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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Abizaid Speaks on Operation Iron Hammer

Aired November 13, 2003 - 11:03   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Right now we go live to Tampa, Florida. General John Abizaid, commander of the Central Command.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID, CMDR., U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: You know, this is a very tough battle that we're engaged in. It's tough. A lot of people have lost their lives. A lot of very difficult soldiering has to go on there to make Iraq a more stable and a more prosperous location.

And so our condolences go out to them and they go out to the other members of the coalition who have also given their lives in this great endeavor.

And, of course, to our great soldiers, our young, young wonderful soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines that are out there, our condolences to them that have given casualties in both killed and wounded to our nation for a very, very important endeavor.

If I can have the first slide, please.

As you see here, CENTCOM is in the center of the global war on terror. This is a depiction of CENTCOM's area of operations.

You can see from Pakistan to Egypt, this area has been plagued with terrorist attacks. Since 1996, you see the number of terrorist attacks that have been inflicted upon us by the enemy.

It goes without saying that this area of operations will remain one of great conflict with international terrorists in the years to come. There is no simple solution to the battle that we fight.

Clearly, it is not just the United States and its Western allies that fight this battle.

ABIZAID: This battle is being fought in Pakistan. It's being fought in Afghanistan. It's being fought in Iraq and Saudi Arabia and Yemen. It's being fought throughout the area. And as many Americans that get killed in this battle, you can also see that there are a number of Muslims that are killed in the battle as well.

The terrorist enemy will inflict casualties just for the sake of inflicting casualties.

Certainly the battles in Iraq and Afghanistan are important to us. American forces are conducting stability operations there that are among the most important stability operations ever conducted by our armed forces.

Yet we cannot forget that the Pakistani armed forces, the Saudi armed forces, the Yemeni armed forces, the Kenyan armed forces fight this battle as well.

What we are trying to achieve is to allow moderation to grow up in an area that is not necessarily noted for moderation. We are fighting a battle against the extremists to allow a better future, not only for our children, but for all the children of this region.

It's a tough battle; one that will not be won easily, one that will require a lot of sacrifice, but one that must be seen in its global proportion and not just in Iraq or Afghanistan alone.

Next slide.

Now let's talk about Afghanistan for a few minutes, just to understand that we're also fighting in Afghanistan.

You see here areas where Taliban and al Qaeda forces operate against the coalition.

In Afghanistan, we've got about 11,000 coalition forces. They're operating throughout the country. We've got about 5,000 forces in ISAF that are under NATO control. And we've got a couple of thousand coalition forces that are fighting with us in addition to the U.S. forces that are operating there. Afghan armed forces of the national government are also working with us as are friendly Afghan militias.

It is a very difficult operating environment, yet one in which we have been militarily very successful.

Next slide.

You see here the positioning of our forces. And it is important to note that this is an international effort as well.

You see here on the slide a Romanian battalion, which is the largest of the contingents of the coalition that is conducting combat operations primarily along the Pakistani/Afghanistan border area.

ABIZAID: You have about a division's worth of American forces, a large special operations contingent.

And if you look closely at this map you'll see, in red, towns such as Bahmian (ph), Kunduz, Mazar-e-Sharif, Gardez, Kandahar, et cetera -- these are locations where provisional reconstruction teams are in very small numbers of military forces and very small numbers of civil military affairs folks working to extend the influence of the central government.

It's a multinational effort. You see it in Kunduz with currently the U.S. being in charge there, soon going over to Germany. Mazar-e- Sharif belonging to the United Kingdom, Bahmian (ph) to New Zealand and throughout the area of the rest of the PRTs under American control.

We think that this combination of military action along the border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, coupled with robust military action that the Pakistani government is taking within its own territory, and tied to the very important efforts of the provisional reconstruction teams, the building of the Afghan national army and a very clear process for governance, as enshrined in the Bonn process, will allow us to be successful in Afghanistan.

It's very important for folks to know that there are combat operations in Afghanistan that go on daily that are every bit as much and every bit as difficult as those that go on in Iraq. We've taken casualties there, we will continue to take casualties there, yet we take the fight to the enemy day after day.

We've got young soldiers right now operating up in the mountains of southeastern Afghanistan at elevations well over 7,000, 8,000 feet. They're doing a terrific job. They'll continue to do a terrific job.

I've visited them there recently. They're extremely confident about their ability to fight and destroy the al Qaeda enemy; the same enemy that attacked us in New York back on 9/11.

Our troops are doing well. They know their enemy. They will continue to close with and destroy the enemy while reconstruction takes place in while the Afghan national government gradually expands its influence in a territory that is very, very difficult to control.

Next slide.

You see here in Iraq in the shaded ares -- the areas that we're having the most difficulty with various resistance groups. And I'd like to characterize the enemy so that we can get a feel for what is happening there with regard to enemy forces.

The clear and most dangerous enemy to us at the present time are the former regime loyalists, the Baathist cells that operate in the areas, primarily of Baghdad, Fallujah, Tikrit, Mosul, Kirkuk, and conduct operations against us primarily through the use improvised explosive devices, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and very infrequently but sometimes also small arms fire.

ABIZAID: I would say that this group of Baathists by far represents the greatest threat to peace and stability. And it is very important for us to close with that enemy, to discover their cellular structure, to unravel it and to removal that threat from moderation emerging in the Iraqi government.

The extremists are those that can fill a large number of different groupings. They represent religious extremists. They represent nationalist extremists that may or may not have been associated with the Baathists, yet nevertheless desire to fight the coalition and to ensure that no moderate Iraqi government emerges.

There are a large number of criminals that are hired by the Baathists and the extremists to do their dirty work. As a matter of fact, in most of the cases of direct fire engagements that our troops have, they find very young, out-of-work young men that have been paid to attack our forces.

And it is very important that as we progress militarily we also progress politically and economically so as to get these young men -- these angry young men off the streets.

There are a small yet important and well-organized group of foreign fighters, some of whom have been operating in Iraq for a long time, many of whom are infiltrating across various borders.

I would point out to you that the border areas of Iraq are as long as the U.S./Mexican border areas, and they are difficult to secure. Yet, on the other hand, we have had good success recently in interdicting many of these foreign fighters.

And although we have had very good cooperation from the Shia community in the south, it is also true that there are some anti- coalition Shia movements that also aim to destabilize any moderate government that would form in Baghdad.

So in all, I would say that the force of people actively armed and operating against us does not exceed 5,000.

Now, people will say, "Well, that's a very small number," but when you understand that they're organized in cellular structure, that they have a brutal and determined cadre, that they know how to operate covertly, they have access to a lot of money and a lot of ammunition, you'll understand how dangerous they are.

ABIZAID: Next slide.

Now, how are we set to deal with these forces? You can see here in the south we have a United Kingdom division. We have a Polish division that has a Polish, a Spanish and a Ukrainian brigade as its major subordinate elements.

Up in the north, you have the 82nd Airborne Division operating in probably the most difficult area, which is the Ar Ramadi-Fallujah area. You have the 1st Armored Division operating in Baghdad, the 4th Infantry Division in and around Tikrit, and the 101st up in the Mosul area. Now, all of these forces total about 130,000 Americans and about 25,000 coalition. They are maintaining a good control of the military situation on the ground.

And I want to emphasize to people that there is no military threat in Iraq that can drive us out. We have the best-equipped, best-trained Army in the world in position in the toughest areas that we have to deal with.

The troops are confident. They're tough. They're capable. This week I visited every division commander, almost every brigade commander, many of the battalion commanders, and I saw a lot of the young captains and lieutenants that I worked with at West Point who are actually fighting the small-unit war that's necessary to win this conflict, and every single one of them tells me they're winning. They are winning. They're confident. They're capable. They know what they're doing. They are fighting a low-intensity conflict in some of the finest traditions of the armed forces of the United States. They've got it. They know what they're doing.

It's a tough atmosphere for them as well. We know it's tough. They take casualties. They inflict casualties. They conduct very robust offensive operations when they need to. And yet on the other hand, they know how to be compassionate with the people. They know the local situation in a way that I've never seen troops involved in an operation like this understand before.

We have got counter-guerrilla operations going on in Iraq. We've got counterinsurgency operations going on in Iraq. We've got counterterrorist operations going on in Iraq.

We have a lot of different military technical terms that we use to describe the enemy, but it's a low-intensity conflict, and it is in an isolated geographic area, primarily in the areas Ar Ramadi, Baghdad, Tikrit. And we have put a large number of U.S. forces in those areas to deal with the enemy.

Next slide.

Now, of course, it's not just a fight of Americans against Iraqis. It is unfortunate that we sometimes think that we are alone and without support in Iraq. We are not. In the vast majority of the country, people are working with us every day to make Iraq a more stable, more prosperous and a more democratic place.

ABIZAID: They work with our soldiers. They tell our soldiers about threats to their safety. They make sure that our soldiers understand the local customs and traditions. And they help us in a very, very important way.

And we're building Iraqi security forces from zero in May up to well over 100,000 today.

Now, let me just characterize these types of forces so that people understand how we're building them.

We have local militia. It's kind of like our National Guard, the British territorial forces. They're called Iraqi civil defense corps forces. They're currently at about 13,000 strength. They are a local militia of such. And they're projected to get up around 40,000 by mid-year.

We've got the border police and the border patrol about 4,000 strength now, moving up to 25,000.

We have Iraqi police services -- and most importantly, I would say Iraqi police services, up to around 62,000. And they'll move to 71,000.

We have facility protection forces that free our forces up from having to do static guard duties. They'll eventually be as high as 50,000.

And we have the new Iraqi army that's being formed that's currently at one battalion strength and it's going up to 35,000 strength.

We are not having problems recruiting these forces.

These forces are not as well-trained as American and coalition forces yet. We are training them. The police in particular need an awful lot of work. So while you see that there's more than 100,000 folks there working side by side with the coalition, it's also important for all of us to understand that these Iraqi forces will take some time to train.

Now, we will use our special forces to be with them. We will use our regular forces to be with them. We have a very robust element in the Coalition Provisional Authority that will help train police. And we intend to do our best to turn over security in a prudent manner, in a time schedule that won't be driven by political concerns, but with Iraqi capacity to be able to handle the security situation.

Next slide.

Now, for every one of the military operations that takes place in Iraq, there's 100 civil military operations going on. And I won't cover this slide in detail, other than to say each of those little yellow dots that you see there represents a U.S. or a coalition civil military affairs unit that's out in the villages working with the people day after day, doing great work, making their life better, working on schools, working on hospitals, helping people help themselves.

So in conclusion, and before I take any questions, let me just say that coalition forces are doing a great job in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our troops are confident. They're capable. They know how to deal with this particular situation, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan. And they will be successful. There is no doubt that we will succeed.

There is also no doubt that violence has increased in the past several weeks and it's increased substantially. Part of the reason is that the enemy has learned to adjust to our tactics, techniques and procedures. We have learned to adjust to his.

ABIZAID: Clearly, we need better intelligence at the regional and the national level to get the regional and the national Iraqi threats that represent some sort of leadership function that are directing the local threats.

Our soldiers' morale is good. Their reenlistment in all of the units that happen to be out there is higher than what I have normally seen in peacetime units throughout the United States Army.

They go on leave. They come back. They return to their units ready to fight, ready to do the job and confident of their success.

That's all I have to say, in terms of the formal presentation. Now let me take your questions.

QUESTION: General, you speak of these stability operations, I think, Iron Hammer is the term that has been...

ABIZAID: Right.

QUESTION: How do you get tougher and avoid driving people into the arms of these extremists and dissidents? How does that balance get affected, General?

ABIZAID: Well, there is a great balance that must be applied in military operations in Iraq.

I mean, clearly we must attack and destroy the enemy where we find them. And on the other hand, we have to be very, very mindful that the vast majority of the Iraqi population is thankful to have coalition forces there, and is looking forward to a better future.

Clearly we must have military operations that balance both the need to conduct very stringent and tough activities against the enemy, and at the same time be compassionate and protective of the innocent people in the areas in which we operate.

Over time, we'll turn over more and more responsibility to Iraqi security institutions. And over time, we will move our forces to the outskirts of the urban areas.

We'll do that when it's prudent. We've done it in some areas already, very successfully. You can see in Karbala and Najaf, for example, that Iraqis pretty much run the security situation there.

ABIZAID: And after all, this is really about Iraq for Iraqis. We are setting the conditions for them to take control of their own future and we'll do it in a prudent manner and we'll do it applying military force in a balanced and in a capable way.

QUESTION: Can you tell me what is your perception of the goals of the resistance forces fighting U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq? Is it a military victory, a public relations victory, an attempt to isolate the United States from international partners, maybe an attempt to undermine popular support between ordinary Iraqis or undermine U.S. public support? What are your thoughts on that?

ABIZAID: I actually think you answered your own question. The answer is yes. I mean, that is the goal of the enemy.

The goal of the enemy, though, is not to defeat us militarily because they don't have the wherewithal to defeat us militarily. The goal of the enemy is to break the will of the United States of America. It's clear, it's simple, it's straight-forward: break our will, make us leave before Iraq is ready to come out and be a member of the responsible community of nations.

That's their goal, that's what they're trying to do, and they won't succeed. QUESTION: In characterizing Paul Bremer's visit this week to Washington, the word you keep seeing in the news is "urgent"; that there is a sense of urgency within the White House because of the situation in Iraq. And I was wondering, do you feel that sense of urgency in Iraq and if not how would you characterize it?

ABIZAID: Do I feel a sense of urgency? Well, clearly I feel a sense of urgency with regard to the current military situation. I mean, we must move decisively against the Baathist cells that are operating against us. We must break into the terrorist cells that have conducted such terrible, yet effective attacks as against the Italians. And we've got to move very, very quickly to ensure that the borders are secure, and that the enemy is isolated from their source of money and ammunition.

ABIZAID: And there is a sense of urgency for doing that.

Yet when I talk to my two bosses -- the president of the United States and the secretary of defense -- I think that they clearly -- I know that they clearly understand that there is no timetable associated with getting this job done from a security perspective.

We'll be prudent in the way that we bring up Iraqi security institutions. We'll be very, very mindful of the way that we conduct our own operations. We will, over time, build up better intelligence capability, not only for our own forces through American intelligence sources, but also for Iraqi forces through Iraqi intelligence sources.

And a combination of that will allow us to break in and defeat this enemy, which is really one of the most brutal and despicable enemies we've ever faced.

QUESTION: The CIA has issued a report this week that says there's an increasing number of Iraqis who believe the U.S. military can be defeated in Iraq and are therefore throwing their support now behind these insurgents, whoever they may be. Did you detect that in your recent travels to Iraq?

And when you met with Sunni leaders in Fallujah, what were they telling you about this possible trend? And what advice did they give you on how to further embrace more Sunnis, include them on the takeoff, so to speak, and what kind of military operations should be conducted?

ABIZAID: Let me first talk about the meetings I had with Sunni leaders in not only Ar Ramadi, but also up in the Mosul area.

First of all, it's very important for people to understand that when we had these meetings, people came willingly and they came in a very open and a positive manner of spirit of cooperation that speaks very highly of the work that's been done in both areas by our local commanders and by the Coalition Provisional Authority.

It is clear that they all understand that they cannot militarily defeat the United States of America. ABIZAID: And I know that this CIA report or whatever it may be that theoretically was leaked to the media uses those terms, but any CIA person I have spoken to -- and I've spoken to all of them -- they also know that we can't be defeated militarily.

The people in the Sunni communities are pretty clear. They want an opportunity to be part of Iraq's future. To a certain extent, they feel somewhat disenfranchised. I wouldn't say that they feel completely alienated from the political process, but they want an opportunity to participate more fully.

Ambassador Bremer understands that. He's working very hard with the governing council in Iraq to ensure that moderate Sunni Arabs in the areas where we're having difficulty have an opportunity to participate fully in the reconstruction of Iraq.

They also want to participate in the security structures and in the security institutions. And we are more than ready to allow that to happen. We'll hire former army officers of the regular army. We will not, however, allow there to be people from the intelligence services or from some of the other criminal elements of the Saddam regime come forward and be part of that.

There is a good opportunity for these security institutions in the Sunni areas to become very robust very quickly, and we've had a great deal of cooperation from them in building these ICDC battalions, and they have fought with us. And the police forces in many of the towns are working very hard.

We sometimes forget that the second largest member of the coalition happens to be Iraqi security forces, and they have given a very great amount of casualties themselves to this endeavor.

So the Sunnis are working with us, especially at the local governing level, and at the level of provincial governors and provincial security leaders. It's clear that they also look for a process for reconciliation which is also on the agenda for the Coalition Provisional Authority and the governing council.

Clearly, all of Iraq's communities have got to move together to make Iraq a better future, but we've taken a Sunni community that very much was the leader in security institutions and in governing institutions, and we have taken a lot of that away from them. We've got to figure out how to include them. And I believe that we've got the leaders and Ambassador Bremer and the policymakers here in Washington and elsewhere that will move us in that direction.

QUESTION: You mentioned that at this point, with the situation in Iraq, there's no definitive time structure, that you're bringing moderation to a country that is lacking that moderation. With the White House calling for an accelerated handover of Iraq to its own leaders, how can you balance that with the uncertainties and the contingencies?

ABIZAID: Well, it's a great question. I think a lot of people misperceive what acceleration means. Acceleration of the security forces means that we believe very strongly that we want Iraqis to be in charge of the security apparatus of Iraq. And it will happen sooner or later, and it's our impression that we can, in a methodical and thoughtful way, build those security institutions that will defend a moderate and stable Iraqi government.

And it's very clear that we need to do this in a manner that gets a lot of Iraqis into that business quickly, because being able to have Iraqi police on the streets instead of American tanks and American infantrymen is exactly the way to go. People in Tampa wouldn't want to have American tanks in their streets any more than the people in Baghdad want to.

And what we are moving toward is Iraqi policing of Iraqi cities, Americans on the outskirts, Americans moving in conjunction with Iraqis to deal with security problems beyond their control. And I think that that is not only a good plan, but one that will ultimately lead us to success.

Again, I think people sometimes misinterpret political timetables for Iraqi governance and security to think that there's a rush to leave. We are not in a rush to leave. We will stay as long as we need to, to ensure that Iraq is secure, that the handover makes sense and that a moderate Iraqi government emerges. And we're very capable of doing that.

QUESTION: Knowing what you know now looking back, do you believe that Saddam Hussein before the war planned to fight this guerrilla war or insurgency effort or terrorist operation -- this low-intensity conflict, as you put it -- before the war? And do you believe that it was a plan of attack, his strategy after the regime fell?

ABIZAID: I know one of my subordinate commanders said that today, who also happens to be a personal friend of mine, and I respect his military judgment greatly. As a matter of fact, he's fighting a great fight in the toughest area.

But I think Saddam Hussein is one of the most incompetent military leaders in the history of the world, and to give him any credit to think that somehow or other he planned this is absolutely beyond my comprehension.

We do have resistance. It is organized. It is organizing, it's organizing better. But it's not being done by any great plan of Saddam Hussein. It's being done by people that realize that they have a lot to lose if Iraq emerges as a moderate and a stable nation.

QUESTION: What's your latest information about the status of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, and what is it going to take to capture them?

ABIZAID: Well, Saddam Hussein, I believe, is alive and moving around Iraq. Osama bin Laden, I believe, is alive and moving around the Afghanistan/Pakistan border area.

What it will take to find them is good intelligence, dedicated soldiers and the will to find them. And we will.

QUESTION: You talk about the need for urgency in the military sphere. What about urgency in the political sphere?

We're hearing from commanders in the field that they believe militarily they can contain and defeat the insurgency, but that the problems in Iraq cannot be resolved without progress in the political sphere.

Do you think that progress is being made fast enough? Do you think there needs to be an acceleration there, and if so -- I know this really isn't your field -- but if so, where do you think it's lacking and what needs to be done?

ABIZAID: Well, it really isn't my place to comment on political action, either in Iraq or at home.

Suffice it to say that this battle cannot be won by military efforts alone. It is a very complex interaction of military, diplomatic, political and economic, international and national power that must be synchronized and moved together to achieve a moderate Iraqi state.

And it also has to be synchronized and moved together with the desires of the Iraqi Governing Council and with the desires of the Iraqi people.

ABIZAID: This is a very, very difficult thing to do. This country has been under one of the worst and most brutal dictatorships in the history of mankind for an awful long time. And these people don't yet understand the direction that they need to move in terms of building their own government. And it'll take some time.

They will do it and they are very talented and capable people. They're very brave and courageous people. And they have the chance for building one of the most prosperous and the most dynamic nations in the region. I am very confident of the Iraqi peoples ability to do this.

And so, governance and military activity will move together. I have enormous confidence in the leadership of Ambassador Bremer. He knows what he's doing. He will get this working in a way that is beneficial not only for the Iraqi people but for the United States and our allies throughout the region.

I think he's got a good plan. It's got to be modified like every plan from time to time. Our military plan has to be modified. And we owe him a more secure environment so that he can get his work done.

But we can give it to him. It'll require a lot more tough military work, a lot more tough military sacrifice but it can be done. And it will be done.

QUESTION: Sir, a couple of times you mentioned about intelligence and needing to get better intelligence there to help out against the insurgency, but yet we know that in many cases some Iraqis just don't trust the U.S. coalition. So how do you work that, as it were, to get their trust?

ABIZAID: Well, I talk to the Iraqis all the time. You'd be surprised how many of them trust us. They've got a lot of faith. They've got a lot of hope and they know that together we can help them emerge from a terrible past into a promising future. They also know it can't be done without cost and sacrifice.

And this cost and sacrifice, by the way, is mutual. It's Iraqis and Americans and coalition forces working together, making the sacrifice, persevering, ensuring that we do the job right, not be rushed by political circumstances, but being mindful of the need to do the job in a capable, mature and proper manner.

KAGAN: We've been listening to General John Abizaid, the commander of U.S. Central Command. He's in Tampa taking questions from reporters, both in Tampa and also at the Pentagon, talking about the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Iraq, talking about the violence that has increased substantially over the last several weeks, and what the U.S. military is trying to do to counter that. Also in Afghanistan, pointing out that the operations carried out there, every bit as difficult and dangerous as what is taking place in Iraq.

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