26 March MNF-I Operational Update

Major General Kevin Bergner, Multi-National Force-Iraq spokesman, provides an update on current operations.

Maj. Gen. Bergner's Opening Remarks:

Good afternoon, al Salam Aleikem. This has been a difficult and challenging few days. It has also been a period of significant effort by the Iraqi government and their security forces to deal with the violence that criminal activity has been contributing to. This afternoon I'd like to talk in particular about events in Basra and also events here in Baghdad.

Turning to operations underway in Basra, it's important to note that they have been undertaken by Iraqi Security Forces based on the decision and direction of the Prime Minister, with his national security ministers -- completely an Iraqi initiative. Prime Minister Maliki specifically said that he took these actions because -quote- The lawlessness is going on under religious or political cover along with smuggling of oil, weapons, and drugs. These outlaws found support from inside government institutions either willingly or by coercion...turning Basra into a place where citizens cannot feel secure for their lives and property.

Iraqi operations in Basra also reflect the growing ability of the Iraqi security forces, Iraqi decision making, and Iraqi leadership. A year ago it was a significant challenge to move Iraqi Army units to Baghdad to augment forces here at the beginning of Operation Fard al-Qanoon. But, in the past week, Iraqi leaders directed forces that are the equivalent of some two brigades to move to Basra and undertake operations. These forces have included Emergency Response Units, Special Operations Forces, Helicopters and conventional forces. In addition, the Prime Minister and his council of security ministers are personally involved. A year ago, the Iraqi Security Forces could not have moved this force, they would not have been able to support it, and it would have been difficult for the government to take this strong position against the criminals.

Enforcement of the Rule of Law in Basra is not a battle against Jaysh Al-Mahdi, as some have suggested. Nor is it a proxy war between the U.S. and Iran as others have purported. It is the Government of Iraq taking responsible action necessary to deal with criminals on the streets with weapons.

The involvement of Coalition forces is limited to the normal transition teams that are embedded with Iraqi security forces; liaison elements from MNF-I and MND-SE located with the Basra Operational Command; and there are some air assets being made available as needed.

Baghdad:

In Baghdad, Coalition and Iraqi security forces have been, and will continue to be focused on those breaking the law. And, they are exercising significant restraint in those operations. We have not, for example, indiscriminately returned fire on the locations from which the rockets have been launched. We have not undertaken large-scale operations against neighborhoods, just because that is where the indirect fire originated from. We have and will continue to show restraint in dealing with those who honor al-Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr's pledge of honor to halt attacks. We have and will continue to help Iraqi security forces enforce the rule of law and target those Quds Force-backed Special Groups, and other criminals, who unleash indiscriminate violence in Iraq. And what remains most important is the support of law-abiding Iraqi citizens to identify those responsible for the criminal behavior.

Those who are firing rockets into the International Zone and other Baghdad neighborhoods are criminals who are dishonoring Sadr's pledge of honor and they are placing the lives of innocent Iraqi citizens at risk.

Our operations are not directed at Jaysh al Mahdi, not directed at Sadrists. They are directed at individuals who are breaking the law. Indeed we have welcomed the opportunity to dialogue with Muqtada al-Sadr leaders and have done so at the local level to encourage reconciliation and other initiatives like the cease fire. The suggestion that Coalition Forces and Iraqi Security Forces are targeting individuals because of their political affiliation is simply incorrect. We are targeting criminals regardless of their political or other affiliation. People who break the law are arrested and subject to the rule of law. This is focused on criminals.

Way Ahead:

Whether in Baghdad or Basra or other communities in Iraq, no one wants to see a return to the violence of a year ago. The Iraqis I speak with want to move forward and build on the security gains that have been achieved through enormous sacrifice. They do not want to go backwards. They want to see roads that were once closed re-opened, like we saw this week in.... 9 Nissan district.

They want to see schools open and businesses bringing in the commodities they need. They want to have the freedom to come and go to work without threats and intimidation. They want their neighbors to respect the sovereignty of Iraq. And they expect their Government to take the actions necessary to remove the criminals from the streets so that all of that can happen.

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