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

ERIC J. PAHON:  Good morning, everybody.  Sorry for the delay, as happens when trying to communicate halfway across the world via satellite from a war zone.  We had some technical difficulties.

So today, we will have an audio-only briefing, unfortunately.  So you will have Colonel Dillon's photo up there.  We just weren't able to establish the video connection.  We've got a few extra graphics for you today.

So, with us today is Colonel Ryan Dillon, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman, live from Baghdad.  And we should be able to hear Colonel Dillon.

Sir, can you hear us?

COLONEL RYAN DILLON:  I can hear you just fine.  How about me?

MR. PAHON:  We can hear you, if we can turn it up just a little bit.

Colonel Dillon has an update on operations to annihilate ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  And once he's done with his remarks, he'll take your questions.

And Colonel Dillon, you have the mike.

COL. DILLON:  All right.  Thank you very much.  Thanks, Eric.

Good morning, everyone.  We'll begin with a brief word on the CJTF-OIR transfer of authority this past Tuesday, then go into updates on the battle to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

So this week saw a transition in the leadership of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve.  On Tuesday, the U.S. Army's 18th Airborne Corps, led by Lieutenant General Townsend, completed their deployment as the headquarters of CJTF-OIR and returned to home station at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

The mission now continues under the leadership of the 3rd Armored Corps out of Fort Hood, Texas, under the command of Lieutenant General Paul E. Funk II.  So, while some of our personnel have changed, what has not changed is the coalition's mission, and that is to defeat ISIS through our partners in Iraq and Syria.

To that end, we are seeing steady progress and overwhelming momentum in the fight to defeat ISIS in Iraq.  Iraqi security forces rolled over ISIS in decisive operations in Tal Afar.  The ISF are now quickly transitioning for follow-on operations in the few remaining ISIS-held areas in Iraq.

While the order for these following operations will come from the Iraqi prime minister, the coalition will continue to provide support every step of the way through our surveillance assets, precision fires, intelligence, and advisers on the ground.  Specifically, the coalition conducted 15 strikes in Hawija and 18 in western Anbar this past week, targeting ISIS tactical units, fighting positions, car bomb facilities and oil revenue targets.

Stabilization continues in Mosul as federal police, local police and tribal forces continue to hold and conduct security operations in both east and west Mosul.  There have been no substantial incidents as residents work together with local and national government institutions to clean up and return essential services to the city.

Moving to Syria, progress is steady in isolating and defeating ISIS.  Our partners in the Syrian Democratic Forces made significant gains in Raqqa, clearing the remaining area of the old city and reclaiming critical medical and religious infrastructure from ISIS.

After breaching the ancient wall 60 days ago, the SDF has made determined and steady progress in dense urban terrain as ISIS fighters struggle desperately in a futile attempt to hold on to territory in their disappearing caliphate.

Our SDF partners must clear every single building, floor by floor, despite the mortal dangers of booby traps and suicidal ISIS fighters.  I'd like to share some visuals to show the progress being made and to illustrate some of the challenges the SDF face in this battle.

So what you should be looking at right now is a graphic showing the city of Raqqa.  And you'll see the city divided by a major roadway separating the east and west sides.

The dark green areas depict previous gains prior to the 21st of August, and the brighter green areas show the gains of the SDF that they have made between 21 and 28 August.

And I'd like to highlight three things that demonstrate the environment where our Syrian Democratic Force partners fight to unseat ISIS from Raqqa.

First, on the western side of the city, the SDF swept through the ISIS-infested regional children's hospital, and they went through there floor by floor, denying the terrorists key infrastructure they'd used as a fortified ISIS headquarters and facilitation hub for weapons. The children's hospital is near the old city center, where ISIS fought from a heavily engineered tunnel system.

So next, you should be now looking at a stairwell.  And to give you an idea of how extensive the tunnel system is, I want you to look at the next couple pictures.  You'll see concrete-reinforced tunnel system that runs underneath the children's hospital.

The entrance to the tunnel is well-constructed, with handrails and stairs.  And then, as you get down into the tunnel, you'll see here, where this is the main tunnel, and then it branches off into less elaborate dirt tunnels that lead to houses and shops nearby.

These tunnels connect ISIS fighting positions and also provide safe passage and coverage from SDF fighters and coalition strikes.  ISIS has cots and cooking stoves, and has also stockpiled weapons and ammunition in these structures.

And the next slide, to the next graphic -- you should now be looking at the Raqqa slide, showing progress that has been made from the 28th of August to the 6th of September.

The Syrian Democratic Forces successfully reclaimed control of and preserved the -- (inaudible) -- 2nd of September.  The Great Mosque of Raqqa is the oldest mosque in the city, and was under ISIS control since 2014.

It is well-known that ISIS uses civilian infrastructure as -- such as schools and hospitals and mosques to fight from, and to support their terrorist activity.  And despite ISIS's longstanding control of this historic site, the SDF was able to regain the surrounding terrain and secure the ancient structure without collateral damage.

As of this week, the SDF have liberated more than 60 percent of Raqqa.  They have successfully connected a front on the west side of the city, as you can see with the bright green portion, and they will now work to back-clear the area inside of the circle, if you will, still held by ISIS, and that should turn bright green over the next week or next couple of weeks.

We have the same dialogue in Mosul about the progress that is being made.  And I'd like to reiterate that once you reach this type of urban environment, this type of urban combat, progress becomes -- it comes by building by building and block by block.  And this is a very deliberate process and requires great care to also avoid collateral damage and harm to noncombatants.

SDF fighters continue to hold each block of the city that they have seized, and they have not relinquished a single piece of it.  As our SDF partners defeat ISIS militarily in the city, they are also addressing humanitarian needs.  The SDF have personnel assisting in the evacuation of thousands of civilians who have been held captive by ISIS.

These evacuees are escaping ISIS control from urban minefields and sniper fire, understanding if they remain they will likely be used as human shields and trapped as hostages.  Those who have escaped know better than anyone how ISIS fighters have no regard for innocent life, and show no discrimination in who they will harm.  In the last several weeks, the coalition has witnessed groups of civilians fleeing to the SDF for protection, often making it to safety, but other times facing violent ISIS retaliation.

About 130 miles south of Raqqa, northwest in the border town of Abu Kamal, the coalition continues to monitor the remnants of an ISIS convoy that had attempted to evacuate toward the Iraqi border -- (inaudible) -- a deal brokered by Lebanese Hezbollah.  The coalition was not party to this agreement and we will not allow this armed terrorist convoy to link up with fellow ISIS fighters in the Euphrates River valley.

We continue to monitor the 11 buses that remain in the open desert, fully aware of ISIS families and noncombatants that are also present.  We have not struck the convoy itself and have not hindered food and water resupplies to reach the convoy.

However, since the beginning of this event on the 29th of August, the coalition has successfully struck more than 40 ISIS vehicles and about 85 ISIS fighters.  We are still seeking opportunities to strike clearly identified ISIS individuals and vehicles whenever and wherever we find them.

I'll finish up in the middle Euphrates River valley.  The international coalition to defeat ISIS conducted a precision airstrike which killed the ISIS weapons research leader Abu Anas al-Shami.  On Monday the 4th of September 2017, the coalition targeted and struck al-Shami as he rode a motorcycle near Mayadin, Syria.  Al-Shami led ISIS's attempt to procure explosives and ISIS plans to use bombs for external terrorist acts.

He also oversaw the building of improvised explosives to -- (inaudible), vehicles and buildings to try and help ISIS cling to strongholds they are losing in Iraq and Syria.

Also on the 4th of September, the coalition killed a senior ISIS drone pilot trainer and engineer, by the name of Junaid ur Rehman, with a precision airstrike south of Mayadin in the village of Al-Asharah, Syria.

Ur-Ramon was an experienced engineer.  He was working to increase the -- ISIS's ability to weaponize drones and to conduct aerial surveillance on the battlefield for attack plotting throughout the world.

We are witnessing the continued degradation of a morally bankrupt terrorist fighting force whose leaders are detaching more and more often from their foot soldiers.

And with that, I'll go ahead and take your questions.

MR. PAHON:  Okay.  Great.  Thank you very much, Colonel Dillon.

First, we'll start with Laurie Mylroie, Kurdistan 24.

Q:  Thank -- thank you very much, Colonel, for that update.

I have some questions associated with your comments about the ISIS bus convoy.  Have there been -- there have been reports that some of these ISIS fighters have -- a significant number of ISIS fighters have escaped, despite the U.S. surveillance and attack.  Is that the case?

COL. DILLON:  The -- the 11 buses that we are monitoring -- there have been no ISIS fighters that have been able to -- to retrograde or evade from -- from that position.  So any -- any reports that say otherwise are false.

We have struck individual ISIS fighters and fighters that leave in small groups to walk away, and as soon as they get far enough away from the buses -- we have, and we will continue to strike ISIS fighters that venture far enough away where we can hit them without causing harm to the civilians that are a part of that convoy.

So to -- to quickly go back to your question, out of that -- those 11 buses that are stuck in the desert right now, none of them have been able to get away.

Q:  Well, thank you.

And there have been senior Iraqi figures associated with Iran, including two that are major individuals in the Hashd al-Shaabi, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes and Qais al-Khazali, as well as Nouri al-Maliki, the former prime minister of Iraq, who have all supported Hezbollah and this convoy -- they said it's the right thing to do, to take these ISIS fighters out of Lebanon, bring them on -- to the Iraqi border.

What is your -- do you have any reaction to the support that people like al-Mohandes, al-Khazali and Maliki have given?

COL. DILLON:  I will say that the coalition's mission is very clear, and that is to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  And so we were not party to this agreement, and the deal to transport hundreds of experienced ISIS terrorists across Syrian-held territory to be delivered to the border of Iraq, of which -- Iraq, you know, did not say in this agreement, either -- is unacceptable to us.

And so, on the 29th of August, when we found out that this convoy was en route to the border, we repositioned assets and we stopped and prevented this convoy from linking up with fellow ISIS fighters.

So our mission is clear, and that is to defeat ISIS.  It is not to push ISIS around and leave them for someone else to have to deal with.  So I think that -- I know that we have -- while we did not expect an event like this, it has been lucrative, and it has allowed us to take several ISIS fighters, leaders and resources off the battlefield.

Q:  My last question on this -- al-Mohandes was involved in the -- the bombing of the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait in '83.  Al-Khazali was one of those figures attacking U.S. forces in Iraq when we were there, and was held at Camp Cropper.

Are you comfortable with these people as senior figures in al-Hashd al-Shaabi?

COL. DILLON:  I'd just -- I'll go back to what I had said before.

Our -- you know, we work with the government of Iraq and the Iraqi Security Forces.  The Hashd al-Shaabi and the Popular Mobilization Forces are -- have committed to following the orders of the president of Iraq, and we think that everyone who's operating in Iraq should be doing just that.

So we will continue to work with the ISF and the government of Iraq to defeat ISIS throughout Iraq.  And that trend and the way that that is going right now has been successful.  And we are going to continue to push hard and keep the pressure on ISIS in Iraq, in the remaining ISIS strongholds that remain.

MR. PAHON:  Thank you.

Ben Kesling, Wall Street Journal.

Q:  Hi, Colonel Dillon.

I wonder if you can give a quick rundown on what's going on with Hawija, in preparation for -- for an assault on Hawija.  Do you have any breakdown of possible ISIS numbers or civilian numbers in Hawija?  And can you talk a little bit about the tactical and strategic significance of that town?

COL. DILLON:  Okay, Ben.  So first off, I would say right now, in Hawija, we estimate there are less than 1,000 ISIS fighters that remain in that area.

Second, how are we going about doing that?  I know that the coalition, just as we have in the lead-up to Tal Afar and any other offensive -- is that we are striking those positions that we can find with ISIS.

And over the course of the last week, we've conducted 17 strikes, mainly against places like defensive fighting positions, vehicle-borne IED factories.  We'll continue to do that and continue to monitor and use our surveillance aircraft to provide intelligence to the Iraqis.

Now, as far as how the Iraqis are going to do this, I don't want to get ahead of them.  And this is certainly, you know, their fight, and this is exactly how we have conducted business in the past as well, where they are in the lead.

Iraqis are the ones who are developing these plans and they're the ones who are executing them.  We are in support.  And so I don't want to get too far ahead with how that is going to play out.

But I will also say that General Abdul Amir, who's in charge of the overall operations in Tal Afar, is also the one who's still in charge right now.  And, as we saw, the success in Tal Afar, with all elements of the Iraqi Security Force working together on multiple fronts simultaneously, was just too much for ISIS to handle.  And I expect to see something very similar to capitalize on the successes that we've seen in Tal Afar.

Q:  And can you just, again, talk a little bit about the significance of Hawija?  What does -- what does that town mean, and what does retaking it mean?  And is there -- are there difficulties there because of the fault lines -- the sort of ethnic fault lines that are in the Hawija area, the proximity to disputed territories, all that?

COL. DILLON:  Well, I think, you know, first off, you know, one of the big significance of this is that I know, for a lot of people in the region, they have continually asked, you know, "Hawija next, Hawija next."  So, again, that is something that is decided upon by the prime minister.

But, that said, Hawija is -- is one of the final remaining ISIS strongholds.  And outside of Hawija, then we have western Anbar.  And in western Anbar, you've got, really, three or four towns, Annah, Rawa and Al-Qaim.  So as we -- as we look at the overall and the progress of how the Iraqi security forces have come from three years ago -- Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah, Qayyarah, Mosul, Tal Afar -- they are getting better and better as we've seen especially in Tal Afar, and have continued to, as we say, feed off of that success as we see this growing into Hawija.

So, I don't know if that really addressed it or not, but knowing that this is one of the final remaining ISIS strongholds, I think it is significant enough.

MR. PAHON:  Next, we have Lita Baldor, A.P.

Q:  Thanks, and good to see you the other day.

Can you clear up a couple of things on the convoy?  Initially, it was 17 buses and about 300 people, and that split in two.  How many are remaining?  Of these 11 that you're talking about, are those just the ones that are over -- that -- because aren't there some that are also near Palmyra?  Or are those not there?  And are the 11 just the ones that are over near Abu Kamal?

COL. DILLON:  Okay, Lita.  So, it started at 17 buses.  And on the 31st of August, those buses split up; 11 went north, and those are the ones that we are currently watching right now.  And then you had six that stayed on the south along the highway that they were traveling on from western Syria all the way to where we stopped them.

So, they stayed there until the 2nd of September, and on the 2nd of September is when those six buses that stayed in the south, they drove away and went further into Syria towards Palmyra.  So, we have maintained eyes-on the 11 that are in the desert, you know, that -- that were the ones that broke north.

And out of that, we still assess that overall it was about 300 ISIS fighters, and about 300 family members, what we assessed from the very beginning.

Q:  So -- (inaudible) -- so the six that left, you've just let them -- they've just gone; you've let them get away, essentially, into Palmyra.  The others -- how many would you assess are left in those 11 buses of those -- of the 300 fighters and the 300 family, because you've -- you've talked about killing at least 85.

COL. DILLON:  Yeah, and just to clarify there, Lita.  The 85 that we killed are not all from the convoy.  Several of those ISIS fighters that we have killed were those that were a part of elements that were coming from ISIS-held territory to drive out to and link up with these buses.  So -- but just to -- to go to your question, I don't have a good figure as to how many within the 11 buses are still there, but I can follow up and try to get that to you.

Q:  Even a breakout as to approximately how many ISIS fighters are in those buses?

COL. DILLON:  Yeah, we can -- we can break that down and try to find that out for you.

MR. PAHON:  Thomas Watkins has a follow-on to Lita's question, and then we'll move to Courtney and then Joe after that.

Q:  Thank you.  Thank you, Colonel.

Just -- yeah, just to follow up from Lita.  Why -- whose decision was it?  And why was this decision made to allow these six buses to essentially escape?  And what's your estimation of how many ISIS fighters were on those six buses?

COL. DILLON:  And just go to the (inaudible).  Number one is, as those buses, you know, drove further into western Syria, we just made a decision to stop monitoring it as they, you know, drew further into the interior of Syria.

And my answer on the same question to Lita is, those that were on those six buses, I don't have -- similarly, I don't know how many -- we could -- do a quick break-up and say, out of the 17 buses, 300 fighters divided by 11.  But I don't want to do that.

We will see if we can get you a good answer on how many we assess to be in the six that moved further in, and how many are in the 11 up north -- that remain up north.  Okay?

MR. PAHON:  Next, to Courtney Kube, NBC.

Q:  Thank you.

Hi, Colonel Dillon.  One more on this.  So was it fair to assume that the roughly 300 family from the beginning are still in the 11 buses in the desert?  Have any of the family members escaped or left?

COL. DILLON:  Again, I -- I don't know if the first three buses had all ISIS fighters and then the following -- the rest of the buses had just family members.  I don't have that break-up.  I don't know -- I didn't have a headcount for each of the ISIS buses.

And so, what we can do is get an estimate to find out how many are in the 11 in the north, and then how many are the south.  But, you know, I would say that the -- that it was a mix in both the six buses in the south, and a mix in the 11 buses that are still remaining in the north.

Q:  Okay.  And then, just to be clear, when you said you haven't hindered any food, water supply, that food and water is coming from the Syrian regime, right?  And the reason you're allowing that is because you still believe there are civilians or family members in the 11 buses that are stuck?

COL. DILLON:  Well, number one, we know that there are family members that are still remaining in those 11 buses, because we're watching the -- we're watching these buses the whole time.  And as far as we know where it is coming from, I can't say, you know, with 100 percent if it's coming from the regime armed forces.

But it is coming -- that food and aid is coming from Syrian-held territory.  And if we can assess, you know, that -- that it is not ISIS fighters, then we are -- again, we are not helping with the delivery of this aid, but we are not going to hinder it, either.

Q:  And then, just one more on the -- the tunnel photos that you showed from up in Raqqa.  I'm just curious, where did those come from?  Did American military take those photos?

COL. DILLON:  I got those from our elements, from -- who -- who are in charge of operations there.  I don't know who took the photos, but those were photos that were underneath the children's hospital.

Q:  Thanks.

MR. PAHON:  Joe Tabet, Al Hurra.

Q:  Thank you.

Colonel Dillon, when you say that the coalition will not -- (inaudible) -- convoy to link up with ISIS fighters in the Euphrates River Valley, how do you see the fate of the convoy?

COL. DILLON:  We have offered and made a recommendation to our -- to the Russians on the de-confliction line, to provide a course of action to allow the -- the civilians to be separated.  But that has not gained any traction, so we don't see it as our -- as our issue, if you will.

This was a -- these are -- they are in Syrian-held territory.  They are -- this is a deal that was made by Lebanese Hezbollah.  So, again, we are standing firm to say that we are willing to do what we can to disrupt ISIS fighters from moving into the MERV and -- moving into and linking up with their fellow fighters.

Q:  And another question, on Hawija -- do you believe that all parties involved in the decision to liberate Hawija are -- are fine with having the Peshmerga units playing a role in this operation?

COL. DILLON:  That is a question for the government of Iraq.  I know that -- you know, I will stand firm to say that the coalition will continue to support the Iraqi Security Forces.  And as far as your question, that is -- I don't want to address that one, because I think that's more appropriate for Iraqis to take on.

Q:  Thank you.

MR. PAHON:  Thank you.  Tara Copp.

Q:  Okay, thanks, Colonel Dillon.

Since you've mentioned that the convoy's being watched at all times, could you describe to us how food and water is being delivered?  Is it being delivered by truck or by car?  And how is the U.S. able to determine that an element delivering food is actually not ISIS support?

COL. DILLON:  Well, okay.  So they are vehicles like pickup trucks and, you know, bongo trucks that have been providing the deliveries.  These -- these are coming from Syrian-held territory.  So we don't want to make any kind of miscalculations by striking the -- anything other than ISIS.  So -- so, you know, we are going to play a little -- be a little cautious about that.

Number two, just as something to add, was, about 72 hours ago, after delivery and offload of some of the supplies, we witnessed through our ISR feeds the ISIS fighters fighting amongst themselves, brawling in the dirt, if you will, after the offload of supplies.

So we chalk that up to frustration by these fighters, being stuck in the middle of this desert, and we certainly like to see that something will move forward, as far as an agreement or some of -- some kind of stance by the Syrian regime to -- to either separate these fighters and -- take them and separate the civilians.

Q:  Okay, and then, in the airspace above this convoy, are you having to deconflict or warn off -- are there potentially Iranian UAVs also watching?  Or are you having to deconflict with Russia on any sort of Syrian air assets also watching the convoy?

COL. DILLON:  We deconflict with the Russians, and we are talking with them on a daily basis.  So they know where our assets are in relation to this convoy.  And as far as other elements that you had mentioned, whether they're Syrian or Iranian drones, we have the right capabilities and assets to also keep an eye out on those.

Q:  Just one last before we drop off -- the drone engineer that U.S. forces struck -- I hadn't seen many drones on the daily airstrike counts of late.  Can you describe, in general, how big the drone threat was getting for coalition or U.S. and partnered forces?

COL. DILLON:  We've seen -- there have been -- as I've gone through the -- the strike releases, there have been -- I would say several, but, you know, over the course of the last, you know, couple months, there have been UAS, you know, sites that have been struck.

Bottom line is that, as far as the drone threat overall, the coalition is decimating that network.  So we are destroying their launch points, we're killing their engineers, we're dismantling their manufacturing facilities and their users.

So there's no question about it -- that we are ripping apart their ability to use drones and to -- and to further get better at their technique.  So -- then today's particular -- you know, today's announcement of this HVI strike, I think, is yet another example of how we are getting after that.

MR. PAHON:  We still have quite a big queue.  But, Courtney, do you have a quick follow-up?

Q:  Just one follow-on.

Ryan, you said that the U.S. made a recommendation to the Russians on the de-confliction line, to allow the civilians to be separated.  When was that?

And -- and on something like that that's not -- I don't recall a time where there's been something on the de-confliction line that hasn't been de-conflicting airspace.  It's always been really particular that that line is used for that.

So when something like that happens, does that elevate the -- who's on the call?  Like, is that, like, a higher level leader in OIR who makes that recommendation, or makes that offer?  Can you tell us a little more about that, please?

COL. DILLON:  No, it's not a higher level leader.  There were some open announcements by, you know, different authorities that talked about the need to take care of civilians.  And so we offered, you know, some recommendations and courses of action.

So that is -- that's how that came about.  And that was, I want to say, relatively early in -- I don't have the exact date, but I would say that that was probably two or three days after, so I would say around the 31st of August.

But that's just a -- that's an educated guess as to when that initial conversation happened.  It was -- it was in our initial press release that we had provided this course of action to the Russians.

MR. PAHON:  Gentleman in the back, I can't remember your name, I'm sorry.

Q:  Jack Detsch with Al-Monitor.

Colonel, does the coalition have any assessment of how pro-regime gains in Deir ez-Zor will impact the fight against ISIS ongoing, and how many militants might have been killed there?

COL. DILLON:  (Inaudible) -- we do monitor and watch and see, you know, where they are and where they're going.  And at the same time, as they move closer into the Middle Euphrates River Valley, like into Deir ez-Zor, and -- we deconflict with the -- the Russians.

And, as most of you know, there is a deconfliction line that runs south of Tabqa and goes all the way across -- somewhat parallel -- irregularly, but parallel to the Euphrates River, so that we can maintain our focus, both the Russians and the regime and the coalition and the SDF, on defeating ISIS.

We will continue to deconflict and, as necessary and as required, we'll continue to draw a -- that line, if you will, further on down the Middle Euphrates River Valley, if necessary.

Q:  Got it.

And then, just with the gains that the SDF has made in the old city of Raqqa, can you talk a little bit about how this might limit the mobility of ISIS fighters or diminish their command-and-control, specifically with the tunnels?  Have they captured any of that network?

COL. DILLON:  So I -- we still have a -- a good amount of fighting to go, and as with the, you know, children's hospital that I just mentioned, just north of -- I don't know if the map is still up, but just, if you were to draw, almost equidistant from the children's hospital to the stadium -- about halfway between those points is the Raqqa national hospital, which has also been identified as a major ISIS holdout.

As far as the -- the tunnel networks, if we find them -- the Syrian Democratic Forces find them, we do, you know, have measures in place to block those tunnels, to prevent ISIS fighters from using them and popping up behind lines that have already been -- or areas that have already been cleared.

So, every day, block by block, as we find these -- these tunnels and these resources, we -- we -- Syrian Democratic Forces do exploit them.  So the further we get into the city, the -- and the more pressure that is put on them, it does absolutely limit their ability to move around more extensively.

MR. PAHON:  Carla Babb, Voice of America.

Q:  Colonel, thank you for doing this.  The gentlemen in the back kind of -- kind of asked my question, but I want to get a few more specifics, like four more specifics on Deir ez-Zor.

So, first of all, kind of what is the situation there?  How much of Deir ez-Zor does the Syrian regime control?  How many ISIS fighters do you estimate to still be there?  Is the plan still to wait this out?

I know we've got MAT -- we've got some fighters that were preparing to go into the Deir ez-Zor region.  Are we still holding off our -- our partners?

And I guess last is, can we trust the Syrian regime, who just made a deal with ISIS, to take care of ISIS in Deir ez-Zor?  Is that a smart strategy?

COL. DILLON:  All right, I'll try to -- to take all these on, one by one.

So number one is Syrian forces, the regime, has, you know, made it to the city of Deir ez-Zor, the outskirts, and have linked up with their besieged brigade, or that element that they've had there for the last three years.  Number of fighters, we estimate, in Deir ez-Zor is about 2,500 ISIS fighters.

As far as our partner forces, the Syrian Democratic Forces and some of the Arab contingent that is from this area, the SDF, our battle-tested and proven partner -- they have partnered with indigenous Deir ez-Zor tribes and other tribes from the Middle Euphrates River Valley.  And they are still prepared to seize those towns and province -- the province of Deir ez-Zor from ISIS.

To address your third question, yes, there is concern about whether or not and how serious the Syrian regime is about defeating ISIS.  So are they, you know, going to -- I've heard this brought up before -- squeegee -- are they going to squeegee them out of Deir ez-Zor and, you know, push them elsewhere?  Not if we can help it.

And, as we do -- we -- we conduct strikes, and as you well know, through our strike releases, throughout the MERV -- I just mentioned two strikes and two HVIs that were killed just outside of Mayadin.  So we will continue to strike up and down the MERV.

We have a partner force that is, you know, ready to -- to move into the Deir ez-Zor province and down the Middle Euphrates River Valley.  And so we'll just have to see when that is going to happen, but we'll continue the strikes.

I hope I addressed each one of your questions, and if you have a follow up, I'm ready.

Q:  You did.  That was great.  Thank you.

My follow up is unrelated.  I just want a quick update, like I usually get.  What's the number of estimated ISIS fighters in Iraq and in Syria -- (inaudible) -- the latest?

COL. DILLON:  All right.  So the latest, and I'll try to break this out for  you.  So, I already talked about Hawija, less than 1,000; in Deir ez-Zor, which is at 2,500; in Raqqa, we estimate there have been 1,500 there now; and then throughout the MERV from Deir -- not including Deir ez-Zor, but Mayadin down to Abu Kamal, about 6,000 to 8,000 fighters.  And I think that covers it.  And yeah, it does.

MR. PAHON:  Okay.  And Tima al-Khirsan, Al Jazeera – got it.

Q:  Thanks for doing this, Colonel.

There's been a number of reports recently about the discrepancy in reporting civilian casualties between the coalition and other organizations.  The Commission of Inquiry on Syria, appointed by the U.N., said yesterday they were gravely concerned.

Can you help our audience understand why is that discrepancy?  Is there any, not truth, but is -- do they have a point, basically, that the coalition, maybe the investigations are taking too long?  Why is that?

COL. DILLON:  Well, I think that, you know, you -- there are allegations and then there are, you know, those that are -- are substantiated, you know, with -- with the actual fact checking.  And so the allegations that have come in do -- do tend to be, you know, much higher than what our -- our assessments determine them to be.

We, as a combined joint task force, conduct detailed assessments of each allegation.  And so when we get an allegation and we work with elements like Airwars to get the information that they provide and we go through a detailed assessment.  And that assessment includes going through strike logs, looking at videos, conducting interviews.  And we spend a lot of time in making sure that if there is an allegation and the allegation is credible, then we report that and we do this on a monthly basis.

And we are open and transparent with -- with our strikes and our assessments of civilian casualty allegations.  I would say that our critics do not conduct such detailed assessments, often using single-source, scant information.  And that is often taken as fact.  So we agree that civilians must be protected and that is why we have coalition partners and coalition forces that are risking their lives every day to save civilians.

Q:  Thank you, Colonel.  I have one quick follow up on that.  Airwars said that they currently assess that 1,700 or more civilians have likely been killed in strikes in Raqqa since March.  Would you agree with that number?

COL. DILLON:  Again, we take those assessments.  And one thing that I would like to point out is that out of the Airwars assessments that we have gone through so far, less than one percent of the allegations that we have gone through from Airwars have been determined as credible.

So we will continue to work with them and we will, you know, we will take the hundreds of allegations that they receive.  But as you can see in our monthly civilian casualty reports, we go through those and we will assess them as credible or non-credible.

And quite frankly, a lot of them -- a lot of the reports that we find that are credible and we take responsibility for are often self-reported.  So they're from our pilots or from our drone operators, and we -- we will -- if we identify that we have done something, there's often -- you know, the coalition that reports it on our own, and we take -- we take credit for that.  Not -- and we are -- we're policing ourselves.

MR. PAHON:  Okay.  And I think we're down to -- Laurie Mylroie had a follow-on.

Q:  Yes, Colonel.  I have two questions related to your update.  One had to do with -- you -- you said you struck and killed the ISIS weapons leader Abu Anas al-Shami, could you explain something about Shami, what his real name is and what his background is?

COL. DILLON:  I know, as with most of these HVI notifications that I provide during these Pentagon press briefings, we follow up after the fact with a press release, and there should be one waiting for you.  I don't have more information other than what I have provided to you in my statement.

So I don't know -- I don't know.  But we can look to see if we can find out his nationality, where he's from, et cetera.

Q:  And another quick question.  The tunnels -- the picture of the tunnels that you showed was very -- very impressive.  Those are impressive tunnels.  How does the ISIS infrastructure in Raqqa compare to, say, Mosul?  Are the tunnels in Raqqa more sophisticated than what you saw in Mosul?

COL. DILLON:  I think -- you know, when we compare Mosul and Raqqa, they -- the extents of the defense network, the defenses that have been put in by ISIS, you can tell where their, quote, unquote, "twin capitals" have been, and where they've spent their time.

We did not see this type -- these type of elaborate defenses established in Tal Afar by any way, shape or form.  But I would -- I would say that the -- Raqqa and the -- what defenses they put in, with IEDs and these tunnel networks, are comparable to what we've seen in Mosul.

MR. PAHON:  All right.  (Inaudible).  Anybody else?

All right.  Colonel Dillon, do you have any closing words for us?

COL. DILLON:  No, and we'll try to get our -- our video fixed for the next go around.

MR. PAHON:  Hopefully next time we can see it.  It's been a while since we've seen him on TV screen.

Okay.  Well, thank you very much, and that concludes today's briefing, everybody.  Thanks very much for coming.