(Note: Colonel Stammer appears via video teleconference from Iraq.)
COLONEL DAVID LAPAN (director, Directorate for Press Operations, Office of the Secretary of Defense): Good morning. We're privileged to have with us today Colonel Mark Stammer. Colonel Stammer is the commander of the 1st Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, Multinational Division- West. Colonel Stammer assumed his current duties in Iraq in August of this year. This is his first briefing to us in this format.
He joins us from al Asad Air Base in Al Anbar province, Iraq. Colonel Stammer has a few comments to begin and then he'd be happy to take your questions.
Colonel Stammer, thank you again for joining us and over to you.
COL. STAMMER: Thank you very much, Dave, for that kind introduction.
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I'm Colonel Mark Stammer, commander of the 1st Advise and Assist Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, and I'm speaking to you today from al Asad Air Base in Al Anbar province, Iraq. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you today. Going to be a real pleasure.
I have the honor to lead almost 5,000 of the finest paratroopers and soldiers in the armed forces today in a unit that traces its lineage to World War II and the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
When I introduce the brigade to our Iraqi partners, I tell them that we offer all the features of a light infantry brigade capable of full-spectrum operations, combined stability operations, route clearance, intelligence, information operations, even civil affairs.
I tell them that what makes us an advise and assist brigade, or AAB, is a complement of specialized officers to help build civil capacity, specialized partnership training to help our troops increase Iraqi security force professionalization, and a whole new mindset that says everything we do is by, with and through our Iraqi counterparts.
Anbar is Iraq's largest province, roughly the size of North Carolina, with a primarily agrarian economy. Most of its 2 million predominantly Sunni residents live within the Euphrates River corridor as it travels from the Syrian border southeast to Baghdad. Our mission is to partner with Iraqi security forces and conduct combined stability operations. Our goals are to improve Iraqi security forces' capabilities and capacity, deny violent extremists opportunities for resurgence and support the growth of political -- I'm sorry, support the growth of provincial governance and economic capacity in order to achieve sustainable security. By accomplishing these tasks, we will enable effective governance, political reconciliation, political and economic development, and the advancement of the rule of law.
With the recent passage of the Iraqi election law, we appear to be only two months away from yet another historic election. The brigade will be there to assist the Iraqis, as they ask us to do so and in accordance with the security agreement.
Finally, during all of this activity, we do everything with an eye on leaving Iraq in a responsible manner. Every relationship I make here, I make with the big picture in mind, because ultimately advise and assist is not an entity so much as it is a mindset and process. That process is our mission and, by its execution, we will ensure an enduring strategic partnership and friendship with our Iraqi counterparts.
And with that, I'll be happy to take your questions.
COL. LAPAN: Joe?
Q Colonel, this is Joe Tabet, with Al Hurra. Could you give us an update about the current situation on the western border with Syria? And if you also could give us an update on the -- on the presence -- or if there is any presence of AQI in the Anbar province, any activities related to al Qaeda in that -- in that province?
COL. STAMMER: Could barely hear you, but I think your first question had something to do with the border with Syria. We partner with the Department of Border Enforcement, the Iraqi army -- and the Iraqi army along the border with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia throughout Al Anbar province. And my experience to date has been very professional with all those organizations.
With regards to your question with AQI, AQI in Al Anbar, again, in my first three months over here, can be best characterized as a group or a -- disparate groups coming together to achieve some short- term common interests, cellular in structure, but nothing that will pose significant challenges to the Iraqi security forces or the provincial government as they continue to mature in Al Anbar.
Q Let me go back to the first question about the situation on the -- on the -- on the Syrian border. The government of Iraq has accused some elements or Baathist elements inside Syria that they are behind the latest attacks in Baghdad. What do you think about that? What could you say?
COL. STAMMER: Well, I believe that that's a question more suitable for a policymaker. But from my perspective as the brigade commander operating on the ground in Al Anbar, my experiences to date have been very positive with the Department of Border Enforcement and with the Iraqi army on the border. All my experiences at the points of entry with Syria in Walid and Husaybah in al Qaim district have been professional. Thank you.
Q Last follow-up. Sir, have you seen any firefighters -- foreign fighters, elements that they were infiltrating inside the Iraqi territories lately?
COL. STAMMER: I have not experienced, nor have I witnessed or heard of, the Department of Border Enforcement apprehending any foreign fighters at the points of entry in Husaybah, which is in al Qaim, or Walid, which is in the district of Rutbah, in the time that I've been here, sir.
COL. LAPAN: Rich?
Q Colonel, Richard Sisk from the New York Daily News. Sir, you mentioned the rule of law. How would you assess that it is proceeding in Al Anbar, given the incidents of recent days, some attacks on Sunni politicians, sir?
COL. STAMMER: With regards to rule of law in Al Anbar, the Advise and Assist Brigade enables the Provincial Reconstruction Team subject-matter experts for rule of law, as well as international police advisers and law enforcement professionals that have been contracted by the Department of Defense. The brigade actually provides some common skills tasks training as well to the police concerning maintenance, first aid, map-reading skills, marksmanship, what have you, and we then enable those law enforcement subject-matter experts to further the capabilities and the capacities of the Iraqi police. And my experience to date indicates that these men are very professional, and it's evidenced by the increasing conviction rate, folks being arrested for crimes in Al Anbar. The conviction rate's actually improving since we've been here.
Q Sir, can you give some numbers on conviction rates?
COL. STAMMER: I would not want to -- I would not want to give you any exact numbers, because I'm not aware of them, but I know that the conviction rate is increasing.
Q Colonel, it's Luis Martinez with ABC News. If I could ask you, sir, about the process of the drawdown in Anbar Province. I understand that the Marines are mostly out, but can you give us an idea of how that's working in terms of whether your brigade will assume total command of MNF-W, whether MNF-W will continue to exist as an entity after -- as the drawdown continues; and basically, whether there will be other units that will backfill the Marines or whether you will just be in sole command of Anbar?
COL. STAMMER: I didn't hear you for the most of your -- the first part of your question, but I got the end of it, which was, am I going to be the only one left standing here in Anbar?
I got here in August and did a relief in place with two Marine regimental combat teams. But that was just for the ground combat element of Multinational Force-West.
The combat logistics regiment and the Marine aviation regiment, in addition to the Multinational Force-West headquarters, remain in Anbar at this time. And the 1st Advise & Assist Brigade makes up the ground combat element of this MAGTF.
Near the election and sometime after the election, in accordance with the drawdown, Multinational Force-West will leave. And while my brigade will remain in Al Anbar, we will then work for U.S. Division- Central.
Q I’ll expand on that. Since MNF-W as an entity is going to be replaced, will you see follow-on units to replace the Marines that are leaving and the logistics and aviation elements? Or again will you be just by yourself out there in that advisory-and-assist-brigade status?
COL. STAMMER: When the Marine headquarters leaves, the Marine aviation wing and the combat logistics regiment will go with them. And then I will depend upon U.S. Division-Central, which will be 1st Armored Division, for the higher-level aviation and logistics support.
Q To follow on that, since the main concern with the Iraqi security forces has been that they don't have their own sufficient aviation and logistics, to independently operate, how much reliance will they continue to have on those elements, given that the Marines, because they are there right now providing that?
How much of that will come from 1st Armored or from other assets?
COL. STAMMER: The Iraqi army is increasing its capabilities daily. In fact, they just received a complement of Mi-17 helicopters to support the Anbar ops command. We will further complement and continue to complement our Iraqi security force partners, as we continue our operations and training with them in Al Anbar.
The 1st Armored Division will apportion forces for us, as we need them, both aviation and combat logistics oriented.
Q Hi, Colonel. This is John Kruzel with American Forces Press Service. I'm wondering if you can talk about some of the security preparations you're making ahead of the election, and if there's any fear that the number of attacks might rise as that date nears.
COL. STAMMER: Again, as an advise and assist brigade, everything we do is by, with and through our Iraqi security force partners. In fact, we have been partnering with them for some two weeks now in and around -- actually out -- and definitely outside the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, helping the Iraqi army prepare positions and checkpoints for the election.
Again, the Iraqi police are being assisted by international police advisers and law enforcement -- law enforcement professionals through the provincial government council training team.
Q So is there any concern that there's going to be a rise in violence as the election date nears?
COL. STAMMER: Iraqi security forces are well under way for their preparations, and we don't anticipate any real spikes in violence that could derail the elections in Anbar province at this time.
Q This is Raghubir from Asia Today. My basic question is that -- who do you blame now for the terrorist activities in Iraq, and who is behind them now after eight years? And what is the future?
COL. STAMMER: Sir, could you please repeat that question, please?
Q The basic question is that -- who is behind the attacks and ongoing -- some terrorist activities, and also, what is the future as far as security is concerned? Who's to blame?
COL. STAMMER: Okay, I think I understood you asking who's behind some of the terrorist activity that's been occurring in Al Anbar. Clearly there's a number of different groups associated with operating in Al Anbar province. The latest attack that we have here is indicative of a -- al Qaeda in Iraq-type tactic.
But again, I would -- I would classify these as disparate groups coming together for short-term common interests to achieve some measure of success in derailing the elections -- and that they have not been able to accomplish to date; nor do I anticipate them being able to accomplish that, based on the level of professionalism and experience with the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police in Al Anbar.
Q Colonel, it's Luis Martinez again. Do you see any incidence of sectarian violence, any uptick, or any significant actions involving securing groups that rise to your level of concern?
COL. STAMMER: To date, with my time in Al Anbar, I have not experienced any sectarian violence. While there has been some violence, it has been criminal in nature, and not necessarily sectarian.
Q Any violence resulting from -- within Sunni separate -- Sunni factions in Anbar? As there's obviously the political debate going on towards the -- and the ramp-up towards the elections, there are rival groups. Are you seeing any of those groups actually taking violence for their ideas?
COL. STAMMER: No, I would -- I would like to characterize the violence that I have witnessed to date in Al Anbar as predominantly criminal in nature.
COL. LAPAN: Richard.
Q Sir, Richard Sisk, New York Daily News.
Does your brigade -- does the 1st Brigade have a timeline after the elections, assuming they go well? Do you have a timeline for drawing down?
COL. STAMMER: Well, sir, as you know, the advise and assist brigade is part of a responsible drawdown evolution. My timeline in Iraq extends through next August, and we intend to partner well with our Iraqi security force brothers until that time.
Q Colonel, Luis Martinez again. The AABs, General Casey characterized them as being, in how they're different from the BCTs, in the sense that they have 50 additional officers. Is that -- is that an accurate assessment? And if so, what are those officers -- how do they -- how are they -- what jobs do they carry out that are separate from what a BCT would undertake?
COL. STAMMER: Well, there's -- there's a lot of goodness in being the first of anything, but the first AAB -- you know, we didn't get quite 50 additional officers; we, in fact, got 16. But we organized those 16 professionals in three stability transition teams, and we partnered them with the three most important nodes in Anbar: the Anbar ops command, the provincial government council and the Department of Border Enforcement.
And they serve as the eyes and ears and liaison officers for the commanding general, Multinational Force West, and the principal conduits for me to coordinate with those three entities as well. And to date this -- those 16 men and the techniques that we're using have proven very fruitful.
Q Do you anticipate the arrival of an additional 34 to get your full complement in the future?
COL. STAMMER: No, I do not.
Q Well, if the tasking is for 50, doesn't that complicate your efforts, then, for additional advising and assistance?
COL. STAMMER: Well, I think the future AABs will be filled to -- closer to the 48 or 50 number that's been promulgated in D.C. The 16 officer I -- the 16 officers I have right now I have complemented with additional capability from within my brigade combat team, and right now that is working just fine for us out here.
As you know, the AAB construct will have to be manipulated to the contextual environment it finds itself. So while we all may start from common ground, we'll all depart rather quickly once we get over here into Iraq, depending on where you operate from. The construct that we have is working quite well for our situation here in Anbar at the time.
COL. LAPAN: Okay, Colonel Stammer. Looks like we've exhausted the questions here. I'd turn it back to you for any final comments you'd like to make.
COL. STAMMER: Well, I'd just like to thank all of our families back at home in Fort Bragg for keeping us in our prayers, and we appreciate your time today. Thank you, sir.
COL. LAPAN: All right. Thanks.
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