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Department of Defense Press Briefing by Col. Warren via teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq

Press Operations

Colonel Steve Warren, Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman
Dec. 18, 2015
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CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS:  Okay.  Good morning everybody, and happy year's end.  As you see, we have taken our curtain down for our year-end cleaning.

So, we're pleased to have Colonel Steve Warren join us today from Operation Inherent Resolve in Baghdad.

Steve, we'll turn it over to you.

COLONEL STEVE WARREN:  Thank you, Jeff.  And greetings to everyone there in the Pentagon.  It was a pleasure to see many of your colleagues traveling with the secretary over the last couple of days.

And -- and that's the first thing I'd like to talk about.  I wanted to let you know that we had a great visit by the secretary of defense over the last two days.  For those of you who saw the reporting, the secretary had informative meetings with several Iraqi senior leaders -- also with Operation Inherent Resolve commander, and other senior leaders.

Most importantly, he had a great opportunity to engage with troops on the ground, here, who of course, are working hard everyday to support the Iraqi Security Forces and to defeat ISIL.

I'm going to begin this week with an operational update.  Tom, if you would please bring up the map on my screen so I can see it.  While that is happening, we continue to attack ISIL in both Syria and Iraq, and across the breadth and depth of this battle field.

So, I'm going to work our way around the map.  I'll start off with the close fights, which are the stars.  In Baiji, which is star number two, the ISF continued to conduct clearing operations to eliminate pockets of resistance.  The main focus of those clearing operations is now the Makhmour Mountains, which is north of Baiji and on the other side of the river.

Moving on to Sinjar, which is star number three on your map.  Coalition forces continue to support Peshmerga clearance operations with dynamic air strikes.

In Fallujah, which is star number four, the ISF have moved several brigade-sized units into positions around the city, and have begun operations to isolate enemy forces within that city.

In Hit -- which is star number five, we continue to disrupt enemy command and control through air strikes.  The operations between Hit and Haditha, conducted jointly by ISF and Sunni tribal forces, provide additional isolation of Ramadi, Fallujah, and really, through the entire Euphrates River Valley.  We're calling that the Hit-Haditha corridor.

Moving into Syria.  In Al Hawl, which is star number six, the Syrian Democratic Forces are marshalling in preparation to push into Shaddadi.  Off to the far left edge of your map, in Mara -- which is actually off the map, you might be able to see star number sever on there -- we continued to support vetted Syrian opposition forces with air strikes.

The forces around the Mara line have seen tough fighting over the last week.  They have traded punches and terrain with the ISIL fighters in that area.

Our deep fights continue to shape the battle field for future operations.  In Deir ez-Zor, which is blue circle number two, we continue  disrupting revenue by striking oil infrastructure that supports ISIL's illicit oil activities.

A Tidal Wave II attack struck another gas and oil separation plant in this area on December 13th.

At the same time, we continue training, equipping, advising and assisting Iraqi Security Forces.  We have trained and equipped nearly 16,000 ISF troops since the start of building partner capacity operations.  And we have more than 4,300 in training this week.

At the same time, we continue training, equipping, advising and assisting Iraqi Security Forces.  We have trained and equipped nearly 16,000 ISF troops since the start of building partner capacity operations.  And we have more than 4,300 in training this week.

This effort continues while the Army is engaged in combat operations, so it is truly -- it is like building and airplane while in flight.

Now, I purposely left Ramadi and northern -- Northern Iraq for last.  There were significant fights in both of these places this week.  Both of these fights tell us something about the current status of this -- of this overall effort.

In each place, ISIL was able to muster an offensive effort, which tells us that they have still got some fight left in them.  However, and much more importantly, in each fight, Iraqi forces were able to rebuff ISIL's efforts.

I'd like to quickly walk you through both of these fights.  In Ramadi, which is star number one on your map, ISIL assaulted, in the north, on Tuesday, and were able to temporarily push Iraqi Security Forces off the Palestine Bridge.  And of course, we had spoken about this bridge for a long time.  It's a significant land mark.

After seizing the bridge, ISIL sent VBIED, truck bomb, supported by infantry, towards the Anbar ops center, in an effort to retake that key objective.  Over the ISF, using U.S.-provided AT-4s were able to destroy that VBIED, kill the infantry, and support and repel the attack.

Coalition airpower brought time for the ISF to organize a counter attack, and they regained the Palestine Bridge.

Towards Northern Iraq, which is -- it's right along the red edge there, if you -- you see the blue number one, up from the blue one, as -- you can sort of see how that red line moves into -- into yellow.  That's the forward line of troops, we call it the FLOT.  The main town, which is not shown on your map, where this fight took place is Tal Aswad.

Now, that fight took place along the -- thank you, that's perfect.  That fight took place along the Kurdish FLOT, and began at 1617 hours on Wednesday, and it began with rocket fire on a Peshmerga position, near a village called Bashiqa.

That rocket attack kicked off a battalion-sized assault along the FLOT, that lasted until about 0900 hours yesterday.  ISIL forces struck in Nuran, Bashiqa and Tal Aswad and were able to temporarily penetrate the FLOT on each locations.

Coalition air craft from five nations responded, and expended nearly 100 precision munitions during the overnight battle.  The enemy used several construction vehicles, such as excavators, to breach the berms and defensive emplacements around the FLOT.  But coalition air craft managed to destroy every one of these videos.

Today's video is a compilation from these air strikes.

In the middle of the video, pay particular attention to the vehicle strikes.  These are the excavators and construction vehicles that I just mentioned.

So, with that, DVIDS, would you please roll the videotape?

(VIDEO PRESENTATION)

COL. WARREN:  Thank you, DVIDS.  You know, there's something else I want to point out during all of this, and that's -- while this attack was going on, and while air craft from five coalition nations were able to surge and help the Peshmerga beat this attack back, the coalition was simultaneously attacking ISIL in the heart of their so-called caliphate, which is Raqqa.

While this dynamic fight was happening along the Kurdish FLOT, there were B-1s striking multiple targets in Raqqa -- I guess the headquarters, training camp, and another building.

So, while ISIL was trying to strike in to the flank of the Iraqi Security Forces, I think it's important to note that we were simultaneously knocking that flanking attack back, and striking right into ISIL's heart.

So, with that, I will take your questions.  I think I saw Bob there, so why don't we start with you, Bob.

Q:  Good.  Hello, Steve.  Question for you about the effect, if any, of the placement of Russian surface-to-air missiles in Syria, in Western Syria.

There have been reports that this has had some effect on coalition air operations.  Can you explain how -- if so, if that's true?

COL. WARREN:  Yeah, I've seen some of those reports, and I'll tell you, they are -- they are, I think, largely inaccurate.

So, while there have been -- and we have openly discussed the presence of both Russian and Syrian air defense systems in Northern Syria, I can tell you that there has not been a significant disruption to our operations.

We were flying -- we conduct strikes in Northwestern Syria continually.  We conducted some manned strikes on the Mara line as recently as two days ago.  And we did some manned strikes in the Manbij Pocket last night.  So the answer is no.  We are aware of them and we have the ability to continue operations our unabated.

And I want to be clear, the Russians do not -- their actions do not dictate how we do business and that is simply not going to happen.

We will continue to conduct our operations in support of the local ground forces there in Syria.

Q:  Do you have anything on additional U.S. aircraft going into Incirlik after the F-15s have departed, to replace them to some degree?

COL. WARREN:  We don't have any announcement to make now.  I'll tell you Bob, that we have sufficient airpower to conduct the operations that we want to conduct.  You know, these are rotations right?  So the F-15s that departed earlier in the week, that was planned when they got there, we knew when they were going to leave.

So, you know, we'll continue to rotate aircraft.  You know, this is an operation that has been going on for over a year now so there is a requirement to rotate aircraft and occasionally, you know what, a squadron or a -- some other sized unit of aircraft will depart and maybe it'll be some time before another one is able to get there to replace it.

CAPT. DAVIS:  Mik.

Q:  I would like to follow up on Bob's first question.  One of the reports that Bob cited said that the U.S. has stopped flying manned air support missions for rebels in a key part of Syria due to Russia's expansion of air defense system and said that these SA-17 air defense radar systems are painting the U.S. aircraft.  And that for now, the U.S. seems to be acquiescing to Russia's efforts to keep American manned planes out of the sky.

I mean, this report file was pretty specific Steve.  Are you denying what is in this report here?

COL. WARREN:  I am.  The report's incorrect.  We are continuing to conduct flights, both manned and unmanned.  We continue to fly everywhere. We know exactly where that SA-17 is.  It's in Aleppo.  But we're continuing to strike everywhere that we want to strike.  Simple.

CAPT. DAVIS:  Brian.

Q:  Yes.  Sorry.  There are a couple of reports lately that the coalition has sort of a depleting stock of ordinance available as the war rages on.  Is that correct?  Is their other concerns that we could be running out of bombs?  Is there enough stockpiled to continue operations for the next foreseeable future?

COL. WARREN:  We have no concern whatsoever about the stockpile of munitions.  We have enough munitions to conduct all the operation we need to conduct, as well as maintain a contingency stoppage.

CAPT. DAVIS:  Joe.

Q:  Hi, Steve.  This is (inaudible).

I would like to ask you about the security meeting with Prime Minister Abadi this week.  How would you describe it and then also how would you describe the level of communications with the Iraqi government?  Were you surprised or was the U.S. military surprised by these comments that Iraq doesn't work on U.S. ground troops in Iraq?

COL. WARREN:  Our relations with the Iraqi government are exceptionally good.  We talk to the Iraqi senior leadership every day.  And we work very closely with them on our common goal which is the defeat of Daesh.

So, I don't know that the prime minister ever said they didn't welcome U.S. ground forces.  Every personnel who is here on the ground is here at the invitation of the Iraqi government.  What -- what the Iraqi government has made clear to us, and has made clear publicly, is that they are not interested in any forces coming into Iraq that haven't been invited.

And this is something that, of course, we understand, and we respect.  We have great respect for Iraqi sovereignty and for the -- for the Iraqi government.

Q:  Just a quick -- a quick follow up, Colonel Warren.

I mean, I don't know if you agree with many local reportings in Iraq saying that the slow of the fight against ISIL in Iraq, the pace of the fight against ISIL in Iraq is very slow.  Would you agree with that?

COL. WARREN:  Slow compared to what?

Q:  Slow compared -- the Iraqi army has been preparing to -- has been clearing the area in Ramadi for more than four, five months, now.  And we're still hearing from you and from other officials that the Iraqi army is still in the clear -- still in the preparation stage.

My question is, don't you think the -- retaking Ramadi has been -- has taken too long?  And the pace is going too slow?

COL. WARREN:  The commanding general here for Operation Inherent Resolve is named Lieutenant General MacFarland, Sean MacFarland.

When General MacFarland was a colonel, he commanded the unit that was responsible for Ramadi.

It took then Colonel MacFarland six months to bring Ramadi under control -- six months, and that is using all of the might and power of the United States military.

And you yourself just now told me, in your opinion, it has taken the Iraqis four months.

So, no, I don't think it's going slow.  I think it is going at the pace that it has to go.  Of course, we would -- we always want wars to go faster.  The faster the war is over, the sooner everyone can home and we can begin the process of rebuilding.

But in this case, I think these claims that, oh, the pace is somehow wrong, are really made by the uninformed observer.

CAPT. DAVIS:  Anybody else?  Because it looks like you have more questions in you.

Oh, good, here we go. 

Q:  Hey, sir, (inaudible).  Can you talk a little bit about where they are in the fight in Ramadi?

There was something going on around Twitter that ISIS doesn't have the ability to resupply itself.  Is that true?

COL. WARREN:  Sure.  So, what is happening in Ramadi is -- I'll give you a quick review.  The Iraqi Security Forces were assaulted along four axes, along each point of the compass, north, south, east and west.

To the north, there's a tenth Iraqi army division.  To the east is a federal police outfit.  To the west is the Counterterrorist Service, or CTS.  And to the south, another Iraqi Army division.  I've forgotten the name, or the number.

Any, so, all four of those axes have, over time, begun to slowly squeeze the city.  All right, in fact, in the south, they have occupied the Al Tameem district, which you can easily find on any map.  It's the largest neighborhood in Ramadi.  It is south of the Euphrates River.

They have now -- the Iraqi Security Forces now have Al Tameem secure.  We assess it as largely empty of enemy forces.  They are still conducting clearing operations -- there's booby traps and mine fields, and et cetera that need to be reduced.

To the east -- or, excuse me -- to the west, the Iraqi Security Forces have gained control of Camp Waar, another significant objective area along the west.  They have recently reduced and cleared 34 improvised explosive devices that the enemy had placed in and around Camp Waar.

Along the northern access, there are two key terrain features that the Iraqi army has recently gained control of.  The first one is called the Palestine Bridge.  And while the bridge is blown, it's a significant land mark there.  It's the spot that allowed the Iraqi Security Forces along the northern access to link up with the Iraqi Security Forces along the western access, and close off the final line of supply -- the final supply line that was available in Ramadi.

The enemy had largely been using the river, the Euphrates River as their supply line, to gain -- to get men, materiel, equipment, homemade explosives, weapons, et cetera in to the city.

So, now that the Iraqi Security Forces have -- have seized that Palestine Bridge and control both sides of the river bank there, they're able to monitor the flow of boats that's -- sail south along the Euphrates River.

So, and -- and to the east, the federal police have set up a (inaudible) position about four kilometers outside the city, which really isolates Ramadi from Fallujah, preventing the forces in Fallujah from providing enemy reinforcements.

So, yes, the -- the city of Ramadi has now been fully isolated, and the Iraqi Security Forces are beginning to conduct their clearing operations.

A lot of people -- sometimes I see the word, "sealed" used.  I'll tell you, from a military perspective, it is not possible to seal off a city or a border, or a forward line of troops or anything like that.

So, this is a word that you won't hear us ever us.  I encourage you not to use it, either.  Sealing something is impossible.  There is still -- there's always going to be rat lines, smuggling routes, infiltration points that the enemy is going to be able to use to bring individuals in or out.

But what's -- what's important, is that they are able to resupply them in -- themselves in any significant numbers, nor are they able to maneuver forces outside of the isolation zone.

So, hopefully, that answers your question.

Q:  Hey, Colonel Warren, just a quick follow on -- on those points you made.

The counter attack on the Palestine Bridge and the operation center, is it your assessment that that was conducted with whatever remains of ISIS forces inside the city?  Or were they able to somehow penetrate the perimeter with additional forces?

COL. WARREN:  Great -- great question, Jim.  Thank you for that.

So, the attack came from the north, so it came from outside of the Ramadi kind of area.  So -- and again, to the north of Ramadi, because sort of north and a little bit west, this is area that has not yet been cleared.  So the attack came from that direction.  It came from north to south with infantry and VBIEDs, they were able to push the Iraqi Security Forces off of their defensive position that they built, sort of at the bridgehead there.

And they continued penetrating south, using VBIEDs and infantry and essentially a combined arms attack.  But I'll tell you, the Iraqi Security Forces impressed us.  They performed well.  They use the train -- these are forces that we've trained, using equipment that we've provided.  So, while the initial attack and this was kind of company minus the size of the tactic.

Difficult to know the exact numbers.  Well, that initial push was able to cause the Iraqi Security Forces to have to withdraw off the bridge and open up a lane towards the Anbar ops center.  There was good communications along those internal lines.  The Iraqi Security Forces were able to stop that attack, that VBIED, supported by infantry that was headed towards the Ops Center.

They were able to stop it in its tracks, kill all of the infantry that was supporting the VBIEDs.  Destroy the VBIED before it was able to do any damage to the Anbar ops center.  After that was over, by then, we had coalition air on station.  We were able to slam the forces that were trying to hold the bridge.  The Iraqis who had been pushed off the bridge were able to reorganize, mount a, if you will, a counter counterattack and knock ISIL back off that bridge, killing most of them.

So it's a significant number of EKA.  I think it was around 59, I can not remember exactly but it was a good solid fight, a lot of enemy killed and all positions restored.  So, you know, again, I bring all this up.  It's important.  So again, I just want to reemphasize since you brought it up, two real points and the same thing for this fight up north by Tal Aswad.  It really brings up two points.

Point number one, and we can't forget.  This is still a war, right? This is still a war.  This enemy does have a little bit fight left in him and so we shouldn't be Pollyannaish about that.  On the other hand, what this tells us also is that the forces that we are aligned with, the Iraqi Security Forces and CTS, counterterrorist service forces, here and Anbar and central Iraq along with the Peshmerga forces up north, these are now becoming solid fighting forces.

The Pesh, of course, have always been solid.  The Iraqi Security Forces, it took some time to rebuild them.  But what we're seeing is the fruits of that labor.  And that they able to hit back.  They absorbed the blow that they received from ISIL. They reorganized, they struck back and they pushed ISIL back here in this tactical action.  They knocked them completely back on their heels.  So i just think it's an important thing to note.

CAPT. DAVIS:  Luis.

Q:  Hey -- (inaudible).  Luis with ABC.

Can I go back to attack up north, you said it was of battalion sized force that conducted that attack.  How large of a force in America are we talking about?  And since that sounds like a pretty large force, does that indicate that they have a certain level of freedom and movement in that area?

And also, the Canadians' defense ministry, they are acknowledging that their ground forces helped repel the attack that they engaged the ISIS forces.  Were any American forces also involved on the ground and above and pushing back you think?

COL. WARREN:  Thank you for that, Luis.  Those are very important questions, thank you for asking that.

So, two points.  I think first, the freedom of maneuver point.  So, a battalion size -- we estimate maybe 500 total enemy, maybe a little bit less.  It's important to note, airpower alone killed nearly 200 of them, about 187 by last count.

So, a significant blow to this enemy.  And then, of course, ground forces.  We don't have a good count yet for how much damage the Pesh were able to inflict on this enemy during the course of this fairly long battle.  But we know it was significant, it was -- again, enough to knock them completely back out of the FLOT.

So, yes, if you look at that location, at that part of the FLOT, again, you know, south of the FLOT -- is a military term, forward line of troops, F-L-O-T, FLOT.  South of the FLOT is enemy-controlled territory, and they are able to move.

In this case, you know, they used some infiltration tactics, right?  Moving in small groups to assault positions, and then being able to, you know, conduct kind of a simultaneous assault along four different points along the FLOT, there.

So, yeah, the -- yes, they do have some freedom of maneuver there.  As expected, it's territory that we don't get control.

That said, I'll tell you, you know, it came -- you know, most of these forces came, really out of Mosul, right?  Which is kind of their -- their center of gravity here in Iraq.  And if that's the best that they can muster, it doesn't look good for them.

If this is the -- and this is the most significant attack that the enemy is able to mount really since Ramadi.  And again, if this is all they've got, things are going to begin to get worse and worse for this enemy.

Forces -- so the Canadians have discussed the fact that some Canadians SOF that were a little bit forward in -- around Bashiqa.  They, you know -- they were at a headquarters behind the FLOT, behind the enemy lines, but the enemy was able to push through fairly rapidly on those enemy lines, and the Canadians were a force to engage with mortars -- with mortar fire -- in an effort to, you know, help protect their partner forces.

So, no American forces exchanged any fire during the course of this fight.  They are -- as you know, there are Americans advising and assisting at the division level with the Peshmerga.  But in this case, there were no Americans other than in the sky.

Q:  So, Steve -- David Martin.  How close to the front lines were the American adviser?

COL. WARREN:  This didn't happen any where, really, near any Americans.  So, no -- I mean, in this sector, there's -- I don't think there's any Americans.  There may be some way back, like, you know, 25,30 kilometers.

But this sector, this portion of the FLOT, not an American presence there.

CAPT. DAVIS:  Any body else?  Mik?

Q:  Could you run down a list of what aircraft were specifically used in that effort to turn back the assault by ISIS?

COL. WARREN:  Well, it was manned and unmanned, right?  So, fighters, bombers and drones.  I don't -- I didn't bring a list with me, unfortunately, it -- it was five different coalition.  So, you know, there was a wide variety.

That might be something we can get.  I just -- I don't have it.  Let me just look at my list, here.  Yeah.  So, unfortunately, I don't have that exact piece of information.

But again, it was -- so five coalition nations, 100 munitions expended, all precision.  And it was fighters, it was bombers, and it was drones, as well.

Q:  OK.

CAPT. DAVIS:  Luis, yeah.

Q:  May I ask a follow up, Steve.

You said that the Canadians were at the headquarters.  How far back was that headquarters from the FLOT?

I mean, typically headquarters are not that close to a front line, are they not?

COL. WARREN:  They're not, and this was a penetration.  So, this headquarters, where the Canadians were -- I don't want to give you a bad number.  I'm going to -- I'm going to kind of ballpark, if you're looking at this map, to be about five miles, maybe four or five miles.  A little bit less than ten clicks.

CAPT. DAVIS:  Last call.

Steve, thank you very much.  We -- do you have anything we forgot to ask you?  Anything -- anything we should have asked you?

COL. WARREN:  No.  It's great talking to you.  It was great seeing your colleagues that were here, and I know a couple of others are here tonight, so, I'm going to have dinner with them.

So, take care, and I'll see you next week.

CAPT. DAVIS:  Wish you a happy holiday, Steve.  Thank you for your service.

Thank you, everybody.  Happy holidays.