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10 May 2004

U.S. Commander Says Iraqi Prison Investigations Just Beginning

As Arab-American, Abizaid "deeply disappointed" over abuses

The Commander of U.S. Central Command forces, General John Abizaid, pledged that U.S. authorities will continue to investigate charges of abuse committed by U.S. soldiers against Iraqi prisoners and said "we will correct the system so that abuses like this cannot happen again."

Speaking at a press roundtable in Bahrain May 10, Abizaid, who commands U.S. forces in the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia and the Horn of Africa, said U.S. authorities are determined to "understand the complete scope of what may have gone wrong."

"This is not what we expect of those who are wearing the uniform of the United States nor those who are employed by the United States. I am disappointed that something like this could happen and, as an Arab-American, I am deeply disappointed," he said.

The general expressed his view that the incidents at the Abu Ghraib prison were isolated acts perpetrated by only a few soldiers. However, he said, the investigation is ongoing.

"Remember we are at the beginning of that process. It will be long and it will be painful," he said.

As commander of U.S. forces in the region, Abizaid said, "I believe that I should be held accountable for what happens."

Regarding the June 30 handover of power to Iraqi authorities, the general said coalition forces were trying to build up Iraqi security forces and establish an Iraqi chain of command.

"It is my opinion that the faster that goes, and the more proficient that force becomes, the sooner we will be able to leave," he said.

However, he said that by the June 30 handover, Iraqi forces will not be ready to defend their country and their new government without the help of the coalition forces.

" I expect that there will be a period between now and elections where a multinational force endorsed by the United Nations, that includes Iraqis, will work to defend the sovereignty of the nation," he said.

The coalition forces will place a priority on developing reliable Iraqi police, security and army forces to help support the country's independence and guard against potential threats, he said.

Following is the transcript of General Abizaid's press roundtable in Bahrain:

(begin transcript)

Press Roundtable for General John P. Abizaid
Commander, U.S. Central Command
Manama, Kingdom of Bahrain
May 10, 2004

Opening Statement:

Hello. I think what I'll do is make a brief statement and then I'll be happy to take questions. First of all I was here to visit with the Crown Prince, the Minister of Defense and the Chief of Staff. As always I come to seek their advice, to tell them about the situation as I see it in the Middle East, and to assure them that the unfortunate, indeed terrible, incidents that have taken place at Abu Ghraib prison are isolated incidents done by a few. The subject is under investigation. We'll take the investigation wherever it needs to go and as far as it needs to go. This is not what we expect of those who are wearing the uniform of the United States nor those who are employed by the United States. I am disappointed that something like this could happen and, as an Arab-American, I am deeply disappointed.

Now let me say a few other things besides Abu Ghraib. The situation in Iraq is violent. I think it is fair to say that as we move towards the June 30 transition to sovereignty, that those people who wish to work against the transition to an Iraqi sovereign authority will work very hard to undermine security. And so we have seen fighting in Fallujah. We've seen fighting against Sadr's militia in the south. We've seen fighting here and there. But at the same time there is a political process taking place in Iraq with the help of Brahimi, the United Nations, the Iraqi Governing Council and many Iraqis who want a better future for Iraq. That gives me hope that we can get through this violent period, stabilize the country, move to elections, and allow for a better future in Iraq. As I have said many times before, the United States had gained nothing by being in Iraq other than the freedom of the people of Iraq. We do not gain from the oil. We do not gain from the natural resources. We have paid a lot in terms of our national blood and treasure to make Iraq a free and independent state. We know that we must do this with the help of Iraqis. Iraq is not America. It is Iraq for the Iraqis. We have to help them but ultimately we know that they will choose the course that will not allow a terrorist state or a dictator such a Saddam Hussein to come back to power. I have great confidence in the Iraqi people to do the right thing just like I have great confidence in the American people and the Bahraini people to do the right thing.

Questions & Answers

Q: How will you make sure that what happened in Abu Ghraib will not happen again. How can Iraqis trust American again after the damage to the image of America in Iraq?

ABIZAID: Well, first of all we have to examine the system as to who was responsible for what and those people who committed crimes need to be processed through the judicial system. Then we need to look at our processes and the way that we do our business. And we have to ensure that anything that would allow for abuse is corrected. The way that we will gain the trust and confidence of the Iraqi people is to give them authority, to show compassion and kindness person-to-person where we can, to be firm with those who try to destroy the governmental process, and to ensure that they know that their success is our success. Their success is a government that allows us to leave.

Q: After the handover of power on the 30th of June, what sort of troops recession will take place? Will they be stationed outside cities?

ABIZAID: We are having conversations right now with Iraqi authorities. You know that right now we are building a Ministry of Defense. I say we are building the Ministry of Defense but that is not the right term. There is an Iraqi Ministry of Defense where we are trying to bring Iraqi general officers back into the staff and we have various units. In the period of heavy fighting in mid-April we had lack of coordination between some Iraqi authorities and military units. There needs to be an Iraqi authority all the way from the top to the bottom because we can't expect Iraqis to fight for the United States of America. They have to fight for their own country. So the most important task we'll have is establishing an Iraqi chain of command. We will do that and I assume there will be some differences in the way that we operate. However, the Iraqi security forces, unfortunately, will not be ready to defend their new government alone. So I expect that there will be a period between now and elections where a multinational force endorsed by the United Nations, that includes Iraqis, will work to defend the sovereignty of the nation.

Q: I would like to ask you about operations on the ground in Iraq if I may but before that can I ask you if you also plan to visit other Arab countries after Bahrain.

ABIZAID: I am going everywhere. I'll go back to Qatar tomorrow and talk to the leadership there. And exactly where I will head next I don't know. I have to make sure that I meet with the right leaders so I'm going to go to as many Arab countries as I can.

Q: Is there a reason for sending a military officer to deliver this message?

ABIZAID: The reason is that I am the commander of this region of American military forces and I think it is my responsibility to deliver this message.

Q: In the South of Iraq you are positioned against Sadr's fighters. How much longer are you willing to wait before you move in and finish the resistance?

ABIZAID: In Basra the British have been fighting on and off in Al Almata. We've had fighting in Kut and in Karbala. There is also fighting in Najaf and some up in Sadr city in Baghdad. We have arrested leadership members of Sadr's militia forces. Holy shrines are not only holy to the Muslim world they are also holy to us. People have asked us to do everything we can to keep from moving our forces into the holy areas where Sadr seems to have most of his strength. So we are awaiting the opportunity for Iraqis to solve this problem just like in Fallujah where we looked for there to be an Iraqi role in solving the problem. It is not just American military power to crush some Iraqi particular splinter group. We will use our power in as wise a way as we can to preserve Iraqi cultural and historical areas, to prevent civilian casualties and we'll be patient. But our patience will not last forever. There is a limit to our patience with Sadr but we also know that there is an Iraqi way for Sadr to come to justice.

Q: Is there any improvement or progress in the negotiations with Shiites in the south?

ABIZAID: I don't think it is good for me to comment on that. I can only tell you that there is plenty of progress on the military side. We have not found his military challenge to be viable.

Q: President Bush said what happened in Abu Ghraib is isolated and you have repeated that it is isolated. However, we hear statements from those in charge of the investigation that it is not isolated, it is something that seems to be systematic and a wide practice.

ABIZAID: Of course the investigations are not completed. There are about four or five other investigations that will all have to come together. There's a criminal investigation against people who are accused of crimes. There's a systemic investigation, which is the one that has been made public, called the Taguba report. That's been widely reported in the press. There is another investigation on intelligence procedures that has yet to be completed. There is a panel that has been brought together by the Secretary of Defense to look at the wider detainee problem that might exist. So my belief is that this particular problem is isolated, but we can't preclude that there may be systemic problems that have to be corrected as well. So my obligation is to tell everyone that we will not be afraid to investigate everything that need to be investigated and we will correct the system so that abuses like this cannot happen again. And that is what I think the United States must do and will do.

Q: Secretary Rumsfeld apologized in front of Congress but refused to resign. Are you ready to resign as a supreme commander if the investigation reaches a conclusion about the responsibility about the military leadership in Iraq?

ABIZAID: We military commanders are responsible for everything that happens in our area. My area stretches from Afghanistan to Kenya to Sudan and across into Jordan. It is a very big area and I am responsible for the actions of the United States military in that area. I believe that I should be held accountable for what happens.

Q: You had talked about a multinational force endorsed by the UN (inaudible).

ABIZAID: I don't know that we will be able to say for sure that many countries will refuse to send forces. In other words we had a period immediately after the war where we had about 160,000 American forces and 30,000 foreign forces in Iraq. When I say foreign forces I should say coalition forces. The idea is after this next period of new UN resolutions there would be more of a willingness by the international community to join in the rebuilding of Iraq. Sometimes I hate to use the word rebuilding. Sometimes the word really needs to be building because Iraq has a long ways to go if you were to compare it to what you see here in this wonderful country. The difference is that the new UN resolution coupled with an Iraqi sovereign authority will provide opportunities for other countries to participate and I hope they do. I believe we have to move from what is perceived largely in the Arab world as a period of occupation. We have to move away from that and into a period of partnership where the Iraqis are sovereign and the Iraqi people have the opportunity to improve and develop a system that will give them a better future and where we come in and assist when we need to. When I say we I mean the international community. As you know this problem has never been a military problem alone. It's a military, political, diplomatic, and economic. All those things must come together and they best come together with the international community and the United States but most importantly with Iraqis.

Q: After the transition period of June 30 in Iraq, for how long are you expecting to stay in Iraq?

ABIZAID: I think it will depend upon the development of Iraqi security forces. Our number one priority will be to develop reliable police, reliable local security forces and a reliable national army that will allow a sovereign and independent Iraq to emerge and to be defended against whatever threats may be presented against it. It is my opinion that the faster that goes and the more proficient that force becomes the sooner we will be able to leave. I think that you will see over time that as the Iraqis gain stability in their political process that we will be able to bring the international force level down as the Iraqi force level goes up. I can't predict how fast that will be because so much depends upon the political process. There is a lot of uncertainty in the political process right now and I think there will be continued uncertainty until Brahimi gets to the point where he and the Iraqis have come to a way ahead. I think that as we move towards election there will be certain people who will want to influence the elections by violent means. It will be a tough time but with patience and courage and determination we can get through this. This entire region will benefit from a peaceful and prosperous Iraq. It has great potential. They need to realize their potential by taking charge of their own destiny and we look forward to helping them doing that. But they won't do it without our help and the help of the international community.

Q: Can you talk about your meeting with the Crown Prince?

ABIZAID: The meeting with the Crown Prince was very beneficial. I seek his advise in understanding the various issues of the region and Iraq in particular. I conveyed to him my sense of what happened in Abu Ghraib and what we are determined to do to understand the complete scope of what may have gone wrong. Remember we are at the beginning of that process. It will be long and it will be painful. In our system we have to ensure that justice is done. Justice will only be done if we can collect the evidence, protect the rights of the accused, and get them into court in such a manner that the media hasn't tried them already. Otherwise what could happen is we can have this great furor in the media that causes no justice to be served because the rights of the accused have been violated. So I just ask people in this part of the world to understand that is always a tough call between protecting the rights of the accused and dealing with the media, but one of the things we're fighting for is the right to a free and fair trial. We have to ensure that this is available.

(end transcript)