(Note: General Perkins appears via videoconference from Iraq.)
MODERATOR: Good morning here in the Pentagon Briefing Room, and good evening in Iraq. I’d like to welcome to the Pentagon Briefing Room Major General David G. Perkins, the commander of United States Division-North and the 4th Infantry Division.
Major General Perkins has served as the commander of the 4th Infantry Division for the last two years, and in October of 2010 he assumed the responsibility for U.S. military operations in northern Iraq, with primary mission of developing the capacity of the Iraqi forces. As that mission concludes, Major General Perkins has overseen the transition of facilities and bases back to the government of Iraq, and as U.S. forces prepare for redeployment in accordance with the security agreement.
Major General Perkins joins us today from the United States Division-North headquarters in Tikrit. He will make an opening remark, and then will take your questions.
And with that, I’ll turn it over to Major General Perkins. Sir.
MAJOR GENERAL DAVID PERKINS: Hey, thanks a lot. I appreciate everyone taking some time today to come and have a discussion here about what’s going on in Iraq.
As she said, we here at U.S. Division-North, and specifically those of us in the 4th Infantry Division at the headquarters here, are completing a year tour over here, Operation New Dawn.
This is the fourth rotation for the 4th Infantry Division. It was involved in OIF 1 and now we’re in Operation New Dawn, so we’ve kind of bookended our Iraq experience here.
This has been -- like every rotation over here, has unique aspects to it. This one has focused a lot on advise, training and assisting the Iraqi security forces, increasing their capability, transitioning a lot of responsibility for what U.S. forces have done historically over to the Iraqis, as well as transitioning bases and operating areas and all of that over to the Iraqis.
So it has been a very eventful year. A lot of great things have gone on, both with American forces and Iraqi forces, and we are continuing to sprint over the finish line here.
So I think probably the best use of our time is just to open it up for questions and begin our dialogue.
MODERATOR: All right. Thank you, sir. Bob.
Q: General Perkins, this is Bob Burns with AP. With regard to the Arab-Kurd tensions in the north, General Odierno said a couple weeks ago that he’d seen some indications that the Iraqis may not need as much American military help with that problem after 2011 as had previously been believed, and that estimates that as many as 5,000 American troops may be needed to help with that problem -- you may not need to leave that many, or any, American military forces for that purpose.
I’m wondering what your assessment is of that, whether you -- kind of walk us through what you see as the state of the Arab-Kurd problem and whether you see a need for American military presence there to help with that.
GEN. PERKINS: Well, Bob, that’s a great question. And that is -- one of our big responsibilities up here in the north has been to work the Arab-Kurd issues along the area called the disputed boundaries.
When our division first got here, there was the combined security area in effect, and there were 22 trilateral checkpoints. Those were checkpoints that were manned by Kurdish Peshmerga Forces, Iraqi army forces and U.S. soldiers. And so we were spread out across really three provinces: Nineveh, Kirkuk and Diyala. As I said, we were manning 22 trilateral checkpoints. There’s also a combined coordination center that’s really the command and control of -- in each province -- Nineveh, Kirkuk and Diyala. And then I worked the overall security mechanism with General Helmick and General Austin down in Baghdad.
We have begun transitioning that, as we have many of the other things we do. And this has been one of the issues that was of great concern to everybody involved, mainly because it had worked so well when the U.S. had taken a pretty active role in it and we had been able to bring together Peshmerga forces and Iraqi army forces and Iraqi police who previously had not worked together, and developed arbitration mechanisms.
Really, as of the beginning of September, we have transitioned all 22 checkpoints to now a bilateral operation. That means Peshmerga -- Kurdish forces, and Iraqi army and Iraq police. So we no longer have U.S. forces on any of those checkpoints permanently as we did before. And that was really the first stage, to see how that would work as we transition. I mean, we did it gradually. We did usually two or three of them a week, and saw how that went. And that has gone exceptionally well, and we really have not had one incident out at one of those checkpoints or the area around it since the U.S. has left. We are in an over watch phase now, which means we routinely go out there, check on things, make sure they’re operating to a standard, making sure their resupplies are going, training and all of that.
But that aspect of it has gone quite well.
The next part we are going to is the command and control of it and that is to transition the command and control at the provincial level to bilateral as the U.S. moves out of it. And we are right in the middle of that now. A couple of days ago I was in Baghdad with senior Kurdish and Iraqi leaders working through how we would work the mechanism of that. The good news is there has been broad agreement as we move forward on the technicalities of it, such as how would we communicate and how would you do daily reports and how would you share information. So the encouraging piece is there has not been one point of contention about whether or not we are going to do this and whether or not it’s going to work. The issues we have to work through are who is in charge of various aspects of it, how do we arbitrate differences, and then how does it get raised up through our mechanism here.
So that is a good thing to be talking about. The fact that we are talking about how do we continue this partnership versus how do we pull it apart and go back to the bad old days is extremely encouraging. So I will tell you in the next month or so one of my main focuses, along with General Helmick and General Austin and the ambassador and his team, is to transition the lead for this mainly to Arab and Kurd. And at the very senior level of this mechanism, we will have State Department people engaged as well as Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq people engaged, but it’s at a much lower level as far as number of people than we had when I first got here.
Q: Just a quick follow-up, General. Your answer seems to jibe pretty much with the gist of what General Odierno said in that things have moved in the right direction. So is your overall assessment that there may not or will not be a need for American military forces to play the role they’ve been playing in that -- with the Arab-Kurd problem after 2011?
GEN. PERKINS: Right. Clearly, there is not the need for them to play the role they had, especially in the numbers they had. We have proven right now that out at the checkpoints, they can run perfectly fine without U.S. presence there at all. But that didn’t happen overnight. That’s been a year and a half of making -- we’ve been training them, we’ve been equipping them and we’re bringing them to a level of self-sufficiency. So before, where I really had about three battalions engaged in that, we now really have no U.S. forces. So that’s very encouraging because that’s where the spark would occur if there’s a problem.
I think where the U.S. is still going to play a role is at the very senior level of policy issues in what I call the arbitration of differences as they come up. The one thing that the U.S. plays a very vital role in, not only here with Arab-Kurd but really around the world, is that we are seen as truly a neutral arbiter, and that when both sides bring an issue to us, sometimes they may be a little disheartened that we don’t take their side right away, but they step back and they realize that when we come up with a recommendation, we really have tried to balance both sides of the argument and come up with the most equitable solution. And I think that’s still a role that we play. And that’s not really based on numbers of people out there, that’s really based on the organization and the mechanism that we plug into.
Q: General, it’s Mike Evans from the Times, London Times. We had a briefing here a few weeks ago where we were told that there were roughly about 800 al-Qaida-associated fighters still in Iraq, most of them Iraqis.
What evidence do you have of al-Qaida concentration up in your neck of the woods, up in the north?
GEN. PERKINS: Right. Well, that’s an area, again, that we pay close attention to. As you well know, up here in the north -- Mosul, Tigris River Valley, here in Tikrit, Salahuddin area -- has been a typical operating area for al-Qaida, former regime elements, things such as this. And they operate from here. They historically have gained financial support, and then they can export sort of their violence to the rest of Iraq.
So we pay a lot of attention to getting after the network up here, specifically Mosul and along the Tigris River Valley. And this is also generally the point of entry when we get foreign fighters coming across a border, say from Syria, into Iraq. They generally enter the network in Ninevah province somewhere and then funnel down through the Tigris River Valley to wherever they’re going to conduct the attacks.
I’ll discuss first of all the foreign fighter flow. We’ve seen a dramatic drop-off in the foreign fighter flow coming into Iraq. That is evidenced both by intelligence that we have as well as when we see suicide operations going on and other things like that. We do see some Iraqis involved where almost historically it was always the foreign fighters.
The second aspect that we’ve focused heavily on is the financial aspect of it because money is oxygen to the fuel of terrorism here. Mosul historically has been an area that has driven a lot of the financial momentum and fundraising aspects, and we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in that to the point of where we are now seeing intra-al- Qaida fighting and disputes amongst the organization itself about how money is distributed.
We are seeing, instead of foreign aid coming in, in large amounts, they’re resorting to what I would call extortion, black marketing, robbery of jewelry stores, things like that. And it’s devolving more into almost gang mafia-type activities, especially in Mosul and some of these other areas, with people slicing off areas of responsibility that they can use to extortion or something like that to get money. And so they are starting to, in some instances, turn against each other, which, from our point of view, is a good sign -- although that does generate a level of violence, but it’s now becoming more criminal in nature, at least at the early stage, than terrorist.
We don’t take any of this for granted. We keep the pressure on the network. And one of the big changes, especially in the last year, is that in most cases, the Iraqis have the lead for this. We work very closely with the Iraqi army, with the Iraqi police. And they almost exclusively are the ones going after al-Qaida, are going after these other violent extremist groups up here. Generally, our role is, we help them with intelligence fusion, with some of our intelligence platforms. But they generally are on the pointy end of the spear here going after these folks. And then when they do that, they are getting much better at getting their own internal intelligence, turning it around and going after the networks.
So it is a network that is highly degraded. It is not ineffective, but it is highly degraded. And where we see that manifest itself is a dramatic decrease in numbers of attacks, especially your typical al-Qaida signature attacks, spectacular attack, ones with a large amount of suicide folks involved. We see now more vehicle-borne explosive devices that are parked and detonated versus being driven and detonated, which means they’re having a hard time getting people who are true believers to actually be the suicide folks.
And so, obviously, it’s less effective when they can’t drive the vehicle. And so a lot of the outputs we’re looking at are down across the board: effectiveness of attacks, numbers of attacks, and spectacular nature of the attack. And then when we go back in and look at the system, we see this system coming apart.
But it’s one of those things that you can’t let up on, because if you let up on it, we know they are very intent to reestablishing it. That’s why we are so intent on making sure that there is a -- the sustainable capability of the Iraqi security forces to keep after it.
Q: Sir, this is Joe Tabet with Al Hurra. Are you concerned of any challenges or threats that the Iraqi forces might face after the U.S. troops leave Iraq? And could you give us your personal opinion about how do you see the readiness of the Iraqi security forces?
GEN. PERKINS: Well, as I stated -- said in the opening statement, we have spent a lot of our time this year advise, training, assisting the Iraqi security forces. And out of necessity, when we first started standing them up and building a capacity here in Iraq, we really did focus them on internal security, because that was the threat. You know, as the insurgency gained steam, as the violent extremist networks raised the level of violence, our requirement, along with the Iraqi security forces, was to maintain order in the country and provide a level of stability so their democracy could continue to move forward.
As I said, the attack levels internal to the nation have dropped off dramatically. And they are becoming quite proficient at that. Where we have started paying particular attention to now is the ability to provide an external defense capability, which really up until this year was not a priority.
And when our division came here last year, last October, General Austin made a big push to focus on the external security capacity of the Iraqi forces.
And so we started adjusting our training with that as a focus. And so here in the north, for instance, up in Mosul with the Nino operations center, there’s two Iraqi divisions I partner with there, the 3rd Iraqi Army, the 2nd Iraqi Army. We started working on collective training, squad, company, battalion-size operations, starting focus on what I would call conventional military operations as compared to counterterrorism operations. And we got to the point where we started doing rotations -- Tadreeb al Shamil the exercise plan -- that at the end of each battalion’s rotation, they conducted a battalion -- an infantry battalion live-fire exercise with direct fire and indirect fire that in most cases were -- they were as good as some American infantry battalion live fires I’ve seen.
So in this last year we’ve made a dramatic shift to provide some external defense capability. The recent agreement for them to buy F- 16 fighters is another move that will enable them to provide some external defense, in this case air policing, in air sovereignty activity. So they are moving forward on that. But again, it does not occur overnight. There are long-range plans for the U.S. to stay engaged with them as they work toward that capacity. But I will tell you they exceeded my expectation, in the year that I’ve been in here, to get after some of this external defense capacity.
I would say that two areas we continue to spend additional time on with the Iraqis is intelligence and intelligence fusion and then logistics, because especially when you start doing distributed operations, providing for external defense, you have to have a robust logistical platform. And that is an area that has been lacking.
So again we’ve paid additional attention to developing a logistics system, a supply system and also an ability for them to share intelligence not only within their army but between their police and border organizations and things like that, because, again, fusing that intelligence allows them to get after threats both internal and external.
Q: (Off mic) -- question, sir. Do you think the 18 F-16s that the Iraqi force will get are enough?
GEN. PERKINS: Say again? I -- the question dealt with the F-16s specifically. What’s the question on the F-16s?
Q: Yeah. Do you think the 18 -- the 18 F-16s that the Iraqi forces -- Iraqi Air Force will get -- those 18 fighters are enough?
GEN. PERKINS: OK. Is 18 enough? Well, 18 is definitely better than what they have now, which is zero. And again, that, like all of these things, it is a -- it gets you the baseline to continue to build on. And so as they go forward with this first buy of 18, it’s not only the 18 fighters, it’s the training that goes with it, is the maintenance training that goes with it, it is the whole infrastructure that it takes to support a modern air force. And that is a very large undertaking.
And so really, regardless of how many you end up, with they are only as good as the institution of the air force, the support structure and all of that. And so therefore, really, the -- I think the significant part is that they have made that commitment to get 18 initially, which means they are now going to have a modern air force, which means they’re going to have pilot training, they’re going to have to have a maintenance program, they’re going to have all of those things. And then adding aircraft after that is much easier.
So they’ve really taken the first big step to getting a well-trained and well-maintained air force, and then they will continue to modernize and grow, just as the U.S. Air Force continues to modernize.
Q: General, thank you for doing this. This is Camille Elhassani from Al-Jazeera English. I wanted to follow up on that. Just do you have a sense of when the Iraqis might be able to take over training themselves and, you know, that you’ll be training the trainers?
And I also wanted to ask about what you said earlier about they’re receiving -- these foreign fighters are receiving less foreign assistance and the number of fighters is decreasing coming over the border. Are they being stopped? Is that -- like, is that something that you guys are actively stopping them from doing, or is -- or have they just given up and are focusing somewhere else?
GEN. PERKINS: OK. I’ll answer your first question with regards to the train the trainer part and the sustainability -- very important. And I will tell you, as we started going through this Tadreeb al Shamil, which was training really battalion-sized organizations, the first battalion we started training, the first thing we did was -- is focus on their trainers. And we brought them in and we said: Look, we are not going to be here after the end of this year. And so we’re going to start this training program for you, but what you need to do is take advantage of this as we are going through.
And so what we did was, as we were training the -- you know, the first battalion, we would bring the leadership of the second battalion to the training site and say: You need to watch us train the first battalion, so that you understand how this goes, you understand what right looks like.
And then when -- the second battalion we started training, we would start at a higher level, because we said: You’re already seen what the first guys did. We’re now -- not going to go over that again. We’re going to go to a higher level. And then we would bring the third battalion in, watch them. And so each time we did that we had a more experienced cadre coming behind us ready to take over the next time, so each time we could start at a higher level.
And each time we had to be less involved, to where last week we did a battalion live fire up in the Ghazlani training area of Mosul. It was -- from the 3rd Iraqi Army, it was their last battalion. We have gone through the entire division. It was their last battalion, and we had very little U.S. presence there. We helped them kind of scope it out and work through sort of the macro sense on how they would do a strategy. But when they actually went through the live fire themselves, you didn’t see any U.S. soldiers there.
So we knew from the beginning when we started this that if we did not start focusing on their leaders that we would be developing a non-sustainable model. So what I told my soldiers when we got here last year, I said everything we do has to be such that when we leave, you know, in October or November this year it can continue on. If it is dependent solely on the U.S. doing it, it’s a nonstarter because that’s not going to happen.
And so we’ve done the same thing with logistics stuff. I said if we bring them the fuel that will get them to the training exercise. But that won’t work after November. So we’ve had to force them -- and we’ll take them to the depot and say see, this is where the fuel is; this is how you requisition it; this is how you transport it and distribute it. So I can tell you from day one we have tried to work ourselves out of a job, quite honestly, that we have tried to get their institution up to that level.
The other thing that we’ve spent a lot of time on is putting together doctrinal manuals for them, instructional manuals, and then getting them translated to Arabic so that after we leave, again, there is something that they can build on. And then we also videotaped and recorded a lot of things we did, you know, infantry movements, all the basic kind of things so they can take a very immature force, recruits, show them what right looks like and then move forward on it.
So from day one, our intent was to build a sustainable capability that on the last day, we can walk away, and then the day after that, it continues.
And what I saw last week has validated that, though -- they, just like the American army, though, you have to stay with it. If you let it atrophy, you will lose that capability. But so far, they seem to have internalized it.
Your second question about the foreign fighters, I would -- there’s two parts to that. One is, we have interdicted quite a few more than we had in previous years. And that really -- I accredit that to the fact that we have worked hard on this intelligence fusion and cooperation between border units, Iraqi Army units and Iraqi police. You used to have very stove piped operations and they would not share intel, nor would they pass off targets. And so if a foreign fighter made it through a border checkpoint and the border security guys didn’t catch him, you know, they wouldn’t call the Iraqi Army, who was right behind them, to pick him up; or if he got through the Iraqi Army, you know, they wouldn’t share with the Iraqi police. And so it was very easy for the foreign fighters to run the scene between border enforcement people, Iraqi Army and Iraqi police.
So one of the first things we did was to start setting up combined coordination centers, specifically around the Syrian border, where you had border enforcement officials, Iraqi Army and Iraqi police; had them share intelligence so you could pass off target sets. And then we started having them use their own intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets. That’s one of the things we started doing because before they would rely almost solely on U.S. assets, but again, we knew those were going away. So we trained them on their assets -- assets they had purchased, assets we had trained them on -- and worked their assets into it so they could use Iraqi intel assets, fuse it between border enforcement people, Iraqi Army and Iraqi police, and go after these targets.
When they started doing that, the rate of interception went up fairly dramatically, and our ability to intercept the safe houses where they enter the network. We found that was key.
Just trying to grab a random person coming across the border is literally a needle in a haystack. But if you can develop the intelligence to find out where the safe house is, where the caches are, where all the weapons are, and then you wait until the foreign fighter gets to the safe house and is linking up with his facilitator, and then you grab the foreign fighter, the facilitator and all of the IED equipment, now you’re getting at some sophisticated operations. And that’s what we have focused on.
And in the process of doing that, we obviously capture these foreign fighters, and so the Iraqis now have them for intelligence purposes. And as they have been interrogating them, what they are finding out is, as they talk to these foreign fighters, that it is getting very difficult for them to get foreign fighters across the border. So we -- we are seeing the interdictions go up. But as we interdict them through the intelligence, we are finding that the rate of flow is going down.
Q: Sir, Richard Sisk, The War Report Online. Can you tell us anything about the situation with withdrawals? What is the nuts and bolts situation, particularly with the 4th ID?
And sir, what degree of confidence do you have when you do withdraw that it will not fall apart?
GEN. PERKINS: You know, that is a -- our big focus right now, is that -- is that we withdraw in a manner, first of all, that provides our force protection to U.S. soldiers, and that we do it safely; and second of all, as we do that, the Iraqi security forces are able to stand up on their own and we don’t have an implosion.
So I will tell you, we have a very deliberate process of how we go through sort of de-scoping our bases, how we go through and properly account for our equipment, move the equipment out, move it back to the States, get military disposition of it.
And then we work very closely with Iraqi security forces on, OK, who’s going to come in and take the base, how are we going to work security, how do we transition responsibility for our battle space and things like that.
And so, when we first got here, we had 38 bases across the north that we had responsibility for as long -- as well as many, many small outposts like the checkpoints and all that I’ve talked about already. As of today, we are now down to 14 and continuing to move forward.
As we have done that, the good news is our attack levels have continued to go down with -- they’re almost 40 percent below what they were last year as we’ve gone from 38 bases to 14. And so we have seen, across the board, the Iraqi security forces have been able to stand up, and we have not seen any appreciable increase in violence anywhere that we have withdrawn our forces.
And in fact, we find that it is a forcing function and, in some ways, it forces the Iraqis to sort of raise their game a little bit because the U.S. is not there to provide them intelligence, we are not there to provide them the logistics support. And we have seen as we move closer to a base closure, we see things starting to happen that, quite honestly, would have been nice if it had happened earlier.
An example I’ll use is, out on our combined checkpoints, again, they were trilateral: U.S., Kurd and Iraqi. And while we were there, we had generators -- and U.S. generators that we helped stand up, and we were working fuel and all that. And then, as the U.S. said, hey, we’re leaving, all of a sudden we started seeing all of these checkpoints are now being hard-wired into the grid and other things like that to improve their sustainability, saying, look, we have to take ownership of that.
So we really have focused this -- you have ownership of the security situation, you have ownership of the base.
And we have tried to do it in a very deliberate manner, in going over in a very deliberate way how they are going to conduct security. And there’s not a precipitous fall. We do it gradually, and then we kind of go back in an over watch mode. As I said, these 22 checkpoints we have come off of, each day we are generally out at one of them, or many of them, providing over watch, checking on things, seeing how things are going, kind of looking at the violence to see if it has, you know, risen at all and do we need to provide additional forces to it.
So we’re very cognizant about that. We’re always watching what happens after we leave an area. We have a lot of metrics we look at. And so far, we have not had -- there’s nothing that has given us concern across the board. As a matter of fact, attacks continue to drop off. So from the security point of view, I think we’ve been very pleased, I think, with their ability to stand up and not only control the base and equipment, but keep security under control here in the north.
Q: Quickly, I believe there was supposed to be 10,000 of the remaining U.S. forces withdrawn this month, by the end of September. Has that occurred, sir?
GEN. PERKINS: Are you -- the -- is the question 10,000 withdraw by the end of this month, or down to 10,000?
Q: Ten thousand of the remaining 45,000, I believe, were supposed to be out by the end of this month. Has that happened, to your knowledge, sir?
GEN. PERKINS: I think today, as we’re sitting here, we’re in the -- still in the mid-40,000s. We have a -- you know, again, a very deliberate glide path to get out of here. And all of our plans that we are working off of right now take us to getting all of our forces out of here by December.
Q: Got a question?
Q: I just want to follow that. General, this is Bob Burns again. I just -- I wanted to follow up on that point. When you refer to the mid-40,000s, of course, you were talking about the whole country. How many U.S. troops are in the north under your command right now? And did you say earlier that all of them will be gone by sometime in November? Is that the beginning of November, end of November? When will your division be disestablished in the north?
GEN. PERKINS: When we took over U.S. Division-North, we had about 10,000 soldiers. We are down to about 5,000 soldiers up here in the north. Fourth Infantry Division, which is currently commanding U.S. Division-North -- we will be out of here by the end of October. There will still be some forces here in the north, and they will be under the command and control of U.S. Forces-Iraq down in Baghdad. So our presence, 4th Infantry Division, will come to an end at the end of October, and then there’ll be a small number of remaining forces that are here in the north that will be pulled out by the end of December.
Q: Less than a thousand?
GEN. PERKINS: Say again the last question?
Q: Once the 4th ID is gone, would there be less than a thousand U.S. forces then in the north?
GEN. PERKINS: It -- you know, there are still some ongoing negotiations as to, you know, final disposition of forces and footprints here in Iraq. So that is something -- is the U.S. government and the Iraqi government have ongoing negotiations right now. They are working through all of those things. But it’ll be significantly less than it is right now.
Q: Thank you.
Q: Hi, General. This is Courtney Kube from NBC News. I have two quick questions.
The first, just on the suicide bombing in Kirkuk this morning or today, do you have any early assessment on who was behind that? And was there any U.S. involvement in the aftermath and in any kind of the investigation? Was there any U.S. involvement at all? And then second, in your earlier questions with Bob you painted a pretty optimistic picture of this situation in the disputed border area at this point. After the U.S. is completely out -- as it stands right now, out of Iraq by the end of this year -- are you confident that that situation there will not deteriorate into violence and even potentially into a civil war? Can you say at this point you’re confident that won’t happen?
GEN. PERKINS: OK, I’ll take your first question. The suicide bombing -- I’m assuming you’re talking about the suicide car bomb in Kirkuk. Is that the one?
Q: Yes. (Laughter.)
GEN. PERKINS: I didn’t hear your answer, but I’ll assume that’s the one you’re talking about.
OK, yeah, in fact, I happened -- I was in Kirkuk, at our base there, when that occurred. It -- preliminary reports looked like it was a suicide vehicle explosion. So that’s a very typical al-Qaida signature. We have not had a suicide vehicle explosion in Kirkuk this year, I don’t think. I mean, so it has been a while since we have had one. It occurred in the downtown area. It looks like it was targeting some Iraqi police that were there, a police patrol going on. And it targeted -- that which we are seeing is a typical target here in the north is against Iraqi security forces or government of Iraq forces. So there were no U.S. people targeted in that attack or involved.
After the attack occurred, we have elements that work closely with the security forces in Kirkuk, specifically the police.
And they did assist the police in putting an outer cordon around there. And we provided some aerial observation to look for possibly any people involved with that. So our involvement in that pretty much was helping the Iraqi police coordinate it out and cordon, as well as provide some aerial observation. But we’re not directly involved down at the site of the explosion, and we’re not part of the target. So I think hopefully that clarifies that.
The second one is the disputed area of the civil war things. I take nothing for granted here in this part of the world -- obviously a very volatile history in Iraq, and specifically the Arab-Kurd issue goes back centuries.
What I am confident about is that on the ground where we have Peshmerga forces and Iraqi army forces working together, and we’ve brought them together to try to avoid an unplanned meeting engagement, I feel very confident that that will not be the spark which ignites a conflict. The issue -- the issues that become -- or the difficult issues tend to be solely political issues, and they are long-standing differences between Erbil and Baghdad on -- you know, as the name implies, disputed areas, boundary issues, hydrocarbon laws, revenue sharing, things like that.
And so if there is something which generates a conflict, my estimate is that it would be because of a political issue and that there is a political impasse. And as I tell folks, now in the disputed areas, now that we have a fairly, you know, elaborate combined security mechanism with combined coordination centers, with bilateral checkpoints and all that, we have taken out the chance of these random-chance military meetings so you don’t have a deliberate action.
I think what you would end up with -- as I say, if you have conflict there, it either starts at the political level or it is an over-reaction to a miscalculation to a bad rumor. And that is that you have these long-standing political, ethnic issues, they get inflamed by rhetoric by those that think it’s to their benefit to inflame that, so these bad rumors start. And if they don’t have a way to confirm or deny that it’s a true or untrue rumor, then you have a miscalculation. Somebody oversteps their bound to do something to that, and then somebody over-reacts to it on the other side and then it spirals out of control. That’s why what we focus on is trying to prevent that bad rumor so you don’t get a miscalculation followed by an over-reaction.
And the way we do away with the bad rumors is we bring both sides together on the ground. So if somebody says, hey, this Peshmerga unit is out of sector or this Iraqi army unit is out of sector, we say, go together, look at it together, get the same picture, and then come back and tell your bosses. So again, if we can get them to see each other through the same lens and we can get rid of this bad rumor and over-reaction, I think that’s the key to preventing a civil war.
Q: Good morning, sir. Karen Parrish with American Forces Press Service.
You talked about the sustainability of -- sustaining capabilities through the Iraqi forces, and you talked about transferring to their own intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets. How do you assess the capability of those assets now to both internal and external security needs?
GEN. PERKINS: Yeah, well they -- again, like most things here this last year, they have improved greatly.
And what I found was that the biggest -- the piece that lacked the most in this wasn’t necessarily the technical platform that they were using; it was the education of their security forces on how to use it and integrate it into their operations.
And quite honestly, there was also -- I think there’s a predisposition to not want to share intelligence based on, you know, the way the previous regime operated, because intelligence was power, and if I share intelligence, then I’m disadvantaging myself. So that was really the greater boundary we had to break rather than a technical one.
The -- we had sent their -- you know, their operators to school. They had the technical background. They had some of these technical platforms. What they lacked was the understanding of how to use it, and then the cultural as well as the just understanding of how you fuse that. And so that’s what we had to focus on.
Once we could sort of get them to break down the barriers of sharing intelligence and understanding that if you access it, you can then conduct your operations based on that and synchronize others, then it became sort of a self-sustaining cycle because then they would ask for it, which means the higher headquarters had to provide it, which means they had to train people for it, et cetera, like that.
So the biggest problem I got when I first got here is that they did not generate a demand signal for it. They weren’t asking for their own platforms because they didn’t even know they had them. And so once we told them that they had them, once we showed them how to ask for them, then that became self-sustaining because they generated a demand signal which then had to be met by their institution.
Q: Hi, General. Jon Harper with the Asahi Shimbun.
Has the violence in Syria caused any problems in your area in terms of refugees or other issues? And also, have you seen any attacks involving Iranian weapons or other Iranian assistance recently?
GEN. PERKINS: The first question on Syria, it really has not had a direct impact yet here in northern Iraq. We have not seen large numbers of refugees or anything like that come across the border. So it hasn’t had a direct impact. We’ve tried to -- and assess whether there’s an impact on foreign fighters, has it cut down on the supply, has it increased the supply. Quite honestly, I have anecdotal evidence either way, but it’s not dramatic enough where you can even notice it. So, so far, while there’s great concern about what’s going on in Syria, it hasn’t translated yet immediately to an on-the-ground effect here in the north.
With regards to the Iranian-backed attacks, obviously, throughout Iraq there have been multiple Iranian-backed attacks or Iranian-backed militias. The majority of them historically have occurred in the south, in Baghdad. The areas where I see them up here in the north historically have been in Diyala province, because I kind of have a Sunni-Shia divide there. And at the beginning of the year, we were seeing Iranian-type munitions such as our explosively formed penetrators and things like that, which come across the border from Iran. And so we have worked with Iraqi security forces to put pressure on those networks.
Recently, there has been a reduction in the number of attacks that we attribute to Iranian-backed militias. But, again, we know that capacity is there, so we keep those pressures on those networks. But, again, there’s -- historically, most of those occur in the Baghdad and southern part of Iraq.
Q: Hi, General, Justin Fishel with Fox News. Assuming everything goes to plan and you have zero U.S. combat troops in Iraq at the end of 2011-the start of 2012, how many security contractors are going to be in Iraq in 2012?
GEN. PERKINS: You know that -- I really don’t have that information because I’m not involved in that planning aspect of it. What you’ll have here as far as U.S. organizations is you’ll obviously have a very robust Department of State presence, as we do right now, and then you’ll have the Office of Security Cooperation Iraq, which is, you know, involved in bringing over weapons systems, working with a lot of their institutions, doing train the trainer and fielding these weapons systems. So those are the primary organizations that’ll be here in. And so they would have a much better feel for what their overhead and contractor numbers are.
Q: How many security contractors would you like to see just, you know, to do those operations you speak of and to have a sort of stabilization presence since there will be no U.S. troops?
GEN. PERKINS: Well, I mean, if they’re security contractors, what they are doing is providing security for the U.S. people here. They are not -- they are not running the disputed territory. They’re not providing security for Iraq. What they are doing is securing the operations of the U.S. activities going on. So it’s, as I understood the question, I don’t really see security contractors providing security for Iraqis. And so it really depends upon what our footprint is in providing security for our folks to operate safely here in Iraq.
MODERATOR: All right, sir, it looks like we’ve got all the questions answered on this end. We genuinely appreciate your time on that end; I know it’s late.
And with that, if you’ve got any closing remarks, sir, we’d turn it back over to you.
GEN. PERKINS: Well, again, I just thank you all for taking the time out today to come here and have a dialogue, get an update of what’s going on. There were a lot of good, pressing questions. And you asked the hard things that we are working with. I can assure you that as we leave out of here -- as I said, this is the fourth rotation of the 4th Infantry Division, and there are people here in the division that have been here with each rotation -- that our nation has invested a lot of treasure, both human and financial, into our experience here in Iraq. And there’s nobody else that wants this more to be successful than myself and the great soldiers here in U.S. Division-North. And I will tell you they are going to sprint over the finish line, every last one of them.
And in fact, unfortunately, even today we had a soldier make the ultimate sacrifice as he was getting ready to go out on operations as they received some indirect fire. So the problems are not solved here in Iraq. They are -- and they are not to be glossed over. But there have been significant improvements. And in each day we hand more and more of the responsibility off to the Iraqis, which, in the vast majority of cases, they are grabbing hold of and running with it. Quite honestly, in the long term it is going to be, as it is to most democracies in the world -- it is up to the political leadership to make this thing work and do the kind of tough work, selfless service, make those hard decisions that are for the benefit of their country to make sure that this is a viable democracy.
And as I and the other soldiers leave out of here, we, the American soldier, the American military men and women in our nation, have given the people of Iraq a huge gift. We have given them freedom and liberty that they’ve never known, and we have given them the potential to have a democracy in this part of the world of where it would be a unique institution.
And our desire -- but that does not come free. That never comes free anywhere in the history of the world. And so we -- as we have given them freedom and liberty, we as a nation -- as the Iraqi people -- have paid a great price for that with thousands of lives lost.
So as we leave out of here, our desire is that they take this gift that we have given them and they turn it into something worth the price that we have paid for it. So again, on behalf of the servicemen and women over here, thanks for telling their story. Thanks for taking an interest in what’s going on here. And you can be very proud of them that they are going to leave a great legacy here and, again, they are not going to give up until the last day they are here as we sprint across the finish line.
Again, thanks a lot for taking the time today.
MODERATOR: General Perkins, we thank you, and have a good evening.
GEN. PERKINS: Thank you.