Deputy Commanding General for Multi National Forces in Iraq, James E. Simmons, on conditions in Iraq now.
HH: Major General Simmons, it’s Hugh Hewitt. Welcome to the program, thanks for joining me.
JS: Thanks, Hugh.
HH: I understand you’re an Arkansas State Indian. You’re starting the schedule against #4 Texas this weekend, General. I hope that’s not holding you down too much.
JS: It’s not holding me down. I’m optimistic.
HH: Okay. General, I want to talk today about the time you’ve spent in Iraq. You’ve been there a lot since 2003. How long have you been in your present command as deputy commanding general for support of the multi-national corps in Iraq?
JS: I’ve been the deputy commanding general for three corps for a little over four years, and I’m on my second tour in Iraq. This time, we have been here about ten months.
HH: And how have conditions changed generally in Iraq, Major General, since the beginning of ’07?
JS: Well, this…here, since we have executed the surge of forces here in Iraq, over the last several weeks, we have seen a significant success in al Anbar, in which the attack rate back in November, or whenever we got here, was somewhere around 70, 75 attacks a day down to five to seven attacks a day out in al Anbar, an area that was considered, you know, one of the most dangerous places in Iraq. The situation in Baghdad continues to improve every day. You see the markets are open, you see the amusement parks open. The zoo is open. People are attending that. We still have some rough areas in Baghdad, and we do see the enemy having some tactical successes there occasionally. We have liberated Baqubah and driven al Qaeda out of Baqubah up into the Diyala River Valley, a significant operation that was done very well by 3-2 Stryker out of Fort Lewis, Washington. So what I see overall is an improving security situation here in Iraq, which then gives the Iraqi people an opportunity to get economics working, get the local government working, and an opportunity for their central government to begin to work better.
HH: Now Major General Simmons, let’s start with Baghdad, and then move out to Diyala and a couple of the other provinces. In Baghdad, you mentioned those rough areas. Are those primarily Sunni areas or Shia areas, and what’s going on to bring them into the general security environment in Baghdad?
JS: Well, generally speaking, they’re along fault lines between where Shia and Sunni neighborhoods exist, East and West Rashid, Dora, Adamiyah, Qatamiyah areas are the ones that are primarily the problem areas. We did see, we have seen some IED events, some recent increase in some IED events in New Baghdad, which is on the east side of the river, which is a predominantly Shia area. But generally speaking, those areas that I mentioned are the fault lines where you have a struggle for control of those neighborhoods between Shia and Sunni. But we have seen the sectarian violence go down here in Baghdad significantly here over the last several weeks, and like today, I think, we had 87 attacks in all of Iraq, which is a significantly low number for Tuesday. That was a 24 hour old reporting, as we looked at it. And this month, so far, thank goodness, our casualties on Coalition forces have continued the downward trend that started last month.
HH: When you mention sectarian violence, General, can you give us some sort of scale in terms of the numbers of killed month to month? Is it down into the teens or the twenties, or is it still up in triple figures?
JS: Generally speaking, whenever you look at a month by month basis, you’re still talking about figures that are in the hundreds across all of Iraq whenever you talk about casualties. You’re not talking about just sectarian violence there. We record all of the indications there that would include criminal activity as well as military activity, whenever you look at it.
HH: General, since you mentioned criminal activity, let me ask you, is the Iraqi police effort getting up to scale so that they’re going to return to a normal policing environment against burglary and murder and crimes of violence like that?
JS: Well, one of the interesting developments out of the surge here, and the reconciliation efforts that are going on with Coalition forces, the Iraqi government and local organizations here in Iraq is that it is very clear that whenever you have local Iraqi police protecting local neighborhoods, and doing normal policing functions in local neighborhoods, that you have a significantly reduced rate of terrorist activity as well as a significantly reduced rate of criminal activity. And so right now, that is what’s going on across Iraq, not just in Baghdad, where the local provincial police chief has the authority to hire local people and bring them into the local Iraqi police force. There’s training programs that are established that are relatively short in nature, about 14 days, and then they get on the streets and start working in a local policing manner under the supervision of the more professional local police. And then after a period of time, whatever vacancies come open in the longer term police course, they attend that. And we’re seeing great success out of that program as it’s being executed, and in many different parts of Iraq to include Baghdad.
HH: Is the rest of the justice system standing up so that criminals get tried, and if convicted are imprisoned in situations where they’re going to stay for the duration of their term?
JS: Yes, a new criminal justice center has opened here in Baghdad, in which those kinds of activities that you just mentioned, the trials for criminals here in Iraq are undergoing trial by the Iraqi judicial system, and they are being incarcerated, if found guilty, in Iraqi prisons that have been, and are continuing to be refurbished and improved here in Iraq to meet international standards for incarceration, to include those that have been convicted for violent crimes of being executed.
HH: Now Major General Simmons, what is your sense, as you bring the violence down and the surge works, is it a question of putting a lid on a cauldron that’s still bubbling and as soon as the bell rings, they’re going to come of their corners again and go at each other? Or is it a sense of genuine fatigue with war and reconciliation with an idea of building a new Iraq?
JS: Well, I think there’s two pieces to it. I do believe that many of the Iraqi people are tired of the conflict. But I think the other side of it is, as we and the Iraqi Security Forces have been able to establish security in neighborhoods and areas of Iraq, the people also develop a sense of optimism as they see security returning to their neighborhoods and to their villages and towns, and you see a rebirth. You know, you see the children playing in the streets. You see schools opening up. You see businesses and markets opening up. You see new businesses using micro loans that are being financed through the USAID system, and through Iraqi systems, so that small businesses are starting. And then you just kind of see a momentum that comes from the economic development that is really at a grass roots level in many cases.
HH: The quality of life, General, electricity in Baghdad and surrounding areas, is it getting better? Or are we going to be stuck with an old infrastructure, watching an old infrastructure fail regularly for the next couple of years?
JS: Well, they do have some old infrastructure here whenever it comes to electrical power generation, but that has continued to improve. And right now, as of this morning, they were generating about 5,200 kilowatts of power across Iraq, which is significantly higher than what they were generating prior to the war, and it continues to improve. It goes up and down as you work through the different problems from the generating plants being able to get oil, et cetera, and being able to generate power. But generally speaking, it’s pretty much stabilized here over the last several weeks between about 4,800 and 5,200 kilowatts a day of power across Iraq.
HH: Oh, that’s news. What about oil production, General?
JS: Oil production is…the oil is flowing out of the southern port of Basra. They generally have two ships docked there every day that are going out, and I believe the 46 inch pipeline going out through Turkey was reopened yesterday as well, so oil is flowing out of both of the two export areas right now, at the rate that we pretty much, well, the Iraqi government predicted that it would be flowing out at the beginning of the year. So that piece of it is working. We still have problems with getting some internal transportation of oil to the refineries that are here in Iraq, but that’s mostly because of, as you mentioned earlier, some aging infrastructure that runs out of the northern oil fields into the Baiji refinery.
HH: What’s the upside, what’s the upside, after having spent two tours there, and you’re still there, of the Iraqi oil industry and their electrical capacity. Do you see them able to flourish? Or are they where they’re going to be for the next decade?
JS: Well, I think kind of key to that, Hugh, is the Iraqi government getting around to passing legislation, Article 140, that has to do with the regulation and the investment of external sources into the Iraqi oil infrastructure. And I think once that legislation gets passed, and they are able to get external investment into their oil businesses, then I think that the infrastructure will be significantly enhanced, and I think the oil production has the potential for going up.
HH: Do you think the international business community that’s interested in oil is willing to invest in Iraq? Is the security situation stable enough that that capital will come in, General?
JS: I think that the security situation will continue to improve, and as it continues to improve, and the legislation gets passed, I do believe that the international community will invest in the oil capabilities here in Iraq.
HH: Now General, over the weekend, there was this announcement that at the national level, some of the big players had come together and said we’ve really got to get this political gridlock resolved. Was that show for dough? Or was that real in your estimate?
JS: You’re talking about here in Iraq?
JS: Yeah, I believe there is genuine movement, and I believe there is hard work being done by the Iraqis to reach political compromise so that the government can move forward.
HH: And on what kind of a time frame, General? Do you see that happening in the next…
JS: You know, that’s very difficult to predict. I mean, this is their attempt at operating in a democratic form of government. They have many more political parties than what we have in the United States, major political parties, and so it requires a significant debate, and a lot of compromise for them to come to an agreement on any issues. And that’s…so I see it being a difficult issue for the Iraqi to work through, and you know, that’s primarily the area that our ambassador and the embassy staff works through. It’s not an area that I have a particular expertise in. But I do see that they do appear to me to be willing to work together and try to, they’re beginning to try to reach out to each other and come to a compromise so that they can move forward. But it’s going to be hard work.
HH: Let’s go back, then, to the military side, General. You are overseeing something called Operation Phantom Strike, which opened up in the middle of August. I saw that you did a briefing with some reporters a couple of days back that included some pretty striking results. You want to summarize for people where that is, and what it’s been doing?
JS: Well, the operation that you’re talking about that I mentioned the other day was Operation Lightning Hammer which was conducted by MND-North [Multi-National Division-North], which is headquartered out of Hawaii, the 25th Infantry Division commanded by Major General Randy Mixon. They conducted a 12-day, large scale operation in Diyala to disrupt al Qaeda and other terrorist elements that are operating in the Diyala River Valley. And the operation went into the process of clearing about fifty villages and palm groves. It was a very successful operation, resulted in 26 al Qaeda members being killed, and 37 of them detained, 10 very large weapons caches were taken down in the process of this operation that went on there north and east of Baqubah.
HH: Now with Baquba cleared, and this operation underway in Diyala, where is al Qaeda in Iraq going now?
JS: Well, we believe they’re pushing up the Diyala River Valley on the other side of the Hamrin Ridge north and a little bit west of Hamrin Lake, and maybe even on up into the mountains along the Iraqi border there with Iran. We also see some of them moving up toward Qalis [?] and the Samarra area. We had a significant operation there the night before last in which we went into a village about 10 kilometers north of Qalis in which 33 of the insurgents were killed in the operation, again conducted by MND-North.
HH: Now on this show last month, General Petraeus said that the Special Operations tempo in Iraq is extraordinarily high, 10-12 missions a night, and growing in effectiveness. Is that tempo still being maintained or even increasing, General Simmons?
JS: It is being maintained.
HH: And given that kind of effectiveness, what kind of numbers does al Qaeda in Iraq have left?
JS: In some areas of Iraq, you know, if you looked at the numbers, we believe they have been reduced down to the point where they have a difficult time coming together for even a tactical operation, much less something larger than that. I would hate to put a number on that, as we look across Iraq. But in some areas, we believe that we have driven their numbers down to a significant few.
HH: General Simmons, how about their re-supply from Syria or Iran? Has that been interdicted? Do they continue to get the reinforcements that they appeal for?
JS: Well, on the extreme rogue Shia side, the Shia rogue elements that are operating outside of the political process, we believe that most of their financing, most of their training and most of their weapons systems to include the EFP’s, mortar and rocket rounds and RPG’s, are coming from Iran. We have had some success in locating and destroying some fairly significant caches that were clearly Iranian munitions that had been supplied to rogue Shia elements. The al Qaeda, we have seen more and more of a shift to using homemade explosives, which would give us some indication that we have interdicted their capability to be re-supplied with munitions from external to the country.
HH: Now in a speech last week to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, President Bush said that since January, 1,500 enemy have been killed or captured each month, which would lead us to about 12,000 by the end of this month, General. What percentage of that, roughly, are foreigner, not Iraqis?
JS: I really don’t have the numbers in front of me, Hugh, but it is, those foreign numbers are primarily operating with al Qaeda here, and whenever we do get them, they are segregated inside the confinement facilities that we have them in, if they are detained instead of being killed in the operation. I would not be able to put a number on it, because I don’t have it sitting right here in front of me.
HH: Is that number in the thousands, though, General?
JS: No, it’s not.
HH: Okay. Of those hundreds of foreigners, are they primarily Saudi? Where are they coming from?
JS: They’re from many different Arab nations. Some of them come from Saudi Arabia, some of them come from Egypt, some of them come from Syria, some of them come from Sudan.
HH: As you conduct the interrogations of these, General, are you familiar with what’s motivating them? Are they Salafist? Are they there because they’re anti-imperialists? What’s the ideology there?
JS: Well, generally speaking, they have been indoctrinated by a radical form of Islam that says that if you do not practice their form of Islam, their version of Islam, then you are to be killed and eliminated. And they have a particular hatred for the West, and the lifestyle and the freedoms that exist and the freedoms of choice that exist in the West, and so that makes the U.S. and its associates prime targets for their particular brand of terrorism.
HH: Were they motivated, General, by our invasion of Iraq? Or are they motivated independent of that?
JS: I do not…you know, I have not actually looked for that as you look at the intel reports or the interrogation reports on that as to the source of their, you know, whether they came to Iraq because Americans were in Iraq, or because they are just looking for the closest Americans to attack.
HH: Let’s turn back, General, to the Iranian interference here. General Keane said on this program last week that the Coalition had captured and is holding more than 70 Iranians. Are they your responsibility, General, given your duties as deputy commanding general?
JS: I do have some oversight of the corps’ piece of detainee operations, but Major General Doug Stone is the commander of Task Force 134. He is one of General Petraeus’ subordinate commanders, and he is responsible for detainee operations.
HH: All right, I’ll follow up with him. But then let me ask you generally, do you think Iranian-backed attacks are increasing or decreasing right now?
JS: I believe that the Iranians have supplied, they have surged supplies, training and munitions into Iraq to counter our surge operations that we are conducting.
HH: And what level does that rise to? Are they doubling, tripling their effort?
JS: I would hate to put a number on it, but what we saw was in July, we had the highest number of EFP’s that we have had in theater. Those EFP’s come from Iran. We have still seen a significant uptick in EFP’s, although the numbers are probably going to be lower in August than they were in July. The number of rocket attacks and indirect fire attacks into our FOB’s and our camps has been elevated, and the fires have come predominantly from Shia-dominated areas, and those are Iranian made munitions that are being fired in that. And then we have some very clear evidence that there has been training that has been sponsored by folks that use the techniques that Iranians use to train people.
HH: Can you expand on that a little bit, General, as to what kind of evidentiary markers you find that would lead one to believe the Quds forces are involved, or Hezbollah?
JS: It’s the techniques that they use for in placing the weapons systems, particular the indirect fire systems that they’re using, which require some form of military training to be able to execute that.
HH: Have we captured actual Iranians in operational settings, General, as opposed to simply doing espionage, meaning that they’re commanding and controlling attacks on Americans?
JS: I really don’t think I’m in a position to be qualified to answer that one.
HH: All right. In terms of the Shia radical militias, what’s their threat level right now? Sadr’s allegedly back in Iran…by the way, is that true?
JS: I have no evidence that Sadr is in Iraq.
HH: Okay, given that, do they have good operational control? Or are they falling apart?
JS: Well, I think that there has been a significant effort on the legitimate political process in JAM [Jaish al-Mahdi] to bring the majority of JAM under control. I see some very deliberate work being done to put that organization in the political process. These rogue elements that are out there operating, many of them were clearly part of JAM originally, but we see that they are mostly operating outside the directives of the moderate members and leadership of JAM. So we labeled them as rogue elements, and we see that they continue to get funding and ammunition from Iran.
HH: What kind of numbers are we talking about, General Simmons, when you mention rogue elements among the Shia militia?
JS: We’re talking about, you know, at the minimum, several hundred insurgents that are involved in and around here, in the Baghdad area, and then they’re of course operating in Basra, they’re operating in Karbala, Najaf, Wasat Province, so you know, putting a total number of it would be just a wild guess.
HH: Now there were reports out of Basra a couple of weeks ago that after the Brits have withdrawn that the radicals had taken control of the city. Are those reports accurate?
JS: They are not accurate, and that is a fabrication at best. This was a planned turnover of the Palace and the PJCC to Iraqi control, to the Iraqi legitimate government forces. It was done to standard with, and to well-trained, well-equipped Iraqi Security Forces. There were some peaceful demonstrations that were celebratory in nature, but at no time was any Coalition forces threatened, and the local Iraqi officials under General Mohan, kept a good handle on the situation in Basra.
HH: So what is the situation then in Basra, because that Washington Post story made it sound like the Wild West without the saloons.
JS: It was a demonstration of OMS, or Shia people there that were celebrating, to the best of my knowledge, the return of an Iraqi landmark to the Iraqi government.
HH: General, what about the Iraqi Security Forces? I know you must deal with them a lot on a daily basis. From the beginning of this year to the present, how’s their rebuilding going?
JS: The Iraqi Army gets better every day. The Iraqi Army, the 5th Iraqi Army Division soliders that fought alongside 3-2 Stryker in Baqubah, Colonel Townsend, the Brigade commander, said they were as good as any troops that he had ever fought with, and they did a magnificent job. We see the troops that are operating in Baghdad, and some of those troops are from Basra, some of them are from up north in Mosul, and some of them are from out in al Anbar, and by units that are usually stationed out there that have been brought into Baghdad for the Baghdad operations plan. We see them getting better as they work with our forces and conduct independent operations on their own in the districts here in Baghdad and throughout the area. The 8th Iraqi Army Division, which is down just south of Baghdad down here is a very proficient organization, and does very good work, as is the 2nd Division that’s up in Mosul.
HH: And within those divisions, and more broadly, the Iraqi Security Forces, General, are Shia willing to serve Sunni, and Sunni willing to serve and salute Shia, and operate jointly? Or is it two armies joined at the head?
JS: No, we see that inside the Iraqi Army, they’re Iraqis first, and that there is very little evidence of sectarianism in those formations. There is some challenges, of course, whenever you take a formation and you bring it here, and they’re separated from family and everything else. So sometimes, you have some morale problems from guys being away from their families and everything for extended periods of time. But what we have seen is inside most of the Iraqi Army formations, that Sunnis work for Shias, and Shias work for Sunnis, and it’s an organization that is working for the best for Iraq.
HH: Now General, when I was looking over your bio to prepare for this, you’ve served a whole bunch of places in the world, Germany, Korea, Kuwait, of course now in Iraq, so you’ve seen a lot of different foreign armies operating. Is the quality of the Iraqi officer corps of the sort that can preserve a military supporting a civilian government over the long haul? Or as we’ve seen before, a lot of Arab governments have fallen to a lot of army officers with guns drawn in coups. What’s that situation like?
JS: That, you know, Hugh, that’s a real good question. I have not personally observed political motivation from the senior leadership in the Iraqi Army. And what I see is some dedicated professionals who are seriously interested in the welfare of Iraq as a nation, and they are concerned about getting the insurgency under control, and making sure that they have an army that’s capable of defending Iraq against her traditional enemies here in the Middle East. Of course, there is a history in Iraq of the army selecting the leadership of the government. I mean, that has certainly happened here in Iraq during its relatively short history as a modern nation. But I have not seen that in dealing with the majority of the senior folks that I deal with. Now what I would tell you is that when you get further down the system, and you get down to the captains and the majors, they are very, very strongly influenced by our young leaders that are out there on the battlefield with them every day. And they are embracing the idea of the American armed forces about selfless service and dedication to the nation, and I see that as those more junior officers continue to develop and grow into leadership positions, that the Iraqi Armed Forces has a potential to have a very capable and professional armed forces that is loyal to the elected government.
HH: Now that’s very good news. General, in our last ten minutes here, and you’ve been very generous with your time, I appreciate it very much, let’s talk a little bit about the American Army. A lot of pundits here, who, many of whom like me have never been to Iraq, are speculating that our Army, the American Army, is breaking under the strain. What are your thoughts on that, General?
JS: Well, a fifteen month combat tour here in Iraq is a very long time to be separated from your family, and it’s a stressful environment, and it is a tough fight. And we have some absolutely remarkable young people over here who just amaze me every day with their courage and their ability to go outside the wire and carry out their missions, whether it’s combat logistics, or whether it is combat operations, or whether it is flying one of the 502 helicopters, 532 helicopters that we have over here, or whatever it is that they’re doing. They go about doing it very, very well. I will tell you, though, that we have already met our reenlistment goals here in Iraq for the year, and we’ve got two months to go. So the morale of the troops that’s on the ground is relatively high. What I would tell you, though, is that as we continue in the fight, you have to have an opportunity to have a break from it, and we have many young leaders over here that are on their third combat tour. And the stress on their families back home is tough, and they feel that, and they want to be with their families as much as anyone else does. And they’re making a huge sacrifice on behalf of the nation. And so far, our nation has been very gracious and generous with our soldiers, and have supported them very, very well. I think you see more of a challenge once you redeploy out of theater, and then you start seeing the results of the stress and the wear and tear on the individuals, and on the equipment, and everything else. So we are, in my personal opinion, we are certainly not at a breaking point, but we are at a point where I think senior leaders should be concerned about the long term condition of our armed forces, and their ability to continue to sustain the fight.
HH: That’s a good word. What about the military collectively, and its evolution in terms of absorbing the information from the different circumstances and enemies there, and changing tactics and evolving its response? Has the American military been moving faster than you’ve ever seen it in a long and distinguished career? Or is it just doing what it’s always done well?
JS: Well, first of all, I think we are more adaptable than the Army has ever been, the armed forces has ever been. We have the smartest, most dedicated, most talented group of young people that I have ever seen assembled in the almost 34 years that I’ve been a soldier. And so when presented with dilemmas on the battlefield, or dilemmas with logistics, or dilemmas with communications, or intelligence, they very rapidly adapt, figure out a way to get inside the enemy’s decision cycle and to get us back on the offensive whenever the enemy changes their tactics, techniques or procedures. So I think that we have been probably the most adaptive armed force that has been in conflict in our nation’s history. That’s just my personal opinion as I have watched our young people deal with the insurgency operations here in Iraq.
HH: Now General, I know you’re an optimist, because you’re hopeful about Arkansas State at Texas this weekend, so I’ll factor that in, but generally speaking, what’s your one year and three year outlook for Iraq?
JS: Well, I believe that we have the capability to continue to improve the security situation here, and I believe that as the security situation improves, that economic development will get better. I think the real sticking point, and I think just about everybody in our government, just about everybody in the press recognizes that they thing that has to happen here is that the Iraqi government has to start functioning better for the Iraqi people. And I think if that happens, then I think there is a pretty good chance that all of this could work out. If the Iraqi government doesn’t start working more effectively on behalf of its citizens, then I think it’s going to be a challenge.
HH: Now General, yesterday, I don’t know if you’ve read Thomas P.M. Barnett’s The Pentagon’s New Map, but he comes on frequently, Pentagon strategist and briefer, and he said look, the Shia and the Sunni have just got to go at each other, there’s got to be a bloodletting, it’s Saudi Arabia versus Iran in Iraq, and we ought to get out of their way, and let the killing go until they’re tired of it. That’s kind of a fatalist and almost a nihilistic approach. What’s your reaction to that, General?
JS: I don’t think that’s…I don’t think that’s necessary. My dealings with the Iraqi people here is that there are many, many well educated, reasonable, middle of the road people who want to come to a political settlement to the differences here between the different political parties, the different sects that are here in Iraq. And I do not believe there needs to be any kind of bloodbath in Iraq to solve inter-religious or inter-sect problems here in Iraq.
HH: Now General, you spent a lot of time, wrapping up, in the Middle East. Does the American people, or the American media, I’ll guess, get the complexity of the struggle there? Or are we still on the first step of a long learning stair?
JS: Well, I honestly believe that many people underestimate the knowledge of middle America. I think our American citizens have a great capacity to understand very complex things. And I think that the majority of American people understand that this fight that we’re involved in right here has a significant impact on the security of the United States of America. And I think they have a desire for us to be successful here. I understand that war is fought for political end states, not for military end states, and we will carry out the directions that we’re given by our civilian leaders. And they are reflecting the will of the American people. But I think that our, the people that I interact with in the United States have a very good understanding of how important it is for us to be successful here, and how important it is to have a stable Iraq sitting here in the middle of the Middle East, and how that has an impact on us in the United States.
HH: Do you think, General, to wrap up, that they have an understanding of what Iran is doing right now, and the role that they are attempting to play in destabilizing Iraq?
JS: Yeah, I think the American people understand that Iran is using what’s going on in Iraq to their advantage, and to the United States’ disadvantage.
HH: Major General James E. Simmons, thanks so much for spending forty minutes with us. I appreciate it very much. I look forward to talking to you again in the future, and God speed to you, General. Thank you.
JS: Thank you, Hugh. Have a good day.
HH: You, too.
End of interview.