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September 29 Defense Department Briefing

By The Pentagon, The Pentagon - September 29, 2011

            (Note: General Perkins appears via videoconference from Iraq.)

            MODERATOR: Good morning here in the Pentagon Briefing Room, and good evening in Iraq. I'd like to welcome to the Pentagon Briefing Room Major General David G. Perkins, the commander of United States Division-North and the 4th Infantry Division.

            Major General Perkins has served as the commander of the 4th Infantry Division for the last two years, and in October of 2010 he assumed the responsibility for U.S. military operations in northern Iraq, with primary mission of developing the capacity of the Iraqi forces. As that mission concludes, Major General Perkins has overseen the transition of facilities and bases back to the government of Iraq, and as U.S. forces prepare for redeployment in accordance with the security agreement.

            Major General Perkins joins us today from the United States Division-North headquarters in Tikrit. He will make an opening remark, and then will take your questions.

            And with that, I'll turn it over to Major General Perkins. Sir.

            MAJOR GENERAL DAVID PERKINS: Hey, thanks a lot. I appreciate everyone taking some time today to come and have a discussion here about what's going on in Iraq.

            As she said, we here at U.S. Division-North, and specifically those of us in the 4th Infantry Division at the headquarters here, are completing a year tour over here, Operation New Dawn.

            This is the fourth rotation for the 4th Infantry Division. It was involved in OIF 1 and now we're in Operation New Dawn, so we've kind of bookended our Iraq experience here.

            This has been -- like every rotation over here, has unique aspects to it. This one has focused a lot on advise, training and assisting the Iraqi security forces, increasing their capability, transitioning a lot of responsibility for what U.S. forces have done historically over to the Iraqis, as well as transitioning bases and operating areas and all of that over to the Iraqis.

            So it has been a very eventful year. A lot of great things have gone on, both with American forces and Iraqi forces, and we are continuing to sprint over the finish line here.

            So I think probably the best use of our time is just to open it up for questions and begin our dialogue.

            MODERATOR: All right. Thank you, sir. Bob.

            Q: General Perkins, this is Bob Burns with AP. With regard to the Arab-Kurd tensions in the north, General Odierno said a couple weeks ago that he'd seen some indications that the Iraqis may not need as much American military help with that problem after 2011 as had previously been believed, and that estimates that as many as 5,000 American troops may be needed to help with that problem -- you may not need to leave that many, or any, American military forces for that purpose.

            I'm wondering what your assessment is of that, whether you -- kind of walk us through what you see as the state of the Arab-Kurd problem and whether you see a need for American military presence there to help with that.

            GEN. PERKINS: Well, Bob, that's a great question. And that is -- one of our big responsibilities up here in the north has been to work the Arab-Kurd issues along the area called the disputed boundaries.

            When our division first got here, there was the combined security area in effect, and there were 22 trilateral checkpoints. Those were checkpoints that were manned by Kurdish Peshmerga Forces, Iraqi army forces and U.S. soldiers. And so we were spread out across really three provinces: Nineveh, Kirkuk and Diyala. As I said, we were manning 22 trilateral checkpoints. There's also a combined coordination center that's really the command and control of -- in each province -- Nineveh, Kirkuk and Diyala. And then I worked the overall security mechanism with General Helmick and General Austin down in Baghdad.

            We have begun transitioning that, as we have many of the other things we do. And this has been one of the issues that was of great concern to everybody involved, mainly because it had worked so well when the U.S. had taken a pretty active role in it and we had been able to bring together Peshmerga forces and Iraqi army forces and Iraqi police who previously had not worked together, and developed arbitration mechanisms.

            Really, as of the beginning of September, we have transitioned all 22 checkpoints to now a bilateral operation. That means Peshmerga -- Kurdish forces, and Iraqi army and Iraq police. So we no longer have U.S. forces on any of those checkpoints permanently as we did before. And that was really the first stage, to see how that would work as we transition. I mean, we did it gradually. We did usually two or three of them a week, and saw how that went. And that has gone exceptionally well, and we really have not had one incident out at one of those checkpoints or the area around it since the U.S. has left. We are in an over watch phase now, which means we routinely go out there, check on things, make sure they're operating to a standard, making sure their resupplies are going, training and all of that.

            But that aspect of it has gone quite well.

            The next part we are going to is the command and control of it and that is to transition the command and control at the provincial level to bilateral as the U.S. moves out of it. And we are right in the middle of that now. A couple of days ago I was in Baghdad with senior Kurdish and Iraqi leaders working through how we would work the mechanism of that. The good news is there has been broad agreement as we move forward on the technicalities of it, such as how would we communicate and how would you do daily reports and how would you share information. So the encouraging piece is there has not been one point of contention about whether or not we are going to do this and whether or not it's going to work. The issues we have to work through are who is in charge of various aspects of it, how do we arbitrate differences, and then how does it get raised up through our mechanism here.

            So that is a good thing to be talking about. The fact that we are talking about how do we continue this partnership versus how do we pull it apart and go back to the bad old days is extremely encouraging. So I will tell you in the next month or so one of my main focuses, along with General Helmick and General Austin and the ambassador and his team, is to transition the lead for this mainly to Arab and Kurd. And at the very senior level of this mechanism, we will have State Department people engaged as well as Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq people engaged, but it's at a much lower level as far as number of people than we had when I first got here.

            Q: Just a quick follow-up, General. Your answer seems to jibe pretty much with the gist of what General Odierno said in that things have moved in the right direction. So is your overall assessment that there may not or will not be a need for American military forces to play the role they've been playing in that -- with the Arab-Kurd problem after 2011?

            GEN. PERKINS: Right. Clearly, there is not the need for them to play the role they had, especially in the numbers they had. We have proven right now that out at the checkpoints, they can run perfectly fine without U.S. presence there at all. But that didn't happen overnight. That's been a year and a half of making -- we've been training them, we've been equipping them and we're bringing them to a level of self-sufficiency. So before, where I really had about three battalions engaged in that, we now really have no U.S. forces. So that's very encouraging because that's where the spark would occur if there's a problem.

            I think where the U.S. is still going to play a role is at the very senior level of policy issues in what I call the arbitration of differences as they come up. The one thing that the U.S. plays a very vital role in, not only here with Arab-Kurd but really around the world, is that we are seen as truly a neutral arbiter, and that when both sides bring an issue to us, sometimes they may be a little disheartened that we don't take their side right away, but they step back and they realize that when we come up with a recommendation, we really have tried to balance both sides of the argument and come up with the most equitable solution. And I think that's still a role that we play. And that's not really based on numbers of people out there, that's really based on the organization and the mechanism that we plug into.

            Q: General, it's Mike Evans from the Times, London Times. We had a briefing here a few weeks ago where we were told that there were roughly about 800 al-Qaida-associated fighters still in Iraq, most of them Iraqis.

            What evidence do you have of al-Qaida concentration up in your neck of the woods, up in the north?

            GEN. PERKINS: Right. Well, that's an area, again, that we pay close attention to. As you well know, up here in the north -- Mosul, Tigris River Valley, here in Tikrit, Salahuddin area -- has been a typical operating area for al-Qaida, former regime elements, things such as this. And they operate from here. They historically have gained financial support, and then they can export sort of their violence to the rest of Iraq.

            So we pay a lot of attention to getting after the network up here, specifically Mosul and along the Tigris River Valley. And this is also generally the point of entry when we get foreign fighters coming across a border, say from Syria, into Iraq. They generally enter the network in Ninevah province somewhere and then funnel down through the Tigris River Valley to wherever they're going to conduct the attacks.

            I'll discuss first of all the foreign fighter flow. We've seen a dramatic drop-off in the foreign fighter flow coming into Iraq. That is evidenced both by intelligence that we have as well as when we see suicide operations going on and other things like that. We do see some Iraqis involved where almost historically it was always the foreign fighters.

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