By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
April 15, 2008 - Defense Department officials today praised Iraq's security forces for yesterday's rescue of CBS journalist Richard Butler, who was kidnapped in February. "The operation showed great initiative and demonstrated the increasing capability of Iraq security forces to take on the terrorists and extremists who are trying to derail the progress in Iraq," Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell in a news conference here.
Butler was kidnapped while on assignment as a cameraman in Basra. The Iraqi soldiers acted on a tip and raided a house outside of Basra where Butler was held. One terrorist was captured.
"The [Iraqi] military still has a long way to go, however it is slowly but surely becoming a professional fighting force," Morrell said.
In the news conference, Morrell fielded questions ranging from troop presence in Afghanistan to today's car bombings in Iraq and how long it will take to select a new commander for U.S. Central Command.
He was pressed about today's series of car-bomb explosions in Baqouba and Ramadi that killed more than 50 people and marked one of the worst days of violence in Iraq in months. In Baqouba, at least 38 people were killed and dozens more injured after a car blew up near government offices. In Ramadi, 14 people died when a car exploded outside a restaurant, according to media reports.
Morrell called the bombings "tragic," but said he does not believe violence is getting worse in Iraq.
"All the statistics, everything that we monitor, in terms of violence, civilian deaths, sectarian killings, all the trend lines are pointing down. They have been for months. They continue to trend that way," Morrell said. "At this point I have heard no one in any position of authority pronounce any concern that the progress we have made security-wise is unraveling or trending in the wrong direction."
Morrell also fielded questions about how long the U.S. will have a troop presence in Afghanistan. A commander there was reported to have said that U.S. troops will serve there until at least 2011.
"All of us engaged in [Afghanistan] need to view this beyond the near term and see this as a much longer-term mission than we have," Morrell said. "This is a three- to five-year mission that we need to be focused on."
"Clearly the United States government and our coalition partners in Afghanistan need to be viewing the threat there as one that needs to be combated ... at least five years down the line," he said.
But, Morrell said, officials cannot predict or project troop-level requirements that far out.
Morrell also was asked for an update on the progress of the investigation into the accidental shipment of ballistic missile parts to Taiwan, instead of the requested helicopter batteries. The department acknowledged last month that four nose-cone fuses were shipped to the island in 2006.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates meets today with Navy Adm. Kirkland Donald, who is charged with conducting the investigation, for about 30 minutes for a review of the progress of the investigation. The admiral is due to be finished with the investigation in May.
Morrell said a nomination is forthcoming to fill the top spot at U.S. Central Command left vacant by last month's retirement of Navy Adm. William J. Fallon. The admiral is replaced temporarily by his deputy, Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who will serve until a permanent commander is nominated by President Bush and confirmed by the Senate.
Gates has started the process of finding a permanent replacement, holding his first meeting on the issue a few weeks ago, Morrell said. But recently, all efforts have been focused on the recent reports from Iraq. Now more efforts will be channeled toward making a selection. Morrell said that he expects a permanent replacement for Fallon to be on the job in May.