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Abizaid, Sanchez Press Briefing

Aired April 12, 2004 - 10:56   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Want to take our viewers now to a news conference. It's a spilt news conference. We have General John Abizaid, General Sanchez in Baghdad. The reporters are at the Pentagon asking questions. Let's listen in.
GEN. JOHN ABIZAID, COMBATANT COMMANDER, CENTRAL COMMAND: Good morning, everybody. John Abizaid here in Baghdad with Rick Sanchez. I've been here visiting General Sanchez and the troops in Iraq and have had the opportunity to talk to a lot of the Iraqi leadership, and also with Ambassador Bremer about the current security situation.

Certainly, it's been a tough week of fighting, and I think rather than making a lengthy statement, General Sanchez and I are both primed and ready to take your questions.

QUESTION: Could I ask you to address several points on your thinking about the current status of Iraqi security forces, their willingness, capability to fight, why one Iraqi army battalion did not turn up in Fallujah? What percentage of the force essentially they make up in fighting this insurgency? How much are Iraqi forces participating?

ABIZAID: I think I got most of your question. You're a bit broken up over the link here, but I think the gist of the question is how are the Iraqi security forces doing.

Well, the fact of the matter is that some of them did very well and some of them did not. And in the south, a number of units, both in the police force and also in the ICDC, did not stand up to the intimidators of the forces of Sadr's militia, and that was a great disappointment to us.

In other places, such as in and around Fallujah, we've had good, strong performances by several units, and we're satisfied with that.

With regard to the new Iraqi army, I think we can look for better performance in the future once we get a well-established Iraqi chain of command.

ABIZAID: The truth of the matter is that until we get well- formed Iraqi chains of command, all the way in the police service, from the minister of interior, to the lowest patrolman on the beat in whatever city it may be, and the same for the army, from private to minister of defense, that it's going to be tough to get them to perform at the level we want.

The good news is we're working on those chains of command, and I'm confident that with work on our part and work on their part, we'll have better performance.


ABIZAID: Please.

SANCHEZ: I think for some time now, we have been stating that it was going to take us some time to stand up credible and capable Iraqi security forces that would be able to assume the internal and external security missions in the country.

Clearly, what we faced here in the last week to 10 days is a challenge that we've got to confront directly. We're in the process of doing that, but it's still going to take us a significant amount of time to ensure that they are properly equipped, properly trained and credible and capable with their countrymen to bring us security and stability.

QUESTION: Could you be more specific? You talk about the chain of command. Are you seeing problems with vetting, with equipment, with training, with loyalties? Could you be more specific?

And also, General Abizaid, you estimated there were about 5,000 opposition fighters. Are there more today, fewer today?

ABIZAID: Well, I'll take your last question first. And with regard to the numbers, I think that you have to be careful about saying how many numbers of people are doing what at any particular time in Iraq.

For example, with regard to Muqtada Sadr's militia, I mean, all of a sudden you have a spike, you get certain people that get enthusiastic and they join him for a short period of time, then they go away.

So under the current circumstances, I'd say my estimate of about what it was back in November is not much different from what I'd say today. But it's a very imprecise thing when you deal with insurgency and counterinsurgency operations.

With regard to the armed forces, the ICDC, the police and the other security services, again, it's like General Sanchez said, there have been difficulties with equipping. There have been some difficulties with getting as many people trained as quickly as we'd like to get them trained.

But most importantly, it takes a long time to take security institutions from zero up to a level of about 200,000 and expect them to come together and gel the way that they should.

We've got a pretty robust plan of putting special operating forces people with those units, and we think that'll help them quite a bit.

QUESTION: General Abizaid, could you specifically say to us what you have asked for as far as capability with force strength, first of all?

And secondly, can we straighten out exactly how many Americans are unaccounted for at this hour?

ABIZAID: Well, in terms of capability, what I've asked for is essentially to have a strong mobile combat arms capability. That's about probably two brigades worth of combat power, if not more. We're working the details with the joint staff as far as the sourcing is concerned. I really don't have the precise answer as to who and how that'll be filled right now.

QUESTION: Yes, the other part of the question was with respect to Americans being held.

SANCHEZ: If I may, we've got two American soldiers that are unaccounted for at this point. And we also have seven KBR employees that are also unaccounted for.

STAFF: They would like clarification on the number, seven or several did you say?

SANCHEZ: No, I said seven.

QUESTION: Back on this chain-of-command business, a little bit, in terms of the cease-fire, whatever you are calling it in Fallujah, was that negotiated, forced upon the U.S. military by the governing council?

And what happens when the keys are turned over on June 30th and there's an interim government and the government -- even though the Iraqi troops would be under this unified command, if the Iraqi interim government says, "No, we don't want Iraqis fighting in that region," how do you resolve that situation?

QUESTION: And just one more question, about the Iraqi forces over the last couple of weeks. Is there evidence of any defections from the Iraqi security forces to the insurgency or to the militias?

ABIZAID: Well, with regard to defections of the Iraqi security forces, I mean, clearly we know that some of the police did not stay with their posts and that in some cases, because we've seen films of policeman with Sadr's militia in particular, that there were some defections.

I think these numbers are not large but they are troubling to us, and clearly we've got to work on the Iraqi security forces.

But look, I think we all need to understand that the solution to Iraq's security problems does not lay with the United States armed forces. It's with the Iraqis themselves. And it's just so important to be patient, to be very, very innovative about the way that we build these institutions, and to ultimately know that they must be led by Iraqis.

There are many Iraqis that have paid the ultimate sacrifice in these fights. And we're extremely proud of the way that many of them have fought. So we should not discount the Iraqi security services. They will become the bulwark against terrorism and anti-democratic forces of this country because that's what people want them to be.

QUESTION: And the governing council role in that?

SANCHEZ: On the request of the governing council, we initiated a freeze to offensive operations. We suspended our offensive operations initially to allow some discussions to occur and for some humanitarian assistance provided by the Iraqi government to get into the city of Fallujah to help the noncombatants.

After an initial period of discussions, we then implemented a unilateral cease-fire with coordination through those governing council members.

SANCHEZ: And to this afternoon that appears to be holding. It's tenuous. And we have -- over the course of the last two days have continued to take some attacks in there, but we have responded appropriately. Today it seems a little bit better.

ABIZAID: To answer the question, if we were forced to do this, the answer certainly is no.

QUESTION: On the situation in Fallujah, General Abizaid, could you tell us what the key demand is?

General Sanchez, you called the peace tenuous in Fallujah. What are key U.S. demands to continue that peace and make that a viable lasting cease-fire?

SANCHEZ: I'm sorry, you're breaking up so much I didn't understand your question.

QUESTION: Again, in Fallujah, you said it was a tenuous peace. Could you elaborate on that and talk about key U.S. and Iraqi Governing Council demands? What will make that into a lasting peace?

SANCHEZ: The part that is tenuous is that we are continuing to get attacks from the insurgents that are in the city. As I stated, we suspended our offensive operations to allow these discussions to go forward.

And I must add that these are just initial discussions. We are not negotiating at this point until we achieve some confidence building and a period of stability. Then we would consider going into significant negotiations to end this battle.

But at this point we have had continued attacks by the insurgents, up until about eight to 12 hours ago.

ABIZAID: I would like to add about the Fallujah situation, I was just out there talking to the Marines a couple of days ago. The Marines have been doing a great job in conduct of the military operations. They've been very precise. They have attempted to protect civilians to the best of their ability. The Arab press, in particular Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, are portraying their actions as purposely targeting civilians, and we absolutely do not do that, and I think everybody knows that. It is always interesting to me how Al Jazeera manages to be at the scene of the crime whenever a hostage shows up or some other problem happens to be there.

ABIZAID: So they have not been truthful in their reporting. They haven't been accurate. And it is absolutely clear that American forces are doing their very best to protect civilians and at the same time get at the military targets there.

QUESTION: Can you offer any details about when you're planning to know which forces specifically you're asking for? And will you ask for them for a certain period of time, or will it be more open-ended?

ABIZAID: Well, again, we apologize. There's a lot of breaking up on this link. But I think you're asking about the issue of what force is going to stay and for how long.

I don't want to get into the issue of the specific unit. I think it's not useful for me to do that. I think all of us, especially those of you that are in Europe, understand that we've already committed forces outside of the 1st Armored Division's normal area down into the south, into the Al Kut area. And it's logical to assume that there will be a delay in the arrival of some of those forces to home.

As far as what comes next and how long, I don't want to get into that.

QUESTION: I was wondering if you could give us a bit of an update, current situation, with Muqtada Sadr and his militia, and give us an idea of where things are going to go with them.

SANCHEZ: Sure. The situation down in the south, the area that was being terrorized by Muqtada al-Sadr over the course of the last few days, is now stabilized. We are clearly in control of Al Kut which, as you know, had been controlled by his gang for some time -- for about a day and a half before we maneuvered 1st Armored Division forces down there. That is now completely under our control with Muqtada elements gone.

At Nasiriya we have re-established control down there and we have great cooperation in both of the cities from the moderate Shi'a. And they were glad to get rid of that element that was terrorizing them.

In the Hillah area, also, that is now stabilized, and getting great cooperation from the people down there.

The area that still is under the control of Muqtada al-Sadr is Najaf and some presence in Karbala. Najaf, as we all know, is a holy city with a holy shrine there. And we are respecting the fact that there was a religious celebration ongoing. We have maneuvered forces down into the vicinity of Najaf to ensure that we are prepared to conduct offensive operations to eliminate the final elements of Muqtada al-Sadr influence down there.

ABIZAID: I'd just like to add on the situation down in the south, that Muqtada Sadr is isolating himself. This was not by any stretch of the imagination a Shi'a uprising. And it's a combination of some military action on our part but probably much more importantly, very, very important Shi'a political action that's isolating him and showing people out there that a person such as Muqtada Sadr, who is anti-democratic and attacks the people of Iraq and their institutions, won't be tolerated.

And we've had very good relationship with the Shi'a population in the south. We aim to continue that. But the Shi'a population down there is working very hard to isolate him.

QUESTION: Could you give us a little bit more detail about the disappearance of the seven KBR employees? Do we know if they disappeared following the same attack near the Baghdad airport? And do we know at this point if they have been kidnapped?

ABIZAID: I'm sorry, if General Sanchez understood he can answer. But I couldn't understand any of that. If you could try a different microphone or try again.

STAFF: Let me try it from this microphone. The question has to do with the seven KBR employees and if you can provide any more information on them and whether or not you believe that they are being held captive.

ABIZAID: No, at this time I couldn't provide you any more information than that.

QUESTION: Could I just press a little further? Is this something very recent? Did it happen today, did it happen yesterday, the seven KBR employees?

QUESTION: And also, the two soldiers unaccounted for, was that from the convoy that was ambushed the other day?

SANCHEZ: Yes, that's a result of the convoy that was attacked a couple of days ago.

QUESTION: KBR employees, can you tell us whether that was in the last couple of days? What area in Iraq? Did they simply disappear and are unaccounted for?

SANCHEZ: It was as a result of the attack on the convoy in the Abu Ghraib area two days ago.

QUESTION: Generals, is it absolutely essential that Muqtada al- Sadr be captured or killed? Do you know exactly where he is? And is there any concern that he could escape and foment dissent and violence from some other location?

SANCHEZ: Was the question about Zarqawi?

STAFF: The question was about Sadr and whether or not he must be killed or captured, and whether or not there's concern about him fleeing the country and causing problems from outside the country.

ABIZAID: Well, clearly, it is the intent of the governing council to bring Sadr to justice. How they go about doing that I think will probably end up being a uniquely Iraqi solution. But I believe that they are moving in that direction themselves. We're applying the military force necessary to assist in that regard, as you might imagine.

QUESTION: Could you describe a little more about the tactics that the U.S. military has been using in Fallujah? How do you go about separating who is an insurgent from who is part of the general population? And is it a matter of you are, sort of, waiting for them to fire first, or are you going in and taking a more aggressive stance?

SANCHEZ: The tactics being used in Fallujah are fairly straightforward. We have been attacking to secure the city of Fallujah. We're running into active resistance. It is very clear where we're taking fire from. And where we're taking fire from we're applying the appropriate proportionate combat power to eliminate that resistance.

We are being very deliberate and precise in the application of that combat power to prevent any wounding or injuring of noncombatants in the area.

QUESTION: I have a question for General Abizaid. Regarding the further development of Iraqi security forces, is there anything that you are presently doing or going to do to intensify the training, such as sending Iraqi recruits into other countries to speed up this process?

And also, has the recruiting effort suffered at all in recent weeks or days as a result of developments in Iraq?

ABIZAID: Well, I'll have to let General Sanchez answer the question about the recruiting effort.

But as to whether or not we're going to speed up, intensify or otherwise modify the program that we have with regard to Iraqi security forces, the answer is we are taking very hard look at it and we are going to make some changes because we want to understand what we must do better.

Clearly there's things that we have to do better with the police. Clearly there are things we have to do better with some specific units. Some of it has to do with leadership. Some of it has to do with vetting. Some of it has do with training. But most of it has to do with time and confidence, which is what we're going to have to work on the most.

SANCHEZ: What I'll add to that is we had increased just recently, within the last 30 days, our effort at improving the facilities within the country, to increase the throughput for both the new Iraqi army and the police forces. And that infrastructure was to be in place in about another 30 days. We had also gone on an accelerated contracting effort to ensure that we had all of the equipment expedited that we had been having challenges in getting into the country. So that is all now in place as of this last week.

What we have had to do, obviously, because of the challenges that pose themselves now, is to go back and reassess some of the training strategies that we've been employing, clearly look at the leadership development and training that has been put into place.

But more importantly, I think, we've got to make sure that we are mentoring and training these security forces after they have gone through their initial training and give them the mentorship and the supervision necessary for them to be credible and capable once they're fielded.

QUESTION: I want to follow up on that question. Is the adequate training and restoring credibility of the Iraqi security forces, is that becoming a pacing factor now in terms of whether you'll be able to turn over authority on June 30th? Question one.

Question two, General Abizaid, could you put a sharper point on the number of troops you're going to be asking for? You talked about a strong mobile combat capability of about two brigades. Do you envision keeping the roughly 135,000 troops there for the foreseeable future?

ABIZAID: Well, the foreseeable future is pretty hard to predict, especially in a place like Iraq. So I wouldn't want to make any predictions about how long anybody or anything is going to stick around in Iraq or how long we're going to need the additional capability.

As far as the Iraqi security forces are concerned, the ultimate point to which this country must move is Iraqi security by Iraqis. Everyone knows that.

ABIZAID: All day today, General Sanchez and I have been talking with responsible members of the Iraqi Governing Council, members of various security organizations and each and every one of them is absolutely committed to a better future for Iraq and for forces that are capable and will defend their newfound freedoms.

The insurgents and the anti-democratic groups that we're fighting against are ruthless. They are intimidators. And we simply have got to establish the facts around here, that the culture of intimidation won't be stood for by coalition forces or by the emerging Iraqi security forces.

As far as the question on whether the challenges that we now face with Iraqi security forces and the impact on the transfer of authority, no, that's not going to have an impact. I think my position, repeatedly stated over the past few months, is that beyond 1 July we would still have responsibility for continuing to train Iraqi security forces in this country because they would not be able to conduct the business of providing internal or external security in this country.

We have a challenge ahead of us in terms of continuing to provide that capacity, and we've always known that. So, no, that does not have an impact on the transfer of authority.

It's also very clear that we've got to get more senior Iraqis involved -- former military types involved in the security forces. In the next couple of days you'll see a large number of senior officers being appointed to key positions in the ministry of defense and the Iraqi joint staff and in Iraqi field commands. And General Sanchez and I are very much involved in the vetting and placing of these officers. I can tell the competition for these positions have been fierce.

QUESTION: I'd like to try the numbers question again: Roughly how many numbers are you asking for, two brigades you mentioned of a strong mobile combat capability?

ABIZAID: Well, I really don't want to get into specific numbers. They are never helpful. I would say about a two-brigade combat capability, that's strong and mobile, and other than that, that's about all I want to say.

ABIZAID: I'm very satisfied with our current posture right now.

QUESTION: General Abizaid, I wanted to ask you if you could clarify your answer about Muqtada al-Sadr. It wasn't clear to me whether U.S. forces are trying to capture him or arrest him on behalf of the Iraqi Governing Council or if you know where he is.

ABIZAID: The mission of the U.S. forces is to kill or capture Muqtada al-Sadr. That's our mission.

And as to our knowing where he is, it would be inappropriate for me to talk about the level of knowledge that we have on his whereabouts at this point.

QUESTION: Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said last week that Iran is meddling in the situation inside Iraq. General Abizaid, can you tell us how Iran is playing a factor in the current situation on the ground? And have you taken any action along the border that may have involved Iranians?

ABIZAID: Well, we haven't taken any action recently on the border that had to do with any specific Iranian activity. But clearly there are indications from intelligence folks that there are some Iranian activities going on that are unhelpful, as the secretary put it. He's absolutely right. And there's also unhelpful actions coming from Syria.

But on the other hand, with regard to the Iranians, there are elements within Iran that are urging patience and calm, and trying to limit the influence of Sadr.

So it's a complicated situation, but what we need is all of the nations around Iraq to participate in calming the situation and assisting with a sovereign and stable government emerging.

SANCHEZ: If I may add, as part of our ongoing operations, we had increased the capacity of the border police out in the Iranian sector, and we had also increased some of our patrolling along the southeast and up in the central part of the country to prevent some of the illegal movement that had been occurring from Iran.

SANCHEZ: So, as part of our current operations, over the course of the last 30 or 45 days we had increased some of our ops in that area.

ABIZAID: I would like to go back to a previous point on a different question and just to clarify the situation somewhat.

There is not a purely U.S. military solution to any of the particular problems that we're facing here in Iraq today. There may be combinations of Iraqi and American solutions to the Sadr problem, to the Fallujah problem. There may be purely Iraqi solutions that are arrived at.

So it's a combination of military and political action both on the Iraqi and the American side, and on the coalition side, that will ultimately work toward a more secure environment here.

QUESTION: Were there any special operations or liaison personnel with the Iraqi units that refused to engage?

And the second question is, could you clarify the troop rotations out of Iraq? Are there still units departing or has there been a freeze on units leaving Iraq?

ABIZAID: No, there are still units that are departing. And as I said before, that certain capabilities have been asked for, and those capabilities we're looking very closely at.

With regard to whether or not special operations forces were with the new Iraqi army units that were trying to move to the field, I think the answer to that is, there were a couple of special forces A- teams (ph) that had that mission.

QUESTION: General Abizaid, regarding the two brigades that you say that you want, are these forces that are going to be brought into theater from the outside, say from the States or from Europe, or are these forces that are already in-theater in Kuwait that are going to return?

ABIZAID: I know everyone wants me to name the unit and where it's coming from and how it's coming and I'm simply not going to answer that question because I don't know.

I have made a request to the secretary of defense through the joint staff for a capability. And when that decision is made you will hear it from Washington.

STAFF: All right, with that, General Sanchez, General Abizaid, we appreciate you taking the time and hope that you can join us again soon. It's been very valuable for us back here to have this opportunity. Thank you.

ABIZAID: Can I just say before we close that I really want to thank you the young people of the armed forces of the United States for incredible sacrifice during a very tough period of fighting over the past week? They have not only brought honor and respect to the armed forces of the United States, but they have added immeasurably to making Iraq a better place for the future. Thanks.

DARYN KAGAN, HOST: Through the wonders of technology, we've been listening in to a news conference, the two generals in Baghdad and the go (ph) - and the reporters asking the questions back here in the U.S. at the Pentagon. Let's get the take on some of what we've heard and bring in CNN military analyst, retired Air Force Major Don Shepperd. He is listening in with us from Arizona.

General, thanks for being here with us.


KAGAN: Let's go over some of the points that we heard the two generals make. Number one, it seemed at the top of everyone's list, this issue that General Abizaid brought up over the last couple of weeks, the need potentially for more troops to be brought into Iraq. And yet, today, the general not talking about how many or where those troops might come from.

SHEPPERD: Yes, he's talked about two brigades of combat forces. Think about it as about 10,000 people. Obviously, he's going to let the Pentagon name the bases that they're coming from and how, but it sounds like rather than going down to about 115,000 that we're going to end up at around 125,000, 130,000 people there in Iraq still, until this situation stabilizes or is cleared, Daryn. That's the best we can guess right now. Some of it will be done through delaying the rotation of forces back home, and then other new units, obviously, will be moved from other Army units in the United States and overseas.

KAGAN: A big factor in that, and also as we get closer to the June 30th handover date, the readiness of Iraqi troops. I think the generals were very frank today in talking about that, saying some are ready, some are doing well, some not doing so well. And they cited specifically as a problem the chain of command. It is not set right now within the Iraqi military.

SHEPPERD: Yes, they need a chain of command, a head general, if you will, and then the chain of command all the way down to the last soldier that they can rely on. It takes a long time to train and establish this type of chain of command.

Let me throw in a wild idea here, that I see a little bit of a bright spot in this supposed refusal of some of them to deploy to and fight in Fallujah. The Iraqi military certainly had no trouble killing Iraqis before the war, and now at least perhaps the idea of values, of Iraqis killing other Iraqis, is creeping in. That's something that we want. Now, I don't throw any great conclusion on that. Clearly, you have to have an Iraqi military that is capable of deploying to areas of concern and acting, but it's not all bad news right now, Daryn.

KAGAN: Well, let's talk about what's happening in Fallujah and the concern that a number of civilians are being killed as the Marines try to get control there. You have a difficult problem with the insurgents mixing among the civilians, making the Marines' job almost - practically impossible - to keep all civilians safe.

SHEPPERD: Yes, indeed. A city with around 300,000 people. Reportedly, about 100,000 were allowed to leave over the weekend, and then they were turning back people of military age, and there is a truce going on right now in which members of the Iraqi Governing Council and our military, our coalition military, are talking with the city officials. They are trying to bring some calm to this.

But he harsh reality is, when fire is received by the Marines, they're going to return that fire. They're going to be careful if it's in houses. If it's in big buildings, they're going to employ helicopters and perhaps fighters against it. They're going to try to be as careful as possible, but the harsh reality is, when you return fire, it becomes indiscriminatory when the bullet hits, and if people are in the house, innocent civilians, they're going to be killed. So it's a fact of life.

We're trying to minimize any collateral damage and unnecessary death of civilians, but it happens, Daryn.

KAGAN: Major General Retired Don Shepperd joining us from Arizona.

General, thank you for being with us today. Appreciate it.

We were listening to that news conference for just over a half hour now. Time to fit in a break. We'll get to much more news after this.



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