Friday, August 17, 2007

Army spokesman on Inside Iraq

Al Jazeera English's must-see Inside Iraq program is usually a panel discussion, moderated by the host, Jasim Azzawi. However, today he had a one-on-one interview with Brigadier General Kevin J. Bergner, a special assistant to the President on Iraq and currently spokesman for the multi-national forces in Iraq. Jasim challenged Bergner on the prospects for meaningful and lasting improvements in Iraq from the current troop surge, the role of Iran in Iraq, the unaccounted loss of thousands of weapons, and other issues. A transcript follows below the fold; the video clip is not yet up on YouTube, although many other Al Jazeera programs can be found there, as well as on the Al Jazeera web site.

Inside Iraq, Al Jazeera English, original air date 2007-08-17, ©2007 Al Jazeera English

Jasim Azzawi: Hello, and welcome to Inside Iraq. I'm Jasim Azzawi. The U.S. claim the surge is making progress and routing al Qaeda, but with chaos reigning supreme, is victory slipping fast? With an Iraqi army yet to stand up and menacing militias yet to be crushed, will U.S. troops prevail in time, before an impatient Congress throw in the towel? When General Petraeus addresses the U.S. Senate in mid-September, will he assure a skeptical nation of victory, or ask for more time, or will he face an August surprise?
Ayman Moyheldin: Is it or is it not working? That's the question Americans want answered when General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker submit their assessment of President Bush's surge policy, come September. But since their mission began in January, when President Bush ordered 20,000 more troops into Iraq, progress has been mixed. In an early draft report submitted in July, just a month after all U.S. troops that were called up to Iraq, arrived, only 8 out of the 18 benchmarks imposed by the U.S. Congress on the Iraqi government, had been met. In 8 other areas, progress was unsatisfactory, the report concluded; in two other areas, progress or the lack thereof was mixed.

Despite the initial assessment, the U.S. Army's chief of staff said the surge was working.
General Casey: The surge is having the intended military effect. Our guys are seeing progress on the security front. What remains to be seen is whether the Iraqis can take advantage of the opportunity and create the political accommodation it's going to take to succeed.
General Casey went so far to say his commanders are optimistic that the Iraqis could soon take over control in Nineweh, one of Iraq's largest provinces.
Casey: The Nineweh province, where Mosul, the second city of Iraq, is based, is about ready to move under Iraqi control.
But on the same day General Casey made those comments, a series of car bombs killed hundreds of Iraqis, making it one of the single deadliest attacks in the country. Ironically, the attacks happened in the same province the general cited for security progress. If the security situation in Iraq has improved, as General Casey and others have argued, it has certainly not curbed the number of Iraqis fleeing the country. According to the U.S. State Dept, approximately 2.2 million Iraqis are now refugees in Jordan and Syria alone. And, in President Bush's so-called War on Terror, the U.S. intelligence community estimates the war in Iraq has done little to undermine al Qaeda. On the contrary, say intelligence experts, it concluded al Qaeda is more determined to strike the U.S. now than ever before, that Iraq has become a major recruiting ground for the network. In addition, the Iraqi government has yet to make substantial progress on some key issues, such as a national oil law. Sunni politicians have withdrawn from prime minister Nouri al-Maliki's cabinet, raising fears his government won't survive much longer.

With a month to go until the final report is submitted to the U.S. Congress, many are wondering what, if anything, has changed since the interim report a month ago. One thing is certain: both sides of the Iraq war debate in Washington will use the report to drive their points even farther.
Jasim: To examine the military conditions in Iraq, and to get a preview of what General Petraeus might report to the U.S. Senate, I'm joined from Baghdad by Brigadier General Kevin Bergner, spokesman of the multi-national force in Iraq. General Bergner, welcome to Inside Iraq. Let me start with the multiple operations the U.S. Army is conducting for the past several weeks. We had Arrowhead Ripper, we had Phantom Strike, and now there is a big operation underway called Lightning Hammer. Are these making progress, and if the answer is yes, what is the nature of that progress?

BGen. Kevin Bergner: Well, Jasim, first of all, thanks for being — allowing us to come talk to you on your show. The operations that you referred to are part of a broader operation that has been called Operation Phantom Thunder. Those operations have been specifically focused on improving population security in Baghdad and in the belt surrounding Baghdad, and applying pressure to the terrorist and extremist networks in both of those places simultaneously. What we've seen over the last eight weeks, as those operations have gone forward, is we have seen a significant improvement in the level of population security in places like Baquba, where just two months ago it would have been very difficult to get food distribution and medical supplies and the other essential services the Iraqi people need, into that city. Just this past weekend, the deputy prime minister of Iraq, Barham Salih (برهم أحمد صالح), led a ministerial delegation to Baquba to meet with the provincial leaders, the governor and the council members, to work together to restore those essential services, and to work on ways to further improve the security for the citizens of Baquba and Diyala province more broadly. And so, the fact that the deputy prime minister and other leaders from the central government, are now able to go work directly with these provinces and directly with the people there, is a very important sign of progress, not to mention the restoration of the food distribution systems and the medical supplies that are so important to the citizens of Iraq.

Jasim: One hears these positive reports, and the President, President Bush, that is, mentioned it several times, and he's assuring the Congress as well as the American people that progress is being made in Iraq. I guess cynics would say, What makes you think it's sustainable? What makes you think this is permanent? What makes you think that the people you are chasing in Baquba, Nijala, will not revert back and go to Anbar? The same people that you chased in Anbar, you know, they will come to other places. The militias that you chased in Sadr City and other places, they will just go to the south, and pretty much outwait you, waiting for the next phase of American deployment in Iraq.

Bergner: Well, first of all, the nature of our operations and the success of the Iraqi and Coalition security forces in putting pressure on al Qaeda and on the extremist networks operating south of Baghdad, is changing the dynamics of the population in many of these communities. What I mean by that is, we are now seeing tribal leaders who are stepping forward and working directly with the Iraqi security forces and the local and provincial governments. They are making commitments to one another to stand against al Qaeda, and to work together to restore security to their neighborhoods. It's that change in the population's commitment, their confidence to work with their government and their security forces, that gives the momentum that's now underway the prospects of being sustainable and enduring over time.

Jasim: Indeed, the dynamics is changing in Iraq. The alliances are shifting. The people that were dominant in certain parts have been routed. Having said that, and I know it's very difficult for you to comment on perhaps what other countries might think, but since it is in the public domain and just recent, yesterday, in the House of Commons, the foreign relations committee said they doubt very much that this surge will work out. They doubt very much that this is sustainable.

Bergner: Well, first, these are important debates, Jasim, for each country to have, and we understand the nature of democratic governments, and we understand that this is a central issue for our country as well as the U.K., as well as for the people of Iraq, and so these discussions are going to take place. What we base our assessments on, and how we look at the circumstance is perhaps epitomized by what we saw this past week, when the Iraqi people joined together with their security forces to allow the safe commemoration of the death of the Seventh Imam. Very important religious commemoration, to take place. Millions of people marched into Baghdad to fulfill that obligation. They did so safely. They did so, most importantly, under an operation that was planned and coordinated and implemented by the Iraqi security forces, with the coalition in support. But this is largely a core-level operation that the Iraqi forces undertook, both police and army forces, under the leadership of Lt Gen Ahboud, the commander of forces in Baghdad, and they did so very safely.

Jasim: With all this positive news, and yet report after report, and let me quote you one from the American side, the U.S. Air Force, in conjunction with Rand, which is a quite prestigious outfit in the United States, says, "Withdrawal by the United States is almost irresistible."

Bergner: The commitment that our country has made to work with the Iraqi government and to help them restore a sustainable level of security in Iraq, is something that we're working very hard to fulfill. We're seeing progress on a number of different levels, but that's not to belie the point that this is still a very, very tough fight. It's still a very difficult challenge for both Iraqi security forces and the Coalition. There are signs of progress amid the very tough fight, that's going to continue to be difficult for some time to come.

Jasim: One of the biggest problems facing the United States right now, is what public enemy which used to be al Qaeda, right now is becoming the militias, just like the President said. To what extent do you think you will have better success in this next phase with the militias, since they have scattered, and they are all over the place, especially from the center to the south.

Bergner: Well, first of all, it's important to note up front that the security situation in Iraq is a very complex one. It's a mosaic, if you will. There are threats from a number of different groups, but unquestionably al Qaeda in Iraq, and its affiliate organizations, are the number one threat to the security and stability of the Iraqi people, and so we continue to focus a great deal of our effort on that, because of the near-term threat that's largely represented by the spectacular attacks, these barbaric attacks, that tend to incite sectarian tensions, and are such a plague on the Iraqi people. That is what we're working very hard against. At the same time, we are chipping away at these other extremist groups, these special groups that we have talked about very openly as a serious security problem for the people of Iraq and the Coalition as well, and we are continuing to attack these special groups and interdict the sources of supply, sources of support if you will, that they continue to benefit from. So, both of them are an important aspect of our efforts in these operations that are underway, and will continue to be a focus for us.

Jasim: General Bergner, thank you very much. We'll take a short break now. When we come back, I'm going to ask him about the source of this weapons that is coming from across the border from Iran. Stay with us.
The enemy in Iraq is still dangerous. The surge is still in its early stages. Changing conditions on the ground is difficult work, but our troops are proving it can be done. — President Bush
[commercial break]
The reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient. — Stephen Hadley, U.S. National Security Advisor
Jasim: Welcome to Inside Iraq. We are talking today to the spokesman of the multi-national force, General Bergner. A month before General Petraeus will submit his report to the Senate. General Bergner, let me quote you what the President says. He says, "When we catch you playing a non-constructive role in Iraq, there will be a price to pay," in direct reference to Iran. It is my understanding they have been playing a very non-constructive role, so what price have they paid so far?

Bergner: Well, Jasim, we have been very transparent and very forthcoming in talking about the special groups which are extremist militia elements that have been benefiting from weapons, from training, from funding, and from tactical direction sometimes from special operatives who were advising them. You know, we have reported on the detention of the former commander of the special groups, Qais Khazali, and we have reported on the detention of a Lebanese Hezbollah operative who was serving as a Quds Force proxy here in Iraq. So those represent the kinds of operations that we are continuing to conduct inside Iraq.

Jasim: Mr. Daqduq?

Bergner: That's correct, Mr. Daqduq, Ali Mussa Daqduq. So we are continuing to conduct operations to chip away at those special groups, to chip away at their resources, [talking over the host] and to work closely with the Iraqi forces in dealing with this threat that the government of Iraq...

Jasim: But, General, the President said, "When we catch those Iranian agents in Iraq, undermining our operations, they will be killed," and so far, aside from the five people who were captured in Irbil and detained, we don't see, nobody sees, even the Americans are a little bit skeptical. What does holding the American forces in Iraq from being prosecuting more robustly the action against Iranian agents in Iraq, since you are saying they are undermining our operations in Iraq?

Bergner: Well, Jasim, actually, we are conducting very robust operations. Just in the last few weeks, we have captured or killed some twenty members of these special groups who are connected to these extremist organizations, and eight of those operations, I would point out, were actually conducted unilaterally by Iraqi security forces. So both Iraqi forces and Coalition forces are conducting very robust operations against these extremist groups.

Jasim: And yet, according to Lt. Gen. Raymond Oderno, the EFP's are increasingly coming from Iran. Twenty-three American soldiers out of the 69 that were killed in July were killed by EFP's, so are you saying that the more you are doing, from your end, the Iranians are doing even a greater role by supplying these deadly weapons to the militias?

Bergner: Well, Jasim, what I would say is, this is a very tough fight, and it's one where we are continuing to make inroads against those kinds of organizations, those extremist groups, that are employing EFP's against our forces and the Iraqi people. We will continue to operate against them, and we will eventually make more progress against them, but it is a tough fight, and it is one where all the neighbors of Iraq have an opportunity to fulfill their commitments that they have made to help stem the flow of those kinds of resources that are coming to these special groups.

Jasim: There is something puzzling, General Bergner. It doesn't seem as if you and Prime Minister al-Maliki see eye-to-eye about the role of Iran. We heard what you said, we know the exact role they are playing, while he was in Tehran, he said Iran is playing a very constructive role in Iraq. That, to a large degree got the President's ire; he said I have to call my friend and talk to him heart to heart to find out exactly what he means.

Bergner: Well, Iran has made certain commitments to the government of Iraq, and it would be helpful to see them actually deliver on all of those commitments, including helping work against these extremist organizations we've been talking about.

Jasim: General Bergner, there was a report recently that about 90,000 small arms given to the Iraqi government, to the Iraqi army, are missing. Are we talking about an auditing problem here, or actually these actual weapons somehow left the depots, are in the hands of militias, al Qaeda, insurgents, and other places that are attacking civilians as well as allied forces?

Bergner: Well, first, Jasim, I would tell you we take the report very seriously, and we are following up on the recommendations that were in that report, but remember back in 2004 and 2005, which was the focus of this report, the circumstance in Iraq was a very difficult one. It was one where there had been a crisis in Fallujah, there was a crisis in Najaf, and then there was another challenge in Fallujah later in that year, and this was a time when Iraqi security forces were still very much a work in progress. They were still developing their own ability to account for this equipment. So on one level, it was important to get the necessary equipment into their hands, and at the same time start building those systems where accountability could be maintained on the level that it needs to be maintained. We have made great progress since then; in fact, the systems that you see today in Iraq, not only is there a very good accountability program in place, but you'd see things like biometrics, meaning fingerprints and retinal scans and all of those other uniquely distinguishing factors that are associated with the soldier that draws that weapon, and there's a very much improved record-keeping system underway.

Jasim: The U.S. forces cannot leave, cannot go home, before the Iraqi army stands up, and right now, despite four years of tremendous effort and money spent by the Iraqi government, as well as the American government, the Iraqi army is not up to par. When do you reckon that this Iraqi army can assume responsibility, whether shortly, to replace, perhaps, the British as they decide to leave, or with the beginning of the redeployment of American forces, some time, perhaps, middle of next year?

Bergner: Well, Jasim, the Iraqi army in particular actually is very capable of performing many operations, and is doing so on its own in many cases. In fact, where I used to be stationed in my first tour in Iraq, in Nineweh province, the Second Division and the Third Division of the Iraqi army are performing very, very well, and they both are led by very effective Iraqi army division commanders. The Iraqi special operations force is a high-end force, if you will; it's very, very capable and doing an excellent job. There are other elements, there are other levels of capability, generally those units reflect the quality of their leadership, and their leadership is still a work in progress in many cases, but make no mistake about it, the Iraqi forces — army and police — are fighting bravely, they are suffering losses three times the level of the Coalition, and they are doing a courageous job in many cases of protecting the Iraqi people. Much work still to be done, but much progress being achieved as well.

Jasim: General Bergner, let's take an overarching view. Baghdad as of this moment is not secured. Perhaps the number of deaths has lessened to a big degree, but the fighting and perhaps the militias have moved south, and before those militias are disarmed and perhaps rehabilitated if not crushed, Iraq will never be safe, and right now the understanding from the American army that Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of JAM, the leader of Jaish al-Mahdi, is not in control of his militias. He is perhaps in Iran. How do you see the next phase of taking out the militias? Do you have sufficient forces in order to take the battle to them in the south?

Bergner: Well, actually, the Iraqi security forces, to include the 8th Iraqi army division, the 10th Iraqi army division, that are operating in those kinds of areas, are doing exactly the kinds of operations you described, and under the leadership of people like General Othman [Ali Farhood], who commands the 8th Iraqi army division, they're being quite effective, actually, in dealing with some of these criminal elements — these criminal militia elements — that you describe. So there are operations underway, and they will continue to be enabled by the Coalition forces as well.

Jasim: Let me combine two questions in one, if I may, because I don't have much time. Is the Iraqi army a national army, or has it been cleansed of its sectarianism, and when Petraeus goes to the U.S. Senate, will he give a positive report or a negative report? In one minute, General Bergner.

Bergner: Well, the Iraqi army is very much a national institution. They recruit nationally. Their soldiers represent the significant diversity of the Iraqi people, and they are very much a national force. To your second question, Jasim, when General Petraeus accompanies Ambassador Crocker back to Washington, he has said he will provide a comprehensive and forthcoming assessment of places where there has been progress and places where there may not have been as much progress, but it will cover the circumstances on the ground at the point at time which he goes back to report.

Jasim: Brigadier General Kevin Bergner, spokesman of the multi-national force in Iraq, thank you for being our guest on Inside Iraq.
Of course, the real question is whether General Petraeus will be allowed to testify to the Congress about the actual conditions in Iraq, or whether he will be shackled to the official White House line. I have much greater confidence in Al Jazeera to give me a clear and unvarnished picture of both the good and the bad news.

update: corrected the spelling of the name of the Al Jazeera correspondent, Ayman Moyheldin.

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