iraq elections de-fisked

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    Monday, Jan. 17, 2005

    Q&A: Air Force Brigadier General Erwin 'Erv' Lessel III

    Multi-National Force spokesman in Iraq

    January 16, 2005

    Lessel has been in Iraq for about six months in his current capacity, deputy chief of staff for strategic communications. Lessel was interviewed by telephone on Jan. 6 by members of the Union-Tribune's editorial board.

    Question: Is the security situation in Iraq, and especially the Sunni Triangle, sufficient to conduct a national election on Jan. 30? Is there any prospect that the election might be postponed?

    Answer: We firmly believe the security environment will be such that elections can and will be held on the 30th of January. We see no indications or need to delay them. In fact, any delay may actually impede the security environment. It is certainly not a multinational forces issue, it's Iraq's call on delaying those. We're in support of the Iraqi government under the U.N. Security Council resolution. As I understand it, any change in date, if it were to be considered, would require action by the United Nations Security Council. Right now, we could hold elections in 16 of the 18 provinces. There are two provinces that remain security challenges. Those are Al Anbar province. Ramadi is the capital and Fallujah is in that province. And in Nineveh province in the north, which has the capital city of Mosul.

    In 14 of the 18 provinces across Iraq, we are seeing four or fewer incidents of violence per day. A vast majority of Iraq security conditions are reasonably acceptable. But the vast majority of the population of Iraq is living in a secure environment. The areas that give us the greatest concern are the Mosul, Ramadi, Fallujah areas, the greater Baghdad area to include the north Babel area. And then parts of Diala and Salah Ad Din provinces, the Baqaba and Samarra areas. We have been conducting offense operations following the success in Fallujah to continue chasing the insurgents, terrorists, across the country and deny them safe haven, deny them bases of operations. And we're having success based on operations in the past few weeks.

    Do you worry that large numbers of people, especially in the Sunni Triangle, will be intimidated from participating in the elections?

    It has been stated by Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and other terrorist organizations such as Ansar al-Sunnah that their primary goal at this time is to stop the elections from taking place. In order to do this they are using a campaign of intimidation, trying to instill fear in the citizens of Iraq. More and more, they have turned toward killing innocent civilians and targeting the police forces and Iraqi forces in order to achieve this end. They also have had targeted assassinations of government officials, government security officials, electoral officials. Attacks on polling places, schools, churches. This is not a popular insurgency. These terrorists are killing, kidnapping, murdering, beheading Iraqis. And that is not the way to gain support for an insurgency. The insurgents are definitely not gaining momentum. We're making inroads every day into taking their capabilities away.

    Are you going to have enough troops to reasonably secure this election?

    I believe we have sufficient forces. In the areas we're focusing on, we're actually increasing the number of multinational forces and Iraqi security forces. For example, we are continuing to move U.S. forces into the Mosul area to reinforce the numbers of about 2,500. There's approximately 5,000 Iraqi security forces. We firmly believe that the amount of violence will continue to escalate as the terrorists try everything possible to derail these elections. That said, we will through our offensive actions be able to contain and to somewhat limit these attacks.

    In the last three weeks, we have detained over 1,800 suspected anti-Iraqi forces in operations across Iraq. We're having success in rolling up some key leaders of Zarqawi cells across Iraq. One cell in particular, Abu Taha, in Mosul, we've had sufficient success in the last two weeks that we've rolled up 25 percent of his senior leadership.

    Baghdad, of course, with a population of about 7 million, is a significant city. Recent polling shows that 89 percent of those in Baghdad understand the importance of taking part in the elections. And when asked how likely it is that they will vote, a positive response was obtained from 83 percent of those.

    Assuming the elections go off as planned, is there any reason to believe that the insurgents' activities will suddenly stop?

    It's hard to determine exactly what the insurgent reaction will be to successful elections. If the majority representative population of eligible voters comes out and participates in this election, it will send a clear signal to the insurgents that they lack popular support, that the Iraqi people want to move on with a democracy. These elections are just one milestone in a much longer, larger process. Following these elections, which will help seat a 275-member national assembly, it will be that assembly's job to craft a constitution by the summer that will be put up for a referendum vote in the fall and then used as a basis for constitutional elections in December.

    Do you know what the number of insurgents is?

    We would certainly think that there are fewer than 20,000 hard core insurgents. The number is very, very difficult to quantify because how do you define what an insurgent is? How do you define an individual who provides support or occasional support to them? But the exact count of insurgents is not all that important. We are not fighting a war of attrition. In this case the insurgency is for the popular support of the people.

    Do you have any idea of the composition of the insurgency? We're reading that there are more Saudis, as opposed to members of the old regime.

    One group is the foreign fighters. Their ties are primarily with al-Qaeda and Abu Masab al-Zarqawi's network. Car bombings have been sort of a trademark of the foreign fighters. We also have the Sunni extremists, the Wahabis and the Salafists, who are basically attempting to instill an Islamic state, an extremist religious state in Iraq. And then there is the former regime leadership. Many of these were former Baathists. Many of these were former military leaders within the Republican Guard and the Special Republican Guard of Saddam. They received the benefits under the old regime. And clearly they have a vested interest in trying to go back to those old ways. And the final group is what I refer to more as common criminals who out of acts of convenience and just for monetary gain may side with and provide weapons or logistical support to these other insurgent terrorist organizations. We believe the primary threat is from the former regime leaders. Many of the acts of violence and terrorism that we are seeing now exhibit the trademarks of precise military actions, a result of military training that is commonly seen in former Republican Guard members.

    What is life like on a day-to-day basis for the average Iraqi?

    On a given day, I would say probably 99 percent plus of the population is not directly affected by these violent acts. In the last week we've averaged perhaps 80 attacks a day that in a worse case may affect 10,000 people. Out of about 27 million countrywide, that's a small number. So the vast majority of the people are carrying on with their lives. Now, there are many parts of the country that you can travel to, especially in the southern part of the country or up in the northeast, that you can still go out, walk to restaurants and carry on a normal life.

    What kind of impact has the insurgency had on the reconstruction programs?

    The reconstruction program is proceeding. As of the end of December, there were approximately 1,500 construction starts in programs during the past year. About 80 percent of the projects were unaffected by violence. The 1,500 projects represent about $4.3 billion. And there have been a great many successful completions. There are about 135,000 Iraqis who are employed now by these programs and projects. A good example is in Sadr City here in Baghdad, where projects that we have funded to the amount of about $161 million. We've put 18,000 people to work. In Sadr City, many of these people for probably 10 or more years have not had access to clean drinking water. The sewage spills out onto the streets. They've not been hooked up adequately to electricity. And the projects that we're working are helping to restore all of these basic services.

    What was the damage in Fallujah? Was it leveled?

    Fallujah wasn't leveled but there was a large amount of damage. There's about 17,000 buildings or facilities in the city. Probably somewhere between 5 and 10 percent had significant damage. There was damage at least in some degree to the vast majority of the buildings in the city. For about the last week and a half now, the city has been reopened. More than half of the districts. About 6,000 people entered the city today. To date, I think about 57,000 have entered. Many of those who enter go in, check their homes, their businesses, and then will leave the city for the night and possibly come back. Usually anywhere between 500 and 700 contractors enter the city each day. We currently believe that there's about almost 8,000 people who have gone back into the city and are back living in their homes. We're working on restoring electricity and water and sewage.

    How close have you come to catching al-Zarqawi?

    We are making significant progress in eroding his network. We've taken away his ability to freely use Fallujah as a base of operations. The key to finding Zarqawi is through actionable intelligence. As soon as we can provide a sufficient level of security to those individuals who know where he's at, then we may get the actionable intelligence that will lead us to him.

    How would you characterize the progress in training, equipping and deploying Iraqi security of every level?

    Look back a year ago and there wasn't a police force, there wasn't an Iraqi national guard, there wasn't an army. There was a long process to build up the capacity to conduct training. There was a long effort to order equipment and to get it manufactured and delivered. All of that started coming together this past summer. In July/August, the amount of training that was being conducted accelerated. The number of Iraqis being brought on line significantly increased. So that today there's approximately 125,000 Iraqi security forces. Those forces have had various levels of success to date. The special police commandos have excelled. There are many Iraqi National Guard battalions that are again very, very capable. The biggest challenge that we have had has come from the Iraqi police. They are basically trained as in the United States for basic law enforcement duties. Yet we have these police trying to provide security in cities while fighting an insurgency. Another problem with the Iraqi police is that they tend to be recruited from and work in their home cities and home areas. In an insurgency of this type, a campaign of intimidation, the insurgents can threaten their families. The areas that give us cause for concern are, for example, Mosul, where on Nov. 10 the police force collapsed for a matter of days, falling from 4,000 to about 700. We're in the process of rebuilding that police force. There is still no shortage whatsoever of recruits. There are over 7,000 that are currently in training and there's another 25,000 security forces that are awaiting training.

    Marines and sailors from San Diego have been deployed, some of them three times since the Afghanistan war in 2001. Currently, Marines from Camp Pendleton have suffered 200 to 300 killed in action and thousands of wounded. And some units back only a few months ago are getting ready to deploy again. How much longer will there be a deployment at the current troop levels?

    I can't speculate about future force structure other than I will say that we are looking at long-term plans for our strategy for how we will conduct operations here in Iraq over the next year.

    You said in the last three weeks 1,800 anti-Iraqi forces have been detained. What prisons are they going to? Who is running the prisons? And how are you ensuring that another Abu Ghraib isn't happening?

    When individuals are detained, they are maintained and kept locally for some period of time. The detainees are vetted. Initial interrogation is begun to determine whether they are indeed anti-Iraqi forces. After they are held for some abbreviated period of time, those who will be detained for the long term are sent to camps, either Camp Buca in southern Iraq or to Abu Ghraib.

    Are these detainees considered or classified as prisoners of war or illegal combatants?

    I can't speak to their exact status. However, I will tell you that they are afforded all of the guarantees of the Geneva Convention.

    Who's doing the interrogating?

    The interrogations, to my knowledge, are being conducted by U.S. and Iraqi forces.

    What's your perspective on the accuracy and totality of the American press' depiction of the U.S. mission in Iraq?

    Personally, I wouldn't question the accuracy. I'm not sure that that's an issue.

    Is there anything you would like to add?

    This is an incredibly historic time for the Iraqi people. They have an opportunity for the first time in more than 35 years to participate in free and fair elections and to set the course for their future. And it's an incredible sight to see here in Iraq Ð the campaigning effort, the efforts of Iraqis to deal with democracy. It's really inspiring. We're confident that the will of the great majority will be heard in these elections.

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