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Department of Defense Press Briefing with Brigadier General Kevin J. Killea, chief of staff, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve via DVIDS from Southwest Asia on Operation Inherent Resolve

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Marine Corps Brigadier General Kevin J. Killea, chief of staff, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR)
Aug. 21, 2015
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BRIGADIER GENERAL KEVIN KILLEA: Okay, well, I appreciate that. Thank you, and thanks to everyone for attending.

As was said, I'd like to provide a brief operational update on a couple of areas, mainly Ramadi and Baiji, and then talk to our continued discussions with Turkey with regard to their support in the campaign against ISIL. After that, I'll take your questions.

So, in Ramadi, the counterattack continues in the isolation phase, with the ISF making daily progress. The ISF are conducting operations for multiple axes and are executing their planned scheme of maneuver. It's a difficult fight, to say the least. Some days one axis will advance significantly, and the next day that same axis will get delayed by heavy contact with the enemy or obstacles.

But overall, progress is being made by all axes in Ramadi. The ISF forces remain measured and deliberate in their advances, and they are taking the necessary time to clear the ground that is littered with ISIL obstacles and IEDs. As you can imagine, explosive ordnance disposal teams and equipment are an extremely important resource for the ISF right now.

The ISF takeover and control of Anbar University is a good example of how long it takes to clear and dispose of dense obstacle and IED belts while the ISF controlled in and around the university over a week ago, they still had to methodically clear the area in order to completely secure it and prepare for the next phase of operations, which they have done.

Multiple units that the coalition has helped train are participating as this fight, as you know, the 73rd and 76th brigades who were trained by coalition partners Australia and New Zealand, are doing very well to date, as are the approximately 600 Sunni tribal fighters who participated in the advise and assist program.

Additionally, our advisers continue to work closely with ISF at multiple operation centers to assist with planning, command and control, and intelligence sharing. Coalition airstrikes continue to support phase two, and this support will increase when clearing operations begin.

Over to Baiji, the situation there remains hotly contested. While Baiji city remains primarily in the control of the Iraqi army and PMF forces, the ISF continue to position forces in an attempt to gain an advantage in the oil refinery to the north of the city.

The oil refinery area is truly an attack-counterattack situation being played out on a daily basis. Coalition airstrikes combined with timely ISF maneuver have provided positional advantages while denying ISIL momentum during these counterattacks.

About a third of the refinery area is controlled by the ISF forces today, and in the south, ISF and PMF have secured at least 80 percent of the city. They are in the process of securing the remainder of the city while at the same time staying in front of ISIL'S probing attacks and isolation efforts in the south of the city there.

ISIL continues to send reinforcements to this battleground, where coalition airstrikes have been very successful in targeting and eliminating them. As I said, it's a -- it's a hotly contested fight.

With regard to Turkey, we have been saying all along how much Turkey is a valued partner in the campaign against ISIL. They have been a standing part of the coalition for some time now, and for the last two weeks, we have been working on deepening their involvement in the CJTF anti-ISIL operations.

For the coalition efforts against ISIL, the broader use of Incirlik for air operations in Syria is already proving to be a great effects multiplier on the battlefield. Armed RPA, strike fighters and aerial refueling tankers originating from Turkey have combined to produce devastating effects against ISIL targets.

In turn, these effects have gone a long way in enabling the anti- ISIL fighters on the ground. Bottom line of the discussions with Turkey, we have 10 different coalition partners participating in airstrike operations in Iraq and/or Syria.

Without this coalition effort, the ISF and anti-ISIL advances on the ground would not be what they are today. For this reason, we look forward to getting Turkey's anti-ISIL contributions formalized in the CJTF OIR process as soon as possible.

Let me begin wrapping up by saying that ISIL in action today is a different enemy than it was a year ago, and I'll use a couple of examples from northern Syria to explain this, since I haven't talked about the northern fight yet.

In all of northern Syria, ISIL fighters have been regularly targeted and killed by anti-ISIL forces and coalition airstrikes. This has led to a significant loss of physical territory and the denial of key movement corridors.

Not only has this impacted their ability to conduct offensive operations because they can't command and control as well, but it has also reduced their ability to govern and control the populace of once- seized towns and cities.

This loss of influence, operationally and over the Syrian populace is no more apparent than what we saw in Tal Abyad in June of this year. The ISIL loss here led to the stagnation of their advances in this region. Hasakah is also a great example. This is where anti-ISIL forces not only took back the city, but they also liberated its people and -- and regained control of crucial supply routes between Syria and Mosul, Iraq.

So in conclusion, this is a tough fight, but day in and day out, ISF and indigenous ground forces throughout Iraq and Syria are making progress. They are all motivated to see this through because they're at a fight taken on by partners against an enemy that must be defeated.

Thank you and I'm ready for your questions.

STAFF: OK, we'll go to Barbara.

Q: Thank you, General. Barbara Starr from CNN.

We haven't talked in a while about the pursuit of high-value targets and how, if you were successful, how that could change the battlefield for you. So let me ask you two things.

If you could get Baghdadi, and I assume he's still a target you want, so it's not hypothetical. If you could get to him and capture or kill him, what's your assessment on how that would change ISIS's abilities, strengths, what it would mean to the battlefield if you could get to Baghdadi?

And secondly, what's your -- you talked about northern Syria. What's your current assessment about how well dug-in ISIS leadership is in Raqqa, since that is their self-declared capital? Thank you.

BRIG. GEN. KILLEA: Thank you for those questions, Ms. Starr. Unfortunately, you're not gonna like my answer to the first one. I don't have any perspective or details on HBI -- situation, targeting, effects on the battlefield. I can direct that question to the proper folks here in theater who can give you that answer.

With regard to ISIS leadership in Raqqa, I think that how well they're dug in -- Raqqa has been taking a beating for some time now. I think that will be seen when the YPG forces and the rest of the anti-ISIL forces in the north continue their advance south, and only then will we see how dug in they truly are.

STAFF: Tara.

Q: Thank you, general. Tara Copp with Stars and Stripes.

Is Turkey still hitting the PKK in Iraq, and -- do I have to hit a button so you can hear me? Can you hear me?

BRIG. GEN. KILLEA: I can hear you.

Q: Start over. So is Turkey still hitting PKK targets in northern Iraq, and what's the status of Turkey conducting airstrikes on either Syria or Iraq?

BRIG. GEN. KILLEA: So as I said in my opening statement, we are in discussions with Turkey right now to (off-mic).

STAFF: A glitch there, General. I don't know if you're able to repeat that.

BRIG. GEN. KILLEA: OK. I've got you loud and clear.

STAFF: All right, sir, we've got you back too. We lost you, if you wouldn't mind starting again, Tara Copp just asked you about Turkey contributions.

BRIG. GEN. KILLEA: Yes. So I think it's important to note, as I said in my opening statement, that we are in discussions with Turkey to formalize their involvement in CJTF operations and we believe that that will be an enormous boost to the anti-ISIL efforts in both Iraq and Syria, as we've seen with the 10 other coalition nations that are doing that in both countries.

With regard to the PKK, we respect Turkey's right to self-defense with regard to the PKK and part of the discussions that we have is making sure that any actions they take unilaterally are coordinated properly with the CJTF.

STAFF: Andrew.

Q: General, it's Andrew Tilghman with Military Times.

I'd just like to ask you for a brief operational update on Falluja. If you could tell us is it -- is the PMF a majority of the Iraqi forces operating in Falluja right now? And are they clearing any areas and if they are, do you have evidence of any sort of sectarian retaliation on the part of the PMF that might be complicating the situation?

BRIG. GEN. KILLEA: So, to answer the first part of your question, I think that it's fair to say the PMF are throughout the battle space, but especially in the Falluja area. There's a lot of fighting north and northwest of Falluja that the PMF are involved in. I don't have an answer to the second part of your question about sectarian responses.

STAFF: Christina.

Q: Hey, General. It's Kristina Wong from The Hill. Thanks for doing this.

Back to Turkey, wanted to know what's holding up their integration into the coalition, whether it's a matter of technical or logistical integration or is it more of a policy decision in getting them to agree to things?

BRIG. GEN. KILLEA: That's a very good question, Kristina. I think that -- I'm not involved in the details of those discussions. I think that you can imagine there are a lot of intricate air tasking order type of details that have to be worked out whether that's airspace, air control, de-confliction of actions, they share a border with both Iraq and Syria, as you know, and so that -- that complicates it a little bit more than folding in any of the previous coalition partners that don't share a border into the CJTF operations.

Q: I wanted to also ask you about the Syrian train and equip program. Has the second class graduated yet? And would they go out after being trained or would they wait for the third class that's being trained?

BRIG. GEN. KILLEA: Yes, so thank you for that question. I don't have specific details on where they are in their training path and when exactly they will graduate. But as you mentioned, the second and third class, they are in training and we see this as a -- and also I would mentioned that the recruitment efforts for follow on classes if very promising with regard to numbers.

So I -- I feel like this marks a very important point for this -- for this program. This is an important piece to our strategy, the enabling of ground forces, indigenous ground forces, to fight ISIL because as the secretary said yesterday, and this is a long-term solution to defeat ISIL is the enabling of indigenous ground forces.

Q: General, Lucas Tomlinson with Fox News. Do you have an update on the ISIS chemical weapons attack against the Kurds?

BRIG. GEN. KILLEA: Yeah, thank you for that question and I appreciate the opportunity to answer that and I actually do have some information on that that I can share with you since last Friday, when we did one of these pressers.

But first, let me say that from a coalition perspective, we really don't need another reason to hunt down ISIL and kill them wherever we can and whenever we can. But however, it's important that any indication of use of a warfare agent, purely from our perspective, reinforces a position that this is an abhorrent group that will kill indiscriminately without any moral or legal code or restraint.

So that's an important point going into this. So now, as we talk about what happened and how we are gonna go forward, we have to understand exactly what happened before we talk about addressing it fully. So the attack that happened last week around August -- it was August 11th, up near Makhmur and it involved a mortar attack against the Pesh near their FLOT. What we were able to do was a couple of days later, ironically about the same time that you all were drilling Colonel Ryan, were able to take the fragments from some of those mortar rounds and do a field test, a presumptive field test on those fragments and they showed the presence of HD, or what is known as sulfur mustard. That is a class one chemical agent.

Now, it's very important to understand here that that is a presumptive field test and it is not conclusive, and what those results tell us is merely the presence of that chemical. It doesn't tell us anything more than that. So it is gonna take us a couple of weeks to do the full testing on those fragments to figure out what was contained in or on those mortar rounds before we make a determination on exactly what it was, potentially how much it was and maybe even where it came from.

So I would ask everybody's patience on that until the formal tests -- the full tests are returned.

Q: General, on a different note, is it true that you would like the Aussies to begin bombing targets in Syria?

BRIG. GEN. KILLEA: Me personally, no. I'm kidding. I said earlier, we have 10 countries that are fantastic coalition partners in the air strikes against the -- in the campaign against ISIL. A couple of those countries are participating in both Iraq and Syria. I will let the governments of Australia and the coalition work through that and determine exactly how we can best utilize those forces.

Their contributions to date have been enormous and we look forward to future contributions by Australia if that's what they decide to do.

Q: Hey General. Thomas Gibbons-Neff from the Washington Post here. Going back to Back to Ramadi, it sounds like it's kind of turning into a -- a big of a drag out fight and there hasn't been that much mention of casualties on the Iraqi side of the house. What's your assessment on that, are they high, low? If you can give me specifics, that would be great. And kind of dovetailing off that, what is the coalition's assessment of the ISF's morale on the ground?

BRIG. GEN. KILLEA: Okay, so to answer the first question, I think as I mentioned in the opening statement, the isolation phase continues and on a daily basis we see a tightening around Ramadi, nearly on every access is closing in on a daily basis, and from my assessment, from what I see, I think it's clearer and clearer that the ISIL forces are having a harder time replacing dead fighters because the access to Ramadi, the access is the different avenues of approach are being restricted more and more each day.

BRIG. GEN. KILLEA: As far as the number of ISF casualties, I don't have that for you. I think that's available. I don't know, but I will defer that to CENTCOM PA to look up the details of that. And your last comment on morale, while I don't have a direct litmus test from where I am on how the morale is on the ground, I can only look at the effects that they're having on the ground and the progress that they're making in the face of a very arduous task, densely populated urban terrain, significant obstacle belts, IEDs left and right, and all of that covered by fire. A lot of snipers as well.

I should take this opportunity to talk about the combat engineers, the ordnance disposal teams, who have gone into counter the IED belts that surround Ramadi. Many of these, most of them, most of them, actually have been trained by U.S. and Spanish forces as part of our BPC program.

Q: Question on that.

Are these IEDs anything we've never seen before, as far as, you know, our past fights in Iraq and Afghanistan?

BRIG. GEN. KILLEA: Another great question. And the best way I can answer that is to say that the IED threat is a global threat, and it constantly evolves. It is a point-counterpoint type of situation.

When you figure a way to counter IEDs, the enemy changes their -- mostly their techniques and their procedures on how to employ them. From a CJTF, from a coalition perspective, it is high on our list to go after not just the IED making facilities, the transportation facilities, but we put a lot of effort in our ISR in going after the IED vehicles, and the emplacement of IEDs across the battle space.

Q: Hi, Bill Hennigan, Los Angeles Times.

I wanted to know about the assault on Mosul. We haven't heard about that in a while. Have plans on that been shelved indefinitely?

And about the IEDs that are around Ramadi, are you seeing more -- are you sending more anti-IED forces to train these folks to be able to mitigate against those weapons?

BRIG. GEN. KILLEA: OK, so the first question on Mosul, I would say that the counterattack on Mosul is not quote, unquote "shelved indefinitely." I would say that that is obviously part of the plan for the government of Iraq, and it will be on their timeline when we go up to Mosul. From my perspective, I would say that everything that we do in that AOR, what we are doing right now in Anbar, what we are doing up in the north of Mosul, and to the northwest of Mosul, all of that, in my opinion, is shaping operations for the eventual retaking, or re-attack on Mosul if you will.

The second question was on -- I believe it was on IEDs, and you asked about additional training. I will tell you, that we have significant coalition forces that training to that area right now, and I will get you those numbers of that training contingent.

Is it something that we can boost up, and perhaps have greater effect? Sure, I think we look at that everyday, but we also look at all the other pieces of the counter-IED network that we can use to help address that threat. Whether ISR, or other network intelligence type avenues to defeat that device.

And truly, that device has become ISIL's lead weapon of choice, in any kind of probing attacks, or even setting up future offenses where they go into new areas.

Q: Hi, sir. Tony Cappacio with Bloomberg News.

And the F-16s in Turkey. Can you give us a sense of whether they've been flying regularly as part of the air tasking order?

And kind of in layman's language, what advantages to you get from flying from Incirlik, versus from Kuwait and some of the more far away bases? And then I had a follow up on IEDs.

BRIG. GEN. KILLEA: Sure. Yes, they are flying regularly from the ATO, and that has been a fantastic, strategic location for us to fly from to support anti-ISIL efforts in Syria and Iraq.

You can do the time distance on a map, and see what it takes for them to cover areas in Syria that we're attacking ISIL right now. And the longer time on station -- the ability for turn around times, back into Incirlik, and then back into the Theater of operations is an obvious advantage. Not the least of which, we have armed RPA out of Incirlik now, as well.

So, that brings another punch to the fight, and the fact that we have airborne refueling tankers coming out of Incirlik, so they can stay on their refueling tracks longer. And that is a huge boost for -- anybody who flies fighters knows that, if there's gas airborne, you're happy, because you can stay on station longer.

I'll take your IED question, now.

Q: A techie question on the IED -- I mean the F-16s.

Are they actually able to queue the Reapers or Predators that you're using -- the armed Reapers and Predators that you're using over there. That's been a concept of operation that both the Army and the Air Force have been trying to develop.

Is that playing out over there?

BRIG. GEN. KILLEA: I'm sorry. I can't answer that question, but I will take that and get back to you, if I can get you the details on that.

Q: OK, an IED question.

During the heart of Iraq War -- the first Iraq War, the one that we just left in 2011. The National Reconnaissance Office developed a system called Red Dot to use some of their intelligence surveillance satellites to help with a more instantaneous detection of IEDs.

I've been told by the NRO that the Army is now using the Red Dot system to help with IEDs. They weren't sure if it's being used in Iraq, but is it, by the way?

BRIG. GEN. KILLEA: So, a great question. And I thought I new a bunch about IEDs and counter-IED, but that one is outside of my knowledge base. I'm sorry.

Again, another one I'll take for the record, and if I can get you a better answer -- I'm sure I can get you a better answer, I'll get it back to you.

STAFF: Courtney.

Q: Hi, General. This is Courtney Kube from NBC News.

If we could go back to the suspected chemical weapons attack last week.

You mentioned that the U.S. got fragments to do a field test. How did the U.S. get those fragments? Were there actually U.S. military or civilians out gathering them up, or did the Pesh bring them to the U.S.?

BRIG. GEN. KILLEA: Yes, the Pesh brought them back to -- basically a camp that's near one of the operation centers, deep behind the FLOT, which is why it took a couple of days for us to be able to analyze, so it was in the field.

Q: Are you concerned about the chain of custody, then? If it was several days after the attack, and the U.S. weren't actually the ones who were there gathering up the fragments, is there any concern that the samples could have been tampered with? Or that they aren't exactly pure to be testing?

BRIG. GEN. KILLEA: Absolutely, there was concerns with that. And thank you for bringing that up. Because this goes to the point that we have only a field test that shows us the presence of HD on those fragments.

And until we do full testing, and we know the exact composition of the makeup of whatever was in those mortar rounds or on them, and other tests, and that's -- gets outside of my field of expertise very quickly, here, we won't be able to have a firm decision on exactly what happened there.

So, that's what I said in the beginning of my statement before. We need to understand the full details, and then make a determination on the path forward.

Q: If I could just ask on more.

Are you investigating, are you looking into any other instances of chemical weapons attack, both in Iraq or in Syria?

BRIG. GEN. KILLEA: I am not aware of any that we are investigating at this time, beyond the 11th of August attack that we had a positive field test on.

Q: General, Richard Sisk from military.com.

Sir, in your discussions with the Turks on how they're going to operate, if they're going to operate in conjunction with the coalition, is part of your discussions trying to get them to agree not to attack the YPG?

BRIG. GEN. KILLEA: So, that's a great question, I appreciate it.

I think the focus of the conversation with the Turks right now is to focus on anti-ISIL campaign that we are doing in Syria and Iraq.

The YPG has come up in the past, in earlier discussions. I think that the Turkish government understands our position on the YPG, that they have been a credible, reliable partner on the ground in the fight against ISIL in Northern Syria.

And I'd just leave it at that. I don't know any further details with regard to any kind of restrictions or qualifications in that area.

STAFF: David.

Q: This is -- excuse me, thank you, General, for doing this. This is David Alexander from Reuters.

There was a significant jump in the number of munitions released per day in July. I wonder if you have any indication yet whether that has continued into August, and if you can explain why that may be happening, if there's better -- better targeting, for example, from the ground, or something.

BRIG. GEN. KILLEA: Wow, that's a fantastic question, one I hadn't thought of, and I know that I can give you an answer when I look at the data of where the targets are that we attacked from July that you saw it increase, and what areas may have been developed further in the -- in the targeting process. How it's translated into -- into August, for me, I -- I see some increases and I see some -- some decreases every now and then, but I don't see a huge change in the primary areas of focus right now, which would be Ramadi, which would be the Baiji area, and some -- and -- and obviously, the -- OK.

I don't know if they're hearing that feedback in the Pentagon. Are you hearing that? You're not hearing it?

OK, It's done now. Pentagon, do you got me?

STAFF: We got you just fine.

We hear you just fine. Can you hear us?

OK.

BRIG. GEN. KILLEA: Yeah, I have you.

STAFF: I know your time is short. Do you have time for two more?

BRIG. GEN. KILLEA: Yeah. Let me just finish up on that last question on the targeting and the strikes. If you just submit that as an RTQ, I'll be able to look at the data and give you a better answer.

I started to talk myself into an answer there and I should probably just looked at the data for you.

STAFF: We're going to call on Luis.

Q: General, it's Luis -- it's Luis Martinez of ABC News. I have a couple of follow-ups.

So when you talked about the chemical investigations, you said that there were no other ones ongoing. But there was an incident in Syria two weeks prior to the one that you mentioned that seemed to been confirmed also as involving some kind of blistering agent.

Was it the same kind of H.D. that we found on August 11th? And there was also an incident two days later to the August 11th one, that was also being reported allegedly as involving chemical weapons.

BRIG. GEN. KILLEA: Right, so thanks for that question.

The -- the -- the question that I received earlier was ongoing investigations. The one in Syria in June was completed, so those full tests came back and I don't have those results in front of me. I can get those to you on what that detection was and what the full results came out to be. That was in -- I think that was in the third week of June.

And I am aware of reports of an additional allegation that there might be a chemical detection or a weapon of some sort that was found, but I don't have any details on that, and in my -- to my knowledge, that is not an ongoing investigation. So I can look into that to see if there's something there, but I'm focused on what happened with the August 11th attack because there, again, we had a presumptive field test that came back with a positive indication for H.D.

Q: Thank you. And if I could follow up with one more.

An earlier comment you made about the YPG and the anti-ISF, and Raqqa. Are -- is the YPG capable of mounting an offensive against Raqqa to take that city?

BRIG. GEN. KILLEA: I think that the ISF forces in Iraq and the anti-ISIL forces in Syria, along with coalition air power, are capable of defeating ISIL over time. I think the strategy is a sound one, and I -- I think it's yet to be seen how soon Raqqa is taken, but surely that is a jewel for ISIL, and will not go down easy.

That'll be a heavy fight and -- when that occurs. But I have all the confidence in the anti-ISIL forces and coalition and air power to -- to defeat this threat that needs to be defeated.

Q: Thank -- thank you, General, and thanks for your patience. Nick Harmsen from Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Further to the question earlier about Australia's potential involvement in Syria, could you just talk to the differences between the air campaigns in Iraq and Syria? And in particular, the different risks of operating in Syrian airspace as opposed to Iraqi airspace.

BRIG. GEN. KILLEA: Those are great questions, with -- that -- you know, they demand some detail with regard to how the CFACC prosecutes their ATO. So I would -- I would defer that question to CENTCOM, who can get the proper people from the Combined Force Air Component Command at the CAOC who control that, and to give you a proper answer on that.

STAFF: General, I know we've used other time. Lucas has one follow-up which he questions will -- promises will be short and in one part.

Q: General, Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News. How did the Pesh -- did they just pick up these fragments with their bare hands and deliver them to the Americans just unannounced? And is the U.S. doing the final testing right now on these fragments? Thank you.

BRIG. GEN. KILLEA: So I don't have the details on how the Pesh transported those fragments back to the site where we did the field testing. I can get that. The second part is the process to do the formal testing on these fragments is -- is underway.

STAFF: All right, General, thank you very much for your time today, and thank you everybody for coming.

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