borders.
We've also focused much more on training the Iraqi security forces and training with the Iraqi security forces. This is going to be important as we continue to execute the security agreement and as we help the Iraqi security forces become better prepared for assuming more and more of the mission here.
Q And a question about your opening comment about Sons of Iraq transitioning recently 3,300 transfers into the 18 different ministries. How many Sons of Iraq would you say remain to be integrated into the fold in Iraq, if you will -- into regular jobs?
GEN. JOHNSON: Well, at this time, there's a little over 90,000 Sons of Iraq. I think most of you know the history of the Sons of Iraq. It started with the Sahwa movement where the Sunni Iraqis recognized the true nature of al Qaeda, rejected that ideology, ultimately stood side by side with their countrymen and with U.S. forces to bring Iraq to the point -- correction -- the al Qaeda to the point they're at today.
They were recognized for that by the government of Iraq, who determined that they would employ them in the security force, also employ them until they could be integrated into the ministries. About 20 percent of them will be integrated into the Iraqi security forces. A great number of them already have.
And today, Iraqi -- the Iraqi -- Sons of Iraq stand on their post, continue to defend their homes, continue to defend this country. And we're very proud to see that over 3,300, as I said, have already been pulled into the Iraqi ministries, with plans to start on the other -- on the other provinces here shortly.
It's pretty amazing when you think about the level of sacrifice that these men have made for their country. And it's important to recognize that they're an integral part of the security for this country. So it also speaks to the success of the Iraqi security forces that we're now at a point where the Sons of Iraq can be integrated into the ministries. And we're seeing a tremendous amount of success in that program.
It's also, as you may well know, they've had some problems with pay in the past because of some bureaucratic and budgetary issues. Here in this last month, the Sons of Iraq were paid double pay to catch them up from back pay to make sure that they have what they deserve for helping with the security of this country.
Q So of the more than 90,000 SOI, how many have been integrated into different ministries or into the Iraq security forces as of now?
GEN. JOHNSON: There's about 13,000 -- a little over 13,000 that have been integrated into Iraqi security forces, either into the army or into the Iraqi police. There's still some that will be integrated as they continue to develop these forces.
As I've said, there's 3,300 Sons of Iraq that have been integrated into ministries here in Baghdad. And in the past week, an additional about 250 started the next movement of SOI into the ministries. And they have a very systematic approach, going province by province, to determine when the security situation allows the Sons of Iraq to be integrated into ministries and then start that process.
We've already seen the government officials move to a couple of the outlying provinces, work with the local governments there to determine how soon they can start moving them into government jobs as well.
Q Right. So that leaves -- if I could just follow up, that leaves another 170,000 SOI -- I'm sorry -- about another 70,000 SOI who have not been integrated. What's your level of concern about getting them to that point versus folks possibly running out of patience because of -- even though you've alleviated some pay problems -- just concern over getting a job, getting a regular job in the government of Iraq?
GEN. JOHNSON: From talking to the Sons of Iraq and from talking with our commanders who work with them daily, I think they're very proud of the job they're doing in assisting with the security here. They want jobs, but they see progress. And they see that their brothers are moving into ministerial jobs. They also see that many of them have moved into the security forces. So I think that they see this progress, and they're willing to continue to participate in providing security until it's their turn to be moved into governmental jobs.
I believe they're exercising patience because they see what's going on in this country, and they realize they have a big role to play in it.
MR. WHITMAN: (Are you sure you don't have a second follow-up on that ?)? (Laughter.)
Q (Off mike.) (Laughter.)
MR. WHITMAN: I don't think I'll have you balance my checkbook. How's that? (Laughter.)
Courtney, you're on.
Q Hi, General. This is Courtney Kube from NBC News. Last week the U.S. preferred charges against four soldiers for various offenses, including mistreatment of some subordinate soldier or soldiers. Can you update us on the -- where that stands? Have the four been -- will they be court-martialed? Will it be in Iraq?
Are there any other soldiers who have come forward since then alleging any excessive exercise or other mistreatment? Can you sort of update us on where this investigation stands?
GEN. JOHNSON: Well, the investigation's ongoing, and so I can't comment about any of the specifics that are in the investigation right now.
I will say that any type of abuse by leaders on -- of soldiers is unacceptable and not in keeping with the values we have in the military. We put a lot of effort into making sure, as we bring soldiers up in the military, that they treat each other with dignity and respect. And I have no other information at this time on that investigation.
Q Can you tell us if, since the allegations of these -- of -- against these four soldiers, have any other soldiers come forward in that unit or beyond alleging any other mistreatment?
GEN. JOHNSON: I'm not familiar with any other soldiers coming forward at this time.
Q Then one last question. The four that had charges proffered against them -- are they still in Iraq? None of them have been court-martialed at this point, correct?
GEN. JOHNSON: The investigation's ongoing, and so that process -- if the commander decides to pursue that process, that would be in the future. It would have to wait for the completion of the investigations.
Q (Off mike.)
Q Three for me.
MR. WHITMAN: I'm kidding. Three for you. Who's got one? Maybe Gordon has one. And then a follow-up.
Q And then two.
Sir, Gordon Lubold from the Christian Science Monitor. If the -- if pulling out of the cities was an opportunity to give the Iraqis a chance to be self-reliant, and last week's bombings -- bombings seemed to show clearly some security flaws, what is your sense of the lessons learned from them -- by them with regard to last week's bombings? And then I do have a follow-up specifically to that.
GEN. JOHNSON: Okay -- I have to apologize. Just the way it came across was difficult to understand. I think you've asked about what the Iraqi security forces have learned from the bombings, or what lessons they've taken away. Is that correct?
Q That's correct.
GEN. JOHNSON: I think first off, the Iraqi security forces do a pretty amazing job of looking at themselves and determining where it is they can improve the way they operate. And we work with them in that regard. They're doing a pretty amazing job frankly. And they have adjusted their security forces where they thought it necessary to do so.
They've been very successful, I think, at addressing the specific issues related to this bombing, to prevent it from being able to happen in the future. And they're focused on disrupting the networks that may have had something to do with this bombing.
Iraq remains a violent place, as you know. But the attacks since the first of the year are down. They're at the lowest point since the first year. In fact, they're lower than they were on the 30th of June. But what's disturbing is what the attacks are aimed against.
They're attempting to discredit the government. But more importantly they're aimed at civilians. And so the incidents of civilian casualties is up. And I think this helps illustrate the nature of this enemy and what he's focused on.
He's focused on, despite what he says, killing and maiming the citizens of Iraq. And the Iraqi security force is doing everything it can to prevent that and disrupt these terrorist networks.
Q I mean, clearly there were, you know, flaws in their security system that allowed these big trucks to drive through town and explode as -- the way they did. I mean, are you confident that they're looking in the right places, to see what happened? And do you have a sense that there was -- it was a result of infiltration of the security forces?
GEN. JOHNSON: I'm absolutely confident that they're taking all the measures necessary to improve their security. In every case, they learn lessons from their experiences. And they apply it to the way they're doing business.
What we see right now is something that we've been talking about. In fact, the Iraqis have been talking about it. That is that the terrorist organizations will attempt to test the ISF. And the ISF is ready for it. And every time the terrorist groups conduct an attack, like this, they learn from it.
They adjust the way they are doing business, and together we partner to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future. And I'm very confident in their ability to learn from their experiences and to continue to improve and mature as a security force.
Q Okay. What about the infiltration? Do you think that those security forces were infiltrated?
GEN. JOHNSON: I don't have enough details to comment on that right now. I think that the Iraqi security forces are a very coherent force with a lot of soldierly qualities that would prevent something like that. But I can't comment specifically on that, because we're continuing to look hard at that, and I don't have any further comments on that particular point.
MR. WHITMAN: (Off mike.)
Peter, I think you had another. Did somebody else have one, though, before we go back to Peter? Go ahead.
Q General, Dan Wasserman with Jane's. I'm wondering, now that your force has spent some time operating from larger bases as opposed to the joint security stations within the city, are you seeing a change in your need to operate with or how you operate with armor mobility platforms, like MRAPs. this sort of thing?
GEN. JOHNSON: No, we haven't seen any specific changes in the way we use that equipment. It's still important to preserving our force here, protecting our soldiers. The -- we continue to take the measures necessary and prudent to protect our soldiers as they conduct operations. But our business of course is outside those bases. It's out with the Iraqi security forces. It's partnering with them and training with them and providing the assistance they need to continue to secure this country.
But we've had no major changes in the way we conduct counter-mine operations, as you call them, counter-IED operations. And we're confident that our equipment will continue to protect our soldiers.
MR. WHITMAN: Yes, go ahead.
Q General, the bilateral security -- Peter again, with The Wall Street Journal. The bilateral security agreement between Iraq and the U.S. does provide for an opportunity that the Iraqi come to the U.S. and request more assistance on the security side. I think we're seeing some of that already in northern Iraq. General Odierno has talked about Kirkuk in particular. Can you give us an update as to where that assistance is right now, whether there are U.S. troops that have moved up there to assist the Iraqi forces up there?
And can you talk more broadly -- have you had other discussions about new assistance that the U.S. forces might be providing the Iraqis through this security agreement?
GEN. JOHNSON: The Iraqi and U.S. security agreement allows for the Iraqis to ask us to provide additional assistance. Since the 30th of June, they have not asked us to contribute any more combat forces back in the cities. We still have advisers there. We still have liaison officers and specialists there who are trained and experts at providing access to intelligence, air support, medical support and -- back to the previous question -- route clearance capabilities to ensure that the Iraqi commerce and our own forces can move down the roads here in Iraq.
As General Odierno said, we're participating with the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish security forces in establishing security in the disputed internal boundaries area in order to create a security situation there that will allow the political process to move forward and be successful.
Q General, number of U.S. forces that are involved there, and how long they're likely to be up there for?
GEN. JOHNSON: Well, right now we're in the process of determining exactly how we'll establish this. We are partnered with the Iraqi army, the Iraqi federal police, the peshmerga -- the Kurdish military forces -- to determine exactly where we need to position joint security posts and other measures necessary to provide security in those areas. And once we've completed those assessments and have gotten approval for executing the mission there, they'll have a better feel for what the force requirements are.
Q Just to be clear, there are not currently U.S. forces dedicated to that mission yet; you're still in the assessment phase.
GEN. JOHNSON: We have forces that have operated in that area, and we partner with the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish security forces to take on the terrorist organizations there, disrupt their activities. The last thing we want is that area to be a safe haven for terrorists. But that's been temporary up to now. The operations that we're planning right now will allow us to provide security in that area that I think is going to be critical to allowing the political process to go forward.
So, again, we've had forces operating in those areas, and right now we're trying to determine what changes, if any, will be necessary there as we partner with the Iraqis and the Kurds.
MR. WHITMAN: General, we just have a couple minutes left, and we want to be respectful of your time, and I want to give you an opportunity to perhaps give us any final thoughts or anything that we might have stimulated in the discussion that bring to mind something that you think is important for us.
GEN. JOHNSON: Well, first, I'd like to thank you all for giving me an opportunity to talk to you. It's important for us to get the opportunity to speak to the people of the United States, and you give us that opportunity.
We feel like that we're being successful in our mission here, but it's not without challenges. As we've talked about, the terrorist organizations continue to operate here. They continue to challenge the Iraqi security forces and the government of Iraq. But we have every confidence that the government of Iraq and their security forces -- and, most importantly, the people of Iraq -- are going to stand up to the terrorists. They've rejected them in the past. They're moving forward into the future. And we will give every bit of support that we can to help them be successful in that.
I appreciate the opportunity to talk to you today. We and the Iraqi security forces are partnered well and enjoying closer bonds every day. And if I could, just to the Iraqis who might see this and other Muslims out there, here in Ramadan, "Ramadan kareem," and so wish them best wishes for their Ramadan. And thank you for your -- for the opportunity to talk to you guys today.
MR. WHITMAN: General, again, thank you. Thank you for your time and for your support of this format and program that we have and for providing your supporting commanders on a regular basis to ensure that we stay updated on the situation here in Iraq.
Thank you very much.
GEN. JOHNSON: It's our pleasure. Thank you.
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