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

Colonel Steve Warren, Operation Inherent Resolve Spokesman; Captain Jeff Davis, Director, Defense Press Office


CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS: Thank you, Steve, for coming to us later today to allow for the naval commencement to take place before you came out. I know that cuts into your dinner time a little bit, but we appreciate you being flexible in your schedule.

We'll turn it over to you for opening comments.

COLONEL STEVE WARREN: Well, Jeff, thanks a lot and good afternoon, Pentagon press corps. I am glad you were able to -- I know it's a three-day weekend, and I am probably the only thing between you and barbecue, so we will try to keep this snappy.

And I have a few prepared remarks, so I'll get right to them. Operations to liberate Fallujah have begun. Karmah, a town located 10 miles northeast of the city is clear. ISF are moving along multiple axes, but have not yet entered the city. We estimate there to be up to 50,000 citizens remaining in Fallujah and that the Iraqi government has been clear that protecting these civilians is their priority.

We have dropped leaflets to inform the population to avoid ISIL areas. Those leaflets directed those who cannot leave, to put white sheets on their roofs to mark their locations. The Iraqi Army is working hard to establish evacuation routes. And the local Anbar government has set up camps for displaced civilians.

As was the case in Ramadi, Hit and Rutbah, this is a combined operation made up of thousands of forces from the Iraqi army, the federal police, Sunni tribal fighters, and CTS. Popular mobilization forces are also participating in this operation. And they have said publicly that they will remain outside the city.

The coalition has been supporting this effort with airstrikes and from Taqaddum with some artillery or fire. Over the last four days, the 20 strikes, totaling 57 engagements, have destroyed fighting positions, gun emplacements. We've killed more than 70 enemy fighters, including Maher Al-Bilawi, who is the commander of ISIL forces in Fallujah.

For perspective, across the entire battlefield in the same timeframe, the coalition conducted 102 total airstrikes that killed 231 total enemy fighters.

It's still early in the Fallujah fight, so it's unclear how long this battle will last. We've seen two flavors of ISIL in the last several months. In Ramadi, we encountered an enemy that chose to stand and fight. More recently in Hit and in Rutbah, ISIL hid behind women and children before throwing down their weapons and running away. In both cases, they lost, but one was quicker than the other.

Of note, we saw local newspaper reports that some of the fighters who fled Rutbah were arrested by their leadership and then executed by being placed in bakery ovens and cooked to death. Elsewhere in Anbar, the 18th ‘FedPol’ pushed 65 kilometers west of Rutbah to the Wali junction and successfully reclaimed an outpost. Also a former U.S. military base there that we used to, back in the old days, called Camp Korean Village. Some of you have probably been there.

In the Tigris River valley, units from the 15th Iraqi Army Division continue clearance and security operations in KabRook. Today's focus may be on Fallujah, but Mosul remains in our crosshairs. Over the last three days, we conducted 12 strikes totaling 32 engagements that destroyed multiple enemy headquarters, several VBIEDs, multiple tactical units, a media center, and a tunnel system.

Moving to Syria. This week, the SDF, Syrian Democratic Forces, announced they've begun regular operations to liberate the countryside north of Raqqah. We've always been focused on kicking Daesh out of Raqqah and we will continue to support the SDF, particularly the Syrian-Arab component, as they conduct ground operations to further isolate the city.

There are more than 200 American advisers in Syria working with the Syrian-Arab coalition as they continue to pressure ISIL across a broad front stretching from the Tishreen Dam to Shaddadi. Now, recently there were images of two CJTF service members wearing YPG patches. And I want to make it very clear, and this is coming from the commander of CJTF OIR, that our focus is to provide advice and assistance to the Syrian Democratic Forces, particularly the Syrian-Arab component of that force.

I just wanted to make that clear up front.

Now, finally as we move into Memorial Day weekend, let's not forget the three Americans who have lost their lives supporting this operation: Army Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, Marine Staff Sergeant Louis Cardin, and Navy Chief Petty Officer Charles Keating. These men are American heroes and will not be forgotten. Every warrior knows that when we speak the names of the fallen, they live on.

With that, I'll take your questions, and hopefully A.P. is there, and so either Lita or Bob, let's start with you.

CAPT. DAVIS: Go ahead, Lita.

Q: Hi, Steve. First of all, congratulations on your final briefing from Iraq. And I think on behalf of all of us, we appreciate all the effort you've put into these and hope that they will continue as such even after you leave.

My question, you talked a little bit about the Syria photographs. I have two questions on that.

Number one, Turkey has lodged I guess a -- or at least made known their formal unhappiness with the U.S. forces wearing the patches. Do you know if the commanders there or anyone has responded to Turkey with any either explanation or anything on that?

And secondly, can you give us I guess a better sense of what the U.S. special operations forces are doing in Syria? We understand they are not on the front lines, but are they getting closer to the front lines as the Syrian rebel forces move closer to Raqqah? And I think we understand they're helping to call in airstrikes. Is that not the case?

COL. WARREN: Thank you for that, Lita.

I think the first thing to make clear is that wearing those YPG patches was -- was unauthorized and it was inappropriate and corrective action has been taken, and we have communicated as much to our military partners and our military allies in the region.

As far as what our forces are doing, they're there to provide advice and assistance to the Syrian-Arab coalition, the Syrian Arabs who are working to pressure Raqqah and ultimately defeat ISIL. What does that mean, advise and assist? Well, you know, we've seen what it means here in Iraq, and it's really the same type of mission. It is providing advice to these forces on how best to fight.

A couple of, I think, important points to note. Number one, the American forces are -- their guidance, their direction is to position themselves on the battlefield in areas where enemy contact is unlikely. So they conduct mission analysis and they go through a series of steps to analyze where they're about to go, and before they go somewhere, they ensure that wherever it is they go, enemy contact is not likely or in fact is unlikely. So I think that's number one.

And then as they are moving around the areas where they're providing advice and assistance, the types of things that they're working on really are everything from how these units can better coordinate the logistical piece of their fight. We will take a look at some of their tactical battle plans and help to refine those. And we'll help them with integration.

You know, we do have air power, of course, providing support to these Syrian-Arab forces, and one of the things that our advisers are really capable of doing is helping to integrate the air and the ground movement. What does integration mean? Well, it means -- it means insuring that the air power is in the right place at the right time.

So it's understanding the ground maneuver plan and then relaying the details of that plan to the air planners so that they can appropriately ensure that the right aircraft, the right ISR assets -- the right aircraft with the right weapons systems based on what we think the enemy's going to be doing are in the right place at the right time.

So this is the type of -- and you know, so that kind of gets at the higher end. Down at the lower end, you know, these are -- there are the -- really some of the best soldiers in the world, the American advisers. And so certainly while there, there's going to be some just kind of day-to-day here's how to be a soldier, you know, advice and assistance that gets passed on.

So I think that in a nutshell really is what we do. Again, it's important to notice -- or to note that they -- the advisers are required to stay in areas where enemy contact is not likely, so.

Q: Thanks. Just a quick follow-up. Off the top, you said that wearing the patches was unauthorized and inappropriate and corrective action has been taken. Does that mean they were just told to take them -- to remove the patches? And does this -- was anyone either reprimanded or anything on this?

And I thought in the past, U.S. forces have either routinely or at other times worn patches or insignias of forces that they are with. Is it unique to this particular location that it was inappropriate, or are you saying that all forces anywhere are not allowed to do this ever?

COL. WARREN: Well, so I guess there's two parts to that answer. Wearing those patches is not authorized, right? Our regulations say -- Army regulations say don't -- don't wear those patches.

That said, the special forces community has a long and proud history of wearing such patches when they are partnering with forces around the world, and you'll see examples of that in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Latin America and all over the world where these special forces personnel train and conduct, you know, foreign internal defense type operations. This is something that they often do, and it's an effort to, you know, just kind of connect with those that they're training.

But the fact of the matter is, you know, it's not authorized. So in this case, you know, they were directed to remove the patches. As far as any additional reprimands or anything like that, I'm -- I'm not aware. But the bottom line and the important thing is that the situation has been corrected and that we have communicated to our allies that such conduct was inappropriate and it was unauthorized.

Q: Thank you.

CAPT. DAVIS: Next, to (Tara Copp ?).

Q: Hi, Steve. First, very important question for you. What is the first thing you're going to grill when you get home?

(Laughter.)

COL. WARREN: Hopefully, it stopped raining in Virginia and I'll be able to get my grill sparked up. We'll have to wait and see.

Q: All right. Second for you, can you give us a sense -- when troops are behind the forward lines, on average, what's that distance? What -- if you could just walk us through what we could expect that distance to be for their own protection?

COL. WARREN: Well, it's impossible to put a number on that because it depends on the terrain and it depends on the enemy situation. So in -- in constricted terrain, they will be a little bit closer. In wide-open terrain, they'll naturally be a little bit farther. So there is no -- there is no answer. It will very anywhere from miles to kilometers is really the closest I can get.

There just isn't -- if you recall when we conducted operations to liberate the city of Sinjar, we talked about the fact that there were advisers on the very top of the mountain that overlooks the city. So straight-line distance in that case was, you know, under a thousand meters. You know, in other cases, they're going to be much further back. And in other cases, they could potentially, I suppose, be closer. I don't think that would be very common.

But then again, recently, and we mentioned during the opening, Petty Officer Charles Keating -- Chief Petty Officer Charles Keating, who at that time that there was an advise and assist mission being conducted, they were three kilometers behind the -- the known forward line of troops, but then there was an attack and the penetration and, you know, the distance closed rapidly.

So there is no single answer to that, particularly in this terrain, which varies mightily from place to place, everything from -- from kind of wide open plain -- grass-covered plains to almost surface of the moon desert to rolling hills, in some cases mountains. So there -- there really is no single answer. It's all about analyzing the mission beforehand, understanding where we expect that the enemy is located, what we expect the enemy will do and then what -- how the terrain factors into that.

CAPT. DAVIS: Next, to Tom from AFP.

Q: Hi, Steve. Thanks for -- thanks for your -- your time with us in Baghdad.

Could you give us an update or an estimate of the total number of strikes, coalition strikes, in and around Raqqah since this push began? Because the Syrian Observatory put out a statement saying that there had been about 150, which seems somewhat at odds with the daily updates we've been getting.

And also in Iraq, has there been an uptick in coalition strikes in -- over the last couple of days in terms of total numbers? Thank you.

COL. WARREN: Yes, I saw that 150 number; it's incorrect. I didn't bring the numbers by city with me, but it -- so we release the actual number of strikes that we conducted every day. So we post those on our -- on our website, the Operation Inherent Resolve website. So I would ask you to go check out that website. It's a terrific website, by the way, and where we archive every single of our strike releases. And you can -- anyone in the world, it's a public website.

So you can just pull up the -- you can just pull up those daily strike releases, you can look through it. It's usually only one page long. You can look through it, find where it says Mosul, and right next to the word -- right next to the name of the city -- or in your case, you're interested in Raqqah. Right next to the name of the city, you will see the exact number of strikes conducted that day.

So it's an easy -- easy matter to go check it out and figure out what the total numbers are. But you know, it's been averaging two to three strikes, each strike consisting of anywhere from three to four individual engagements. So I don't -- I didn't bring all of that with me, but it's easy to look up.

Q: Why this huge discrepancy? What would you attribute that to?

COL. WARREN: Can you say that again? You broke up on me.

Q: Yeah, just what would you attribute that huge discrepancy between the figures that CENTCOM puts out and what the observatory is saying?

COL. WARREN: I have no idea what they're talking about; 150 -- that's completely off the scale. I mean, it has no relationship to reality. So, I can't attribute it to anything.

Q: Thanks, Steve, for doing this.

And, you know, I wish you -- it's a good time for your life here in the United States.

I will have a couple of questions. One of them is related to one of your remarks, that you said our service -- our focus in Syria is to provide support to the SDF, particularly the Arab component of this group. But interesting, because we haven't ever seen any American, you know, special forces pictured alongside the Arab forces. And why is the -- the main focus is on the Arab component of this force, how could we see that -- the special forces wearing the YPG patches, not the Arab forces patches?

COL. WARREN: Jeff, you're going to have to get the microphone out. I'm only catching about every 10th word.

CAPT. DAVIS: We're -- (inaudible) -- down. We'll try again. In the meantime, maybe just a little louder.

Q: OK. You said that our focus in Syria is to support the Syrian Democratic Forces, and particularly the Arab component of the Syrian Democratic Force. But we haven't seen several pictures, videos of this -- of the special forces surfaced on Internet, and most of them -- nearly all of them are with -- (inaudible) -- any Arab component of this SDF Forces.

And if -- if in particular thing -- particular focus is with the Arab component of this SDF, this ally, then why we haven't seen any American special forces wearing Arab coalition forces patches, rather we see them wearing YPG patches?

COL. WARREN: There's only -- thank you for that. There's been one situation where we have confirmed that there were legitimate pictures of American servicemembers in Syria -- only one. And that was yesterday. And in that case, it was difficult to tell exactly who they were with, frankly. Presumably, they were with Syrian Arabs, because that's who they're there to train.

But it was difficult, at least from the photos, to even tell who they were with. But those are the only pictures that are out there. I know there's -- the Internet is full of pictures, a majority of them either fake or wrong. But in this case, these are the only pictures that, you know, we're tracking as being legitimate.

So I think that's the answer.

Q: Do you have anything on the other corridor currently that's under the pressure of ISIS, where ISIS are -- ISIS fighters are -- (inaudible) -- Mara line -- (inaudible) -- from each other? And why did the coalition air support delay so much?

COL. WARREN: Why did the coalition do what today so much?

Q: Currently, ISIS is cutting off the Mara line, and the Mara city opposition -- opposed, and other opposition -- (inaudible) -- from each other because they are -- they are infiltrating into the line. And it has been for days that the fight is going on over there. But we have seen little -- very few coalition airstrikes.

The question is: Why the coalition delayed to support this group over there, you know -- (inaudible)?

COL. WARREN: We have to do something about this sound. I can't answer.

(CROSSTALK)

CAPT. DAVIS: OK. Back to (Kasem ?).

Q: Maybe it was because of me. The -- the -- the question. OK. So, Steve, there are reports that the route connecting Mara -- he's saying something? Should I go ahead?

COL. WARREN: Got you loud and clear.

Q: So there are reports that the route connecting Mara to ISIS is now about to fall to ISIS, and the Free Syrian Army have been fighting against ISIS over there for days. But they are complaining that coalition delayed to give air support to them in time. The question is, is there a particular reason for the delay in the coalition air support to Free Syrian Army and others?

COL. WARREN: No, there is no -- there is no particular reason for any delay. In fact, we always try to rush airpower to where it's needed when it's needed. But you have to understand, the aircraft do have to travel through space, and that does take time. There are not aircraft available instantly all the time. So we try to predict where we need to have the aircraft on any given day. We don't always know exactly where the enemy's going to be, where he's going to pop up, where he's going to choose to fight.

So in some cases, the aircraft will be committed elsewhere, they will be conducting engagements somewhere else or they simply won't be available. But every case, when we have forces that we're partnered with in contact who require or request air support, we do everything we can to get air support to them that as rapidly as possible.

And you know, we had the same problem down south in -- (inaudible) -- two weeks ago where forces there were under fire, they did request air support. We sent air support, but by the time -- by the time the air got there, it was too late and several friendly forces were killed, but the battle essentially was over by the time the air got there. So it's one of the limiting factors of air power; it can't be everywhere all the time.

CAPT. DAVIS: (OFF-MIKE)

Q: Hi, Colonel Warren. This is Carla Babb with VOA.

I just wanted to second what Lita said. First, a big thank you for everything that you've done, getting us the information at all hours of the day, working hard to answer our questions. So thank you for that.

I want to follow up on the commander of Fallujah forces that was killed. Can you give us more information about this commander? When was he killed? How was he killed? And how long was he a commander? And spell his name, please, if you've got it.

COL. WARREN: Stand by. Let me find him.

So, his name was Maher -- mike-alpha-hotel-echo-romeo, that's his first name. His middle name is al -- that's alpha-lima. Then there's a hyphen, and then it's bravo-india-lima-alpha-whisky-india -- Maher al-Bilawi.

And he was the commander of enemy forces there in Fallujah. Don't know how long he had been the commander there. We killed him two days ago during a strike. This was, you know, this was a result of intelligence that we gathered on the headquarters and his location. And we had the opportunity to take the strike and we took it.

This, of course, won't completely cause the enemy to stop fighting, but it's a blow. And it creates confusion and it causes the second-in-command to have to move up. It causes other leadership to have to move around.

So it's this continuously chipping away at leaders, both strategically when we go after their more high-value individuals, or tactically. This cat wasn't part of the high-value individual list. This is some intelligence we developed locally. We worked it very rapidly. And we took an effective strike and scored one for the good guys.

So, that's kind of all we have on him. We know who and what he was, but we don't -- we don't really know his bio.

Q: Jamie McIntyre. -- (inaudible) -- strike -- (inaudible).

CAPT. DAVIS: I think you'll be fine without the mike.

Q: All right. So, hi, Steve.

This being your last briefing from Baghdad, I'm just going to ask you to reflect a little bit. You have to sell a war that it hasn't always been marked by spectacular victories. You've been going mano-a-mano at times with the Russian-Putin propaganda machine. And you've had to make arguments for this war that are very nuanced sometimes to news media that's skeptical and doesn't do nuance very well.

So, I want you to just reflect back, how difficult has that been? How do you think you've done? Have you been able to maintain your credibility and integrity in this job as the chief military spokesman in Baghdad?

COL. WARREN: Thanks, Jamie -- very -- that's a deep question and very personal. So, I'll tell you what I tell a lot of the folks around me. So I guess at least here in Iraq I'm the senior public affairs officer, but there are a number of subordinate public affairs officials and practitioners and professional communicators.

And what I've tried to tell them over the last year is -- is that I'm not here to sell this war. I have no desire to sell this war. I see my role as to try to explain it. Selling wars is for other people. That's not for us. That's not for soldiers. Our job is to win the war and while we're doing it, to explain what we're doing.

I think we have a real duty to America who entrusts us with blood and treasure. The sons and daughters, the fathers and sons of America are put in our care as leaders in the military. And millions upon millions -- billions of dollars are entrusted to us to defend our way of life.

And I think we have a duty -- I think I have a duty to hold this institution at least somewhat accountable; to explain how we are spending that money and to explain how we are bringing that blood, those sons and daughters into this fight and how we're doing it.

I guess it's your job to hold us accountable, but it's my job to answer for what we've done and what we are doing. So that's what I've tried to do.

And I had one goal. My mentor, Admiral Kirby, taught me when he became the press secretary for the Department of Defense, he said that his goal in that job, which he knew would be nuanced and he knew would be tricky and he knew would be difficult, was to depart with his personal integrity and credibility intact.

And I'll tell you, I'm lucky. I work for a commander who is probably one of the best commanders we've seen in our -- in a generation, General Sean MacFarland. And he has made it easy for me to keep my integrity intact and to keep my credibility intact. Because he has never asked me or even suggested that I do anything otherwise.

So that has been easy. It's been a challenge. There's a lot of information out there. The Russians are out there, as you mentioned. The Iranians are out there. We know the Shia militia are out there messaging. We know Bashar al-Assad is messaging. We know our enemy, ISIS, ISIL or Daesh. We have a hard time even settling on what to call them, but we know that they are out there very actively messaging. They use this same medium to both recruit and to terrorize.

And so it is a duty to fight that. This war is being fought on a lot of levels, as is every war in history. It's being fought with bombs, American and coalition bombs. It's being fought with Iraqi and Syrian bullets. But it's also being fought with words. And so I try to take it as seriously as I can. I try to always bring an A-game when I'm interacting with you who really are part of this war, whether you want to be or not, because it's through you that my words and our actions are transmitted.

It's also through you that the enemy's words and actions are transmitted. I know that you all work very hard to ensure that you strike a good balance. And that you don't allow yourselves to get suckered by enemy propaganda and you don't allow yourselves to be confused by our sometimes dense military language. And so good on you, and keep that up.

And that really is your duty forever. And that's to watch what happens here, to ask smart questions about what happens here; to keep yourself informed about what happens here; and not to be suckered by anyone's words. Check for yourself. And I see a lot of folks doing that.

I'm slowly but surely beginning to see more reporters start to trickle out here. And that's -- that's good. That's as it should be.

I'll tell you, we can't help you like we used to. You know, back in the old days, we had these massive embed programs where we could bring in dozens -- tens and twenties of reporters at a time, and embed them into units, provide them the protection that they require, and show them what's going on. Those days are no longer here.

We just don't have that capacity, as much as we'd like to. We simply don't have the capacity to do that.

And a lot of this war is being fought by warriors who -- who do not want to be in the limelight, who do not want their words, deeds or actions to be seen because of the security requirements that are on them. So that makes it harder for you. And I know that.

I personally believe that the Pentagon press corps is the most professional press corps in Washington and it's been a pleasure to watch you cover this war and try to -- to try to get the word out.

So thanks for that question, Jamie.

(CROSSTALK)

CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Kristina Wong.

Q: Hi, Steve. Thanks -- thanks again for all your briefings and I -- (inaudible) -- but it will be good to have you back stateside.

On Fallujah with the leaflets that are being dropped for the civilians, are there any indications that civilians are actually taking that advice and putting up the white sheets on -- on rooftops? And how feasible is that as a way to protect civilians?

COL. WARREN: So, we have seen some of that. We've seen civilians standing on their rooftops.

Yes, we have seen some of that. We have seen some white sheets. We have seen civilians standing on their roofs with white cloths of some sort.

More than that, we have seen some civilians try to get out of the city, which is really the first thing that these leaflets -- and these were leaflets dropped by the Iraqis, designed and dropped by the Iraqis.

So we didn't have a part in it. We have seen the leaflets have some effect though, as we've seen civilians attempt to exfiltrate the city. It's tough, though, I'll tell you. This is -- this is an enemy that doesn't want the civilian population to leave. Why? Because they want to hide behind the civilian population. They know it makes it harder for us.

So this is -- it's going to be -- it's going to be a hard challenge to find a way to liberate this city and still keep the civilian population as safe as possible. And the Iraqis understand that they have a challenge on their hands. And we're working closely with them. The international community is here working closely with them; the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations.

Everyone here is working together to try and solve this problem of liberating Fallujah, while at the same time protecting the very civilians that we're trying to liberate.

So it's a -- it's a hard problem. There are no easy solutions to it, but we're going to keep trying. We're going to continue to advise the Iraqis on what's best to do. And we're going to get the city liberated.

Q: The artillery units at Taqaddum, can they move forward? Are they expected to move forward to Fallujah?

COL. WARREN: No. Fallujah's well in range of those guns. They have no -- no need to move.

Q: Lastly, back to the patches, the YPG patches, you said they were unauthorized and inappropriate. What is inappropriate about that, especially given the long history of special forces wearing them? And earlier this week, Peter Cook said they were -- they were to blend in with the local population. Also, you know, to show support. So what is -- what is inappropriate about wearing those patches?

COL. WARREN: Well, there's political sensitivities around the -- the organization that that patch represents, and that makes it inappropriate. The sensitivities, in fact, are with a NATO ally. So you've got to understand, these guys on the ground do what they're going to do and they have their customs and courtesies that they have been following for years. But it's also important to understand the larger strategic context, which -- and I think that's the inappropriateness of it, is that they didn't understand that or appreciate it as they should have.

So again, the correction has been made. We have communicated with our allies that we felt that those patches were inappropriate and we acknowledged that they're unauthorized because they are unauthorized. Just plain and simple; they're not authorized. And we've made the correction, so everybody's moving on.

Q: Were any of them YPJ patches?

COL. WARREN: You know, I looked at them and it was hard to tell. You know, it wasn't -- the resolution on those pictures wasn't the best. So I don't know, you'd have to take a close look. I only scanned them on our internet, which you can tell from this connection is not the best, so.

CAPT. DAVIS: Next, to Tom -- (inaudible).

Q: Colonel Warren, can you tell us if any of these U.S. special operation forces in Syria have engaged in combat? Have they been attacked? Have they fired their weapons?

COL. WARREN: To my knowledge, no. At this point, none of them have been engaged in Syria. You know, we know there's been cases of it happening in Iraq. But to my knowledge, no.

But I will say that with a caveat. You know, it's -- you know, they are deep behind enemy lines, aren't they? So you know, I don't know what doesn't get reported. We only know what gets reported. So I do want to caveat that up front that, you know, frankly, at this level, at the three-star JCTF headquarters level, we may not have perfect fidelity on what happens every minute of every day out there in the wilds of Syria.

But to our knowledge, there have been no reports of firefights, if you will, involving our forces there.

CAPT. DAVIS: Next, to David -- (inaudible).

Q: Steve, you said, back on the rules of engagement for the special operation forces in Syria, that they could only be in areas where contact is not likely. Earlier, we'd been given a much more specific definition, which was one terrain feature between them and the enemy so that they would not be exposed to direct fire. Is it both those? I mean, one sounds specific, one sounds much more open to interpretations of judgment.

COL. WARREN: It is -- it's kind of both, Dave. It's -- the requirement is one -- is where enemy contact is not likely. The general application of that is a terrain feature back, if that makes sense. But that's kind of -- the terrain feature piece is more of a rule of thumb, if you will. Enemy contact not likely based on a very specific set of criteria that go into the mission analysis.

So enemy contact not likely, that's the standard. The one terrain feature back, that's kind of the rule of thumb because often, that will be the case. You know, particularly in this battlefield, the way it's -- you know, this isn't mechanized warfare, you know, on a grand scale where you have forces able to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time.

This is a little bit more constrained because of the types of forces that are fighting. This isn't M-1s, you know, at the National Training Center able to really cover a lot of ground. So, the one terrain features -- but to answer your question -- it's kind of a rule of thumb. We use it a lot of times just as shorthand, and to be able to hopefully rapidly communicate the rough idea, which is not where the enemy is.

Q: Can you hear me?

CAPT. DAVIS: Steve? Checking audio. He asked if there were any other rules of thumb.

COL. WARREN: None come to mind. But the thing about rules of thumb is you don't really notice them until they come up. So -- but none come to mind right now.

On this particular piece, you know, how to relate to the enemy while conducting advise and assist operations, I'm not -- I'm not -- no other rules of thumb come to mind. Broadly speaking in the United States Army, we've got plenty of rules of thumb out there, but we can talk about those later.

CAPT. DAVIS: Eating yellow snow comes to mind.

(Carlo Munoz ?)?

Q: Hey, Steve. Just a quick question on this -- (inaudible).

(CROSSTALK)

COL. WARREN: Admiral Kirby taught me that one. Don't stand up in a canoe.

Q: Hey, Steve. Just a quick question on the current security situation in Baghdad. Things seem to have quieted down. I just wanted to kind of see what sort of the feedback has been from your Iraqi counterparts. Is there still discussion about possibly moving some forces back to the city to reinforce security?

And the second part is, how much do you think this sort of Fallujah offensive has kind of improved security in the city? Or has it had any effect at all?

COL. WARREN: I think it's too soon to tell whether or not the Fallujah operations will have an impact on -- on security in Baghdad. When Fallujah is finally liberated and cleared of enemy, we believe it will have an impact on Baghdad's security. I think the prime minister once referred to Fallujah as a knife pointing towards the throat of Baghdad.

So, you know, I think when we clear it out, it will be a lot better. I have not seen or heard any additional discussion about the Iraqis repositioning forces. This is always their prerogative, of course. But right now as you observed, there does appear to be less demonstration activity.

We've seen a lot of the Iraqi political and religious leadership make very public statements to not conduct demonstrations or protests, particularly while the Fallujah operation is being conducted. So we were encouraged to see that.

So, so far, so good.

CAPT. DAVIS: The gentleman from CNN?

Q: Ryan Brown. Colonel, thank you for doing this, and thank you for all the briefs you've done.

A couple of questions. First is some of the reporting accompanying the photos of the SOF forces talked about them having TOW missiles and firing them at VBIEDs. Would that kind of action be within the advise and assist description? Or would that -- is this reporting inaccurate?

COL. WARREN: The reporting is completely inaccurate.

Q: Moving on, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported that coalition airstrikes killed a French national ISIS leader named Fabien Clain. Do you have any information on that?

COL. WARREN: I've certainly seen those press reports. We don't have any announcements to make regarding HVIs right now.

Q: And finally on this white sheets for civilian protection in Fallujah, I know this information was communicated via leaflet. Is there any reason to believe that ISIS will not simply just put white sheets on some of their facilities to avoid being struck?

COL. WARREN: There's no reason to believe that at all. They most likely will, and this is part of the complexity of urban warfare.

Q: Thank you.

CAPT. DAVIS: (OFF-MIKE)

Q: Hey, Steve. I'd like to go back to the airstrikes in and around Raqqah.

The U.S. coalition airstrikes, are they actually striking targets inside the city? And -- and does this complicate the deconfliction with the Russians? Did the Russians voluntarily halt their airstrikes in Raqqah or was this some kind of agreement between the U.S. and Russia to deconflict the airspace?

COL. WARREN: So we don't deconflict the airspace, per se, with the Russians. We do conduct daily phone calls to ensure that we have safe operating conditions. The Russians only struck Raqqah on a very small handful of times. That is not normally where thy have been flying. Most of the Russian flights are concentrated more to the west of Syria.

We are striking both in the center of Raqqah itself and of course out through the countryside. There is no area where we're not able to strike with extraordinary precision. So we will take our strikes wherever we deem necessary.

So regarding the Russians, there hasn't been a problem there. They have taken a few strikes in Raqqah, but it's been a while and there just -- there hasn't been any problems with that. Again, you know, we have these weekly calls with the Russians to work out how to make sure our planes don't bump into each other or don't come into inadvertent contact, and that has worked generally fairly well, I think as General Brown described on Thursday. And so we'll continue that.

CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Paul Shinkman.

Q: Colonel Warren, Hi. I ditto all of the thanks for your work and we're very much looking forward to meeting and working with your successor.

Just to follow up on Fallujah, you had said a few weeks ago that you didn't see any military reason to liberate Fallujah now. I realize that a lot has happened since then. I'd be interested to get your assessment on whether you still feel that way, what may have changed in that time and how the coalition understands Baghdad's rationale for choosing this time to liberate Fallujah.

COL. WARREN: Well, thank you for that, Paul, it's a smart question. What I said specifically was -- or contextually, you know, we were talking about Fallujah as it relates to Mosul, right? So you know, you don't Fallujah in order to get Mosul. Mosul is our ultimate objective in Iraq, at least our ultimate geographical objective.

And so what I said was unlike say, for example, Sinjar, you have to take Sinjar before you go to Mosul because Sinjar controls the -- the high-speed avenue of approach in between Raqqah and Mosul. So you'd be stupid to try to go to Mosul without taking Sinjar first, and we're not stupid.

So that's an example of a place you have to go before you can go to Mosul. Fallujah's not -- doesn't fall into that category. You don't need Fallujah in order to get to Mosul. So the two are de-linked. So -- so that was the explanation -- (inaudible). So no military reason to take Fallujah in order to get to Mosul.

You know, every city in Iraq's got to get cleared, right? I mean, that's what we're here for. We're here to clear Daesh, clear ISIL out of Iraq. So we're going to every city sooner or later, it's just a question of sequencing.

And then I said, if I remember it right, having established that Fallujah is not necessary for Mosul, the sequencing then becomes a political decision, right? And -- and of course, Clausewitz taught us that all of this is part of politics, right? Everything that we do -- you know, war is -- is part of politics, an extension of it.

So of course we understand as warriors, as professional soldiers, we understand the political component. We understand that there is going to be a political component. We understand that the leader of the country has to make decisions based on more than pure military necessity. We understand that perfectly well.

So -- and of course, given recent unrest in Baghdad, given recent rash of bombings in Baghdad, surely that changes the political calculus for the civilian leadership of Iraq. We understand that completely and we accept it, and we're providing devastating airpower in support of the decision that the prime minister of Iraq made to liberate Fallujah. Does that answer --

Q: So, can you then clarify whether or not it's political attention or whether it's actual military deployment, especially for the CTS, how focusing on Fallujah now does not take away from the Mosul campaign?

COL. WARREN: The forces involved in Fallujah are different from the forces that will be involved in Mosul. So the Mosul forces are continuing their preparations, continuing the force generation process, while the Fallujah, while the Anbar forces conduct operations in Anbar.

Now, certainly it's going to bleed-off some leadership attention. That's to be expected. But, you know, if this operation goes rapidly, we'll see Fallujah liberated which will then really have great benefit, I think, because that will take some of the pressure off the political leadership in Baghdad. It will cause the Iraqi population to rest a little easier, particularly the Baghdad population, which of course is the center of gravity for Iraq.

So, you know, everything's got a balance. I mean, we could -- we could -- we could do a graduate school seminar on this, right? You know, it's all about balance. So, while it may bleed-off some attention, that's the cost. The benefit will be heightened security in -- potentially heightened security in Baghdad. It will certainly be a heightened sense of comfort in Baghdad, which will then take political pressure -- will take pressure off of the leadership and allow them to focus more on Mosul down the road.

So it's kind of like an investment, I guess. So, you know, all of these things continuously have to cycle and turn. And there's always analysis and there's everything from military necessity to political reality. And all of that has to be brought together with leaders both in uniform and out of uniform to come up with the right way ahead.

Q: One last technical question. You talked about how the -- how the CTS was going to be involved in clearing Fallujah. As you understand it now, is the plan to be similar to their involvement in Ramadi, where the rest of the forces are providing sort of -- sort of circling the town and CTS are the ones who actually go in and clear it?

COL. WARREN: Well, let's let the answer to that be a surprise to the enemy. How about it?

CAPT. DAVIS: Lucas -- Lucas -- (inaudible).

Q: Warren, how close are U.S. forces -- U.S.-backed forces to Raqqah right now?

COL. WARREN: It depends. You know, they're not -- the American forces aren't fixed. As you know, we had some forces that Joe Votel visited. He was quite a distance away from Raqqah. In other cases, they're relatively close to the front lines, probably the Tishreen Dam when they were there is, what, 25 clicks away from Raqqah, I think. We had forces there on the Tishreen Dam. They go check on it from time to time.

So there isn't a single number, but I'd say probably in the, you know, 20, 15, 20 miles at the closest at any given moment. But then at other times, they're significantly further away. They move.

Q: How close are U.S.-backed forces to an invasion of Raqqah? Are we talking about in the next few weeks before Ramadan, before the end of the summer?

COL. WARREN: Well, we want to keep the enemy guessing. You know, they recently declared a state of emergency in Raqqah because of the pressure that's being put on them. This enemy believes that an invasion of Raqqah could come at any time. And I choose to allow the enemy to continue believing that and -- and not know when his last days are coming.

Q: Speaking of the front line, does the U.S. military always know where the front line is?

COL. WARREN: Since World War I, I'm not sure anyone has ever always known where a front line is. You know, if there's a trench with some concertina wire in the middle, that tells you exactly where the line is.

But the line isn't -- certainly isn't painted on the ground. And often, the line is really just kind of the straightest distance between two places where there are forces. So it's fluid, but we certainly have a general idea, you know, we know where bad-guy country is and where good-guy country is. And we stay in good-guy -- in the case of Syria, our forces stay in good-guy country.

Q: Hey, Colonel Warren. Thanks for doing this again.

Can you kind of characterize how isolated Fallujah is? Are they able to move ISIL fighters in and out of the city? You know, what are you guys seeing there?

COL. WARREN: It is largely isolated, I guess is the -- is the modifier I would use. It's always possible for individuals to move in and out. There are no high-speed avenues of approach in or out, but there are rat lines that this enemy can use to infil or exfil men, material and equipment.

So it's rare -- almost impossible to completely seal off a city. But Fallujah is, I think largely isolated. So there are, again, no high-speed avenues of approach in or out, but certainly, there's always an ability to move through rat lines and other methods.

Q: And quickly following up, just -- have you guys seen ISIL fighters fleeing from -- from Fallujah as they see this attack coming?

COL. WARREN: We haven't seen much of that yet. Again, we're still early. We're only about, I guess, three days into this so far and you know, the friendly forces are still a ways outside the city. I mentioned Garma in the opener; that's 10 miles away. So we've still got a ways to go, so we have to see what decisions the enemy makes as to whether or not they're going to break and run.

You know, it's impossible to know what exactly what the enemy's thinking. Maybe they're waiting for a trigger point, maybe they don't plan on leaving or maybe they plan on waiting until a certain -- until a certain, you know, point in the development in the battle that will trigger them to go. So too soon to tell.

CAPT. DAVIS: We are about out of time. Steve, before we turn it back over to you for some closing words, I did just want to tell for everybody.

Last summer Colonel Steve Warren raised his hand and volunteered to serve in what is arguably one of the most complex and intellectually challenging jobs in the military, recognizing the need that we had to have somebody on the ground in Baghdad to be able to speak authoritatively and quickly, to serve the press and by extension the American people with accurate and timely information about this operation and recognizing that this was not an easy job; it's one that he was uniquely equipped to do better than anybody else out there.

Steve made the personal sacrifice, setting aside his education, setting aside his family to serve at the pointy end of the spear. Steve, you have done this job with style, class, humor, passion and integrity, and I thank you on behalf of OSD Public Affairs, our press office and the entire public affairs community. You're a legend. You've made a difference and you will be missed. And Godspeed and we look forward to seeing you back here on this side of the camera soon.

COL. WARREN: Jeff, thank you. You're too kind. Those are very thoughtful words. And thank you all for the kind words that you shared with me.

And Jamie asked a great question, and so it kind of took my own thunder away from me, but I did want to talk about the press corps and how capable you are and how important it is that you do what you're doing.

I also want to talk about Chris Garver, Colonel Chris Garver who arrives here tonight -- or tomorrow. He's been in Kuwait for the last -- almost year; he's been there since September. He is, in my view, the best public affairs officer in the United States Army. He is truly a professional communicator par excellence. It will be a pleasure for you to work with him, I guarantee it. He will be easy to work with. He's sophisticated, he's smart, he's capable, he understands this fight as well as anybody else does and he will do far better than I've done.

And any success that I've had in this year is due largely to him and his effort. He's got a whole team in Kuwait who writes these openers for me, who provides information -- pushes provides information to me and has -- has -- if there's any success out there, I'm only the mouthpiece. There's an entire team of people here in Baghdad, whether it's Captain Tron Moore or Sergeant First Class Joel Gascot or Sergeant Katy Eggers or Sergeant First Class (promotable) Hoskins who are around me every day and providing me with the information that I need to give to you.

So my hat really is tipped to all of them for the tremendous work they have done, and when Chris Garver gets here, he will not miss a single beat, I assure you.

So I know there's always nervousness when there's change. That's completely understandable and very acceptable. But I'm here to tell you will be more than impressed when Chris Garver stands right here in front of this camera and does 10 times better than I've ever been able to do.

So thank you very much for your patience with me, and I'll see you all on the high ground.