STAFF: Good afternoon. I'd like to introduce Lieutenant General Bill Mayville. He's the director of operations, J3, at the Joint Staff. He's here today to give you an update on operations in Iraq. He'll frame up how we're working with friends, partners and allies to protect U.S. personnel and to help avert humanitarian problems that we're seeing in Iraq now.
Sir, with no further ado, over to you.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL WILLIAM MAYVILLE: Thank you, sir, thank you. Good afternoon. Thank you all for being here.
I'd like to update you on U.S. operations in Iraq since August 7. Last Thursday, at the request of the Iraqi government, the president ordered the United States military to provide humanitarian assistance to refugees on Sinjar Mountain in northern Iraq and to conduct airstrikes to protect U.S. citizens and forces in and around Erbil.
On Thursday, C-17 and C-130 aircrews began a coordinated series of humanitarian assistance airdrop missions to provide aid to the refugees on Sinjar Mountain. Over the last four nights, U.S. and UK aircrews have flown 14 successful missions, airdropping more than 310 bundles of food, water, and medical supplies, delivering almost 16,000 gallons of water and 75,000 meals.
In concert with our military partners, the U.S. military is responding to the United Nations security requests of the international community to do everything it can to provide food, water, shelter to those affected by this humanitarian crisis.
Additionally, the president also authorized targeted airstrikes to facilitate a resolution to the humanitarian crisis on Sinjar Mountain and to protect citizens, facilities, and forces in the northern city of Erbil. To date, U.S. Air Force and Navy aircraft, to include F-15Es, F-16s, F/A-18s, and MQ-1s have executed 15 targeted airstrikes. These airstrikes have helped check the advance of ISIL forces around Sinjar and in the area west of Erbil.
Now, over 60 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft are supporting our coalition efforts in Iraq. U.S. airstrikes are also providing the Kurdish security forces with time to fortify their defensive positions with the supplies they're receiving from the central government of Baghdad.
As a result, the Kurdish security forces are holding territory in the vicinity of Erbil, and it has been reported in the media they retook key communities near Erbil itself.
We assess that U.S. airstrikes in northern Iraq have slowed ISIL's operational tempo and temporarily disrupted their advances toward the province of Erbil. However, these strikes are unlikely to affect ISIL's overall capabilities or its operations in other areas of Iraq and Syria.
ISIL remains focused on securing and gaining additional territory throughout Iraq and will sustain its attacks against Iraqi and Kurdish security forces and their positions, as well as target Yazidis, Christians, and other minorities.
Our current operations are limited in scope to protect U.S. citizens and facilities, to protect U.S. aircraft supporting humanitarian assistance, and to assist in the breakup of ISIL forces that have laid siege to the Sinjar Mountain.
And with that, I'll stop there and take your questions. Ken?
Q: General Mayville, Ken Dilanian with the AP. Secretary Hagel said today that ISIL poses a threat to the civilized world, and certainly the United States. So given that -- and you just described the limited nature of the mission, but what -- people want to know what plans or whether the U.S. military is going to make efforts to degrade ISIL's command and control. For example, are members of the leadership being targeted, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? Are logistical hubs, for example, (inaudible) Syria, going to be targeted?
LT. GEN. MAYVILLE: Yeah, first, to the threat posed by ISIL, we've been very clear about the threat of ISIL forces to Iraq and to the region. Our principal task to date, and what we are doing right now, is to protect the U.S. facilities and the citizens -- American citizens at those facilities, to protect U.S. aircraft that are supporting H.A., humanitarian assistance, in and around Mount Sinjar, and to target those ISIL positions that are laying siege to Mount Sinjar. There are no plans to expand the current air campaign beyond the current self-defense activities.
Q: (OFF-MIC) question about arming the Kurds. It's been reported that the U.S. government is directly arming the Kurds. Is the DOD playing a role in that -- in that operation? Or will it at some point?
LT. GEN. MAYVILLE: Yeah, I saw that report in -- in the media and open source, as well. Over the weekend, it was the government of Iraq and Iraqi security forces that actually provided immediate re-supplies to Kurdish forces. We are looking at how we can help them and – and---and studying the challenges they have, and with the team that we have in Baghdad, providing some assistance. We are looking at plans at how we can expand that support.
Q: General, over the weekend, President Obama said that he was considering creating some kind of safe corridor to assist those some 15,000, I guess, Yazidi refugees on top of the mountains there at Sinjar, and he said he talked to the British and the French about that possibility. He also called it complicated. Just how complicated would it be? Would it require boots on the ground? Would there be U.S. boots on the ground?
LT. GEN. MAYVILLE: That -- you raise the challenge that we're facing right now. And we're currently assessing what we can and can't do and trying to understand, for example, the numbers that are on the mountain itself. The numbers vary. I've seen reports of numbers in the thousands, and I've seen reports in the numbers of tens of thousands.
What is most important right now is that we deliver the much-needed water, shelter, and food to those stranded on the -- on the mountain. And as for what we might do next, we'll have to wait and see and get a better assessment on the ground before we can offer some options to the president.
Q: But is -- is creating a safe corridor, under those conditions, without American boots on the ground, as the president has vowed, is that even possible to do?
LT. GEN. MAYVILLE: Yeah, that's a little bit too speculative for me for where we are right now. --
Q: But there is planning underway or looking at it, aren't you?
LT. GEN. MAYVILLE: We are, right now, gripped by the immediacy of the crisis. And our focus right now is to provide immediate relief to those that are suffering. We are looking at the effect that we're having on those fixed sites, those ISIL sites, those ISIL sites that are laying siege, and we are trying to reduce that threat. And for the near term, that's going to be our focus.
Q: So you don't -- just to follow up -- you don't have a plan to get them off the mountain, to bring them back to Sinjar, or to some other refugee camp at this -- at this point? You don't have a plan to bring them down?
LT. GEN. MAYVILLE: What we're going to need is a better understanding of what's going on up there, but we are assessing the situation. We're -- you know, look, in terms of the support that we've received over the weekend, we've been contacted by many of our friends. As I mentioned in my opening remarks, the French and the UK have already started helping. Others have joined us. And, of course, we're enjoying the support from the region for overflight and for basing.
So, increasingly, we are expanding the number of folks that are involved with this immediate crisis. It's a little bit too early to sit -- to stand here today and give you very specific plans.
Q: Could you talk a little bit about the level of effort -- or right now with the air campaign, we were told over the last week it was 50 ISR sorties. My understanding now, you've ratcheted up to something up to 100 sorties overall, the preponderance in northern Iraq, but also its ISR strike drones and cargos. Is it about 100 sorties a day now, up from 50?
LT. GEN. MAYVILLE: The sorties themselves vary. A ballpark figure is between 50 and 60, is what we've been doing. Now, we've been -- our most immediate task is to understand what's happening at the mountain, to understand the –the complexity of the challenge that humanitarian assistance in dealing with this huge crisis is going to require. We're also trying to assess the security of our key facilities, both in Baghdad and in Erbil, and we continue to use our intelligence to characterize the threat posed by ISIL forces in the region.
Q: (OFF-MIC) in layman's language, for those watching this, how are you looking at your effectiveness? Is it pieces of equipment you've destroyed? You said interrupted operational tempo. What does that mean in layman's language, for those watching?
LT. GEN. MAYVILLE: We really -- the number of vehicles we strike, the exact BDA is -- is less important than -- the battle damage assessments, the number of things that we hit, is less important than the effects we see, which is to reduce the threats that could impact our facilities and -- and our citizens and to make sure that we reduce the effects of -- of those laying siege to –to Mount Sinjar themselves.
Q: (OFF-MIC) retreating (OFF-MIC) seeing signs of retreat or picking up chatter that they're panicking or wondering...
LT. GEN. MAYVILLE: You're talking about ISIL forces? Look, I think, in the immediate areas where we have focused our strikes, we've had a very temporary effect. And -- but I -- and -- and we may have blunted some tactical decisions to move in those directions and move further east to Erbil. What I expect the ISIL to do is to look for other things to do, to pick up and move elsewhere. So I in no way want to suggest that we have effectively contained or that we are somehow breaking the momentum of the threat posed by ISIL.
Q: General Mayville, can we come back to security on the mountain? Fundamentally, what is your assessment, while you look at all of this and try and see what you're dealing with, how much time do these people have before they run out of time? Question number one.
How are you assessing -- we understand that you're flying drones over the mountain to try and get a picture. But even today, a CNN crew was onboard an Iraqi Kurdish helicopter going in to bring in relief. They got shot at by ISIS on the way in; they got shot at by ISIS on the way out. So clearly, ISIS still has some capability to attack that mountain. Why not more airstrikes against them there?
LT. GEN. MAYVILLE: Well, in terms of time, we have offered -- afforded a little bit more time to the crisis just with the success of our -- our humanitarian assistance thus far. But the urgency of the crisis has not gone away, and it is very important that we find a solution for those that are stranded up there.
Q: Within days? Within weeks?
LT. GEN. MAYVILLE: It's hard for me today to tell you exactly that timeline, only that -- but you do point to what I think is very important to do, is that we need to continue to assess the situation. We need to continue to sustain the humanitarian assistance, and we need to be able to protect that effort.
With regards to the targets, one of the things that we have seen with the ISIL forces is that where they have been in the open, they are now starting to dissipate and to hide amongst the people. So the targeting of this is of those forces that are trying to effect a siege around -- around the mountain.
The targeting in this is going to become more difficult. So it does not surprise me that an Iraqi security force attempting to re-supply, which in and of itself is no small task, and shows you, as well, I think that the Iraqi security forces are very much involved in this effort. But it does not surprise me then that the -- that they'll be small-arms fire during the ingress of those aircraft or the egress of those aircraft, just because of the way that ISIL formations are moving around.
Q: Do you expect more targeting on that, even though it may become more difficult, more targeting against them?
LT. GEN. MAYVILLE: We're going to do what we need to do to protect our facilities, protect our embassy, to protect our American citizens, and to reduce this siege, as well as protect those aircraft that are providing support to Mount Sinjar.
LT. GEN. MAYVILLE: Yes, sir.
Q: What kind of weapons are you looking at possibly giving the Kurds? And why is there a shift in policy here? Why can't the government of Baghdad do that re-supply?
LT. GEN. MAYVILLE: The government of Baghdad has been doing that re-supply. They've done re-supplies over the weekend, in the latter half of last week, they did, as well. But they -- the equipment and the ammunition that the -- small-arms ammunition, chiefly -- that the Peshmerga and Kurdish security forces need is pretty substantial. So we want to help them with -- with that effort.
In terms of what they need, principally, they -- they need weaponry that can meet -- there's technical vehicles out there, so there's some weaponry that they need to have that can reduce technical vehicles. Some of the ISIL forces have a longer-range weapons system, so we need to make sure that the government of Iraq and the Iraqi security forces are providing longer-range weapons themselves to -- to the Kurdish forces.
LT. GEN. MAYVILLE: Yes, sir.
Q: Sir, how much have we been spending on these attacks? And from what accounts is that money coming from?
LT. GEN. MAYVILLE: I can't speak to the accounting of -- of that effort. But I will say that we have been able to provide support and meet these tasks with the forces that are already in -- in Iraq.
STAFF: (OFF-MIC) one or two more questions.
LT. GEN. MAYVILLE: Okay, I'll take...
Q: Quick question. Beyond the limited scope of this operation, how do you assess the military capabilities of ISIL throughout Iraq and Syria? And, also, are you concerned about the political -- internal political conflict in Baghdad? As you may know, there's a new prime minister. The current prime minister, Maliki, has refused to step down. Do you think this conflict could affect your mission in Iraq?
LT. GEN. MAYVILLE: Yeah, I'm very concerned about the threat posed by ISIL in -- in Iraq and in the region. They're very well-organized. They are very well-equipped. They coordinate their operations. And they have thus far shown the ability to attack on multiple axes. This is not insignificant.
I've got time for one more question. Yes, ma'am?
Q: Thank you. I'm sorry, go ahead.
LT. GEN. MAYVILLE: You're ceding your question.
Q: Okay, well, then I'll take my question then first.
Q: What about the political conflict, sir? You didn't answer that.
Q: Okay, my question is, some news reports suggest that the White House was caught off-guard by ISIS's advance in northern Iraq. With 50-plus surveillance flights over Iraq every day, and assessors on the ground in Erbil, why wasn't more advanced notice provided?
LT. GEN. MAYVILLE: Yeah, we -- look, we've been very, very clear about the threat posed by ISIL. And -- and we've been very consistent about that threat in the -- in the region and in Iraq. What happened last week was that Iraqi security forces simply did not have the equipment and the supplies and the ammunition to sustain their defensive positions around the Mosul Dam and in and around Mount Sinjar. And it is for that reason that the ISIL forces were as effective as they were.
With that, I thank you all very much.
STAFF: Thanks, guys.