An official website of the United States Government 
Here's how you know

Official websites use .gov

.gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS

A lock ( lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Senior Defense, Military and State Department Officials Hold a U.S.-Iraq Higher Military Commission Background Briefing

MODERATOR:  Today's briefing is on background, which means that you may refer to and attribute comments from our briefers as a Senior Defense Official, Senior State Official, and Senior Military Official, respectively.  This briefing will run for approximately 30 minutes.  We'll start with opening statements and then turn to questions.  We do ask that you keep to one question out of professional respect for others' desires to ask questions.  And again, this is an on-background briefing.

And with that, we'll start with our Senior Defense Official.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Good morning or good afternoon, everybody.  Thanks for joining us.

During the August 2023 U.S.-Iraq Joint Security Cooperation Dialogue, the JSCD, between the Department of Defense and the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, the United States committed to launch the Higher Military Commission, the HMC, with our Iraqi partners on a mutually determined date.  Today is the date that the Secretary of Defense and his Iraqi counterpart have announced the launch of the HMC.

Before I get into the details on the HMC, I want to reflect on how we've arrived at this point in the campaign to defeat ISIS.  Nearly 10 years ago, the United States began working with allies and partners to confront the urgent threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

At its height, ISIS controlled more than 100,000 square kilometers of territory containing more than 11 million people.  ISIS attracted tens of thousands of foreign fighters from multiple nations to Iraq and Syria.  It used its territory as a safe haven to plot and stage attacks across the region and the globe.

ISIS committed numerous atrocities and abuses, including those involving persecution of individuals and entire communities on the basis of their identity, kidnapping of civilians, forced displacement, killing and maiming of children, rape, and other forms of sexual violence.

Faced with this threat to our mutual security and shared values, together, the United States, with its allies and partners, formed Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, CJTF-OIR, and over the past decade, CJTF-OIR has removed ISIS from the territory it once controlled.

The partnership between CJTF and OIR and the government of Iraq has been a decisive factor in the defeat of ISIS, and the Iraqi Security Forces, the ISF, have been in the lead during the last several years of the campaign to defeat ISIS with CJTF-OIR in support to advise, assist, and enable our partner forces.  The ISF have made tremendous progress through cooperation with CJTF-OIR.

10 years after the Iraqi government invited the United States and the rest of the coalition to fight ISIS and seven years after our collective territorial defeat of ISIS in Iraq, we see a need to transition to a normal bilateral security cooperation relationship.

And so that's the background for the announcement today of the launch of the HMC.  As I said, the HMC is not new.  It's a due out of the inaugural JSCD, which built upon previous strategic bilateral discussions on our mutual commitment to security cooperation and shared interests in regional stability.

These discussions include the July 2021 U.S.-Iraq Strategic Dialogue, the July 2021 U.S.-Iraq Military Technical Talks, the February 2023 U.S.-Iraq Higher Coordinating Committee, and as I mentioned, the August 2023 U.S.-Iraq Joint Security Cooperation Dialogue.

The HMC process aims to determine how the coalition's military mission will evolve on a timeline according to the following factors — the threat from ISIS, operational and environmental requirements, and capability levels of the Iraqi Security Forces.

The HMC will consist of expert working groups focused on the three mutually determined factors I mentioned and will be led by military and defense professionals who will guide the discussion about the natural and necessary evolution of the D-ISIS Coalition mission while ensuring that ISIS can never resurge.  The HMC will be led by U.S. and Iraqi delegations, in close consultation with coalition partners every step of the way.

Let me be clear — the HMC meeting is not a negotiation about the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.  The United States and the coalition are in Iraq at the invitation the Iraqi government to fight ISIS.  Our Iraqi partners have assured us of their commitment toward working together to shape this future U.S. military presence and ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS.

Both nations remain committed to security cooperation and our shared interest in regional stability.  The United States and Iraq will continue to work together to shape future U.S. military presence and ensure an Iraqi-led enduring defeat of ISIS.

So I'll — with that, I'll stop there and turn it over to my colleagues.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  We'll now hear from our Senior State Official.

SENIOR STATE OFFICIAL:  Thank you.  The HMC is another facet in the development of the broader U.S. and Iraq relationship.  As my colleague in OSD mentioned, it's an outcome of the inaugural JSCD last August, which came after a host of other discussions, including the various dialogues that he mentioned.

All of those dialogues, they build upon previous bilateral discussions and fall within the spirit of our 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraq.  These discussions focused not only on our security elements, but on issues that extend well beyond the security partnership with Iraq.  They have helped us advance our full 360-degree partnership with Iraq across a range of issues, including energy, finance, climate, water and trade, among many others.  So the HMC builds on this effort with the shared goal of transitioning to an enduring bilateral security partnership between Iraq and the United States.  Over.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  And then lastly, we'll hear from our senior military official.


SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL:  Hello, team.  This is your senior military official from Baghdad, Iraq.  And just to amplify a little bit about what we're about and our purpose, I command the 24 nations and their contributions to this Coalition Joint Task Force and the mission of Operation Inherent Resolve.  There are, as a reminder, over 80 nations involved in the global coalition to defeat ISIS, and we are in constant communication with their supporting efforts, as well.

A reminder that we are here at the invitation of the government of Iraq and remain steadfast partners in that effort.

We really focus on just two things as part of my mission: it's the enduring defeat of Daesh, or ISIS, and it's the advise-assistant-enable missions that we have with our partner forces, primarily the Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Security Forces, and some of those Special Operations units that they both have.

Now, we look at the enduring defeat of Daesh and the three components as a reminder: the Daesh at large in Iraq and Syria, the Daesh in detention, of which there's less than 10,000 in detention facilities in Syria, and then there's the displaced persons at camps such as al-Roj and al-Hol that have about 2,000 and about 44,000 displaced persons at this time.

The at-large Daesh is where we partner with our forces to either capture or kill the Daesh before they can cause or create other operations against our forces or against the civilian population.

In detention and with displaced persons, our mission function is in the repatriation process of them back to their host countries for either justice and rule of law for detainees or reintegration/rehabilitation for those who are displaced persons, and that's important.  If there were to be a prison breakout, Daesh could become operational overnight with 2,000 prisoners being — could escape and become part of an operational force, and that is Daesh's operational goal right now.

In the displaced persons camps, that's a recruitment potential with the children and the brides of ISIS fighters who are in detention or who were killed.  And so our goal is to get them back home to reintegrate and rehabilitate to society and give those children a chance.

At A2E, we partner with the Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Security Forces with non-lethal support.  A reminder that my mission is not a combat mission.  We have force protection capabilities and have had to use those, as you are aware, since the attacks began upon our formations October 18th to this day by some of the, what I would term, outlaw militias here in Iraq.

The HMC is a process that we are beginning very soon, and as discussed, it was defined and outlined in the outline minutes of the JSCD in August, and there are functional working groups that we've created, along with our Iraqi partners, mil-to-mil to make sure we discuss along those factors the state of the Iraqi Security Forces, the state of Daesh and the state of the operational environment.  Again, not a timeline-driven event; factors-based, and so we will govern that process with our dialogue together.

And pending your questions, that's our opening statement from Baghdad.  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much, and with that, we'll start with Associated Press, Tara Copp.

Q:  Hi.  Thank you, everyone, for doing this.  I wanted to ask about a timetable, because the Iraqi Foreign Ministry put out a statement shortly after the secretary did saying that this — these discussions will formulate, quote, "a specific and clear timetable about the reduction of advisers in Iraq."  So if we could just talk about, what does that mean for the U.S. troops?  Would there be a reduction from the 2,500?  And — or is there some sort of disconnect between what the U.S. is seeing will happen here and what Iraq will see?  And then secondly, what about, for the coalition — for coalition members, is this U.S. only, or will this also mean an eventual reduction of all coalition members?  Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  This is the senior defense official.  We're just not able at this time to provide any kind of specific timelines for HMC process itself, or for a date of the eventual transition of CJTF-OIR.  All of that is pending discussions between the HMC expert working groups during the initial stage of the process.  Any discussion of mission transition in Iraq will be factors-based, as my colleague has stated.

We're committed, along with our Iraqi partners and our coalition partners, to carefully revisit the question of timing and to ensuring that the HMC is comprehensive, efficient and a professional process.  But at this time, that's the most we can say about it.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Next, we'll go to Jared Zuba with Al Monitor.

Q:  Hi, all.  Thank you for doing this.  You mentioned that the U.S. troop presence in Iraq is at the invitation of the Iraqi government.  Going forward, if the Iraqi government requests that the U.S.-led coalition depart the country, you know, on a certain timeline, assuming that the U.S. will comply, how do you intend to support continued presence and operations of Operation Inherent Resolve in Syria?  And do you see a sustained CJTF-OIR presence in Syria after a potential withdrawal from Iraq, or at least, from parts of Iraq?  Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I'll start.  This is senior defense official, and perhaps, our senior military official will chime in.

There are a lot of hypotheticals built into your question which we just really aren't going to be able to address.  As I said, the discussion about any eventual transition of OIR will be undertaken within the HMC process, but there's no way for us to forecast exactly where that leads or on what timetable that leads, and therefore, how it affects other aspects of Operation Inherent Resolve are kind of derivative hypotheticals of the first, so I don't think I'm going to address it any further.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL:  And this is the senior military official in Baghdad.  What I can amplify to it is as agreed to, the process is driven to an outcome for an eventual bilateral relationship for — you asked about the coalition contributions — those member nations in a bilateral relationship with the government of Iraq, and same with the United States government and the United States military, as we do with other countries in the region and around the globe.  That third-factor working group is kind of the catch-all, if you will, that would encompass potential transition formations and what the government of Iraq would like in that relationship going forward.

And that's a matter of policy, and that is not something we've been determined or has been directed, but it's part of the discussions we'll have as part of the HMC process.  Over?

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  We'll go to Wall Street Journal's Michael Gordon.

Q:  Thank you.  You've mentioned that the goal is to transition eventually, at some point, to a bilateral relationship.  My question is, could this bilateral relationship, whenever it occurs, include the presence of US military advisers to assist the Iraqi security forces?

And also, administration officials have been saying in recent weeks that they didn't want to initiate the higher military commission process under the point of a gun while the U.S. forces were under attack by these Iranian-backed militias.  But that seems to be exactly what you're doing.

Why did you change your stance on the timing of beginning these talks?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  This is the senior defense official.  To the first question, you know, Iraq remains a critical security partner to the United States.  We've been engaged in the D-ISIS fight side by side with Iraqi security forces since the D-ISIS coalition mission began 10 years ago.  We're going to continue this strong security partnership to advance our shared objectives and interests.

The HMC will help us determine what form that partnership will take.  Iraqi stability and sovereignty are essential for regional peace and security.  That's what we're there to support.

Regarding the timing of the HMC, it's not connected to recent events.  As it was mentioned a couple of times, this was agreed to — this was a commitment made in the August 2023 Joint Security Cooperation Dialogue.  The attacks, recent attacks from the Iran-aligned militia groups in the U.S. and coalition — against U.S. and coalition personnel in Iraq and Syria that began in mid-October have really not influenced the decision of the United States and Iraq to convene this forum.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  We'll go to Fadi Mansour with Al Jazeera.

Q:  Thank you for doing this.  As every single official here said, that the U.S. forces, coalition forces, are in Iraq, based on the invitation of the Iraqi government, the Iraqi government today, in a statement, clearly signaled that these discussions will address the phased withdrawal or reduction of U.S. forces in Iraq.  However, up front, you deny that these discussions will address the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Can you explain to us the disconnect here?

And if the Iraqis insist on raising this issue, will you refrain from discussing the withdrawal of U.S. forces?  Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  This is the senior defense official.  Again, the HMC will enable the United States and Iraq to, together, discuss the future of the strong security partnership to advance our shared objectives and interests.  And I really don't think we can say more about what that outcome will be, because those discussions are just getting started.

Obviously, it does address an eventual transition for Operation Inherent Resolve, but further than that, I think, would simply be speculative.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  We'll turn it over to Jeff Seldin with VOA.

Q:  Thanks very much for doing this.  Just wondering, what is the Pentagon's current assessment of the size, strength, capabilities of ISIS in Iraq right now?

And how connected do you see ISIS's operations in Iraq to those in Syria?  And how does that impact specifically these discussions?

Do you feel like ISIS is degraded to the point where the — the size of the U.S. presence is — doesn't matter as much, or does it still make a big difference to have the U.S. presence there, with what ISIS is able to do?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL:  This is the senior military official.  I'll go first with that.

One, having been on the ground with the fight for a while, through our partnered forces and through what they are assessing, you do have a Daesh presence, obviously, still in Syria and in Iraq — not to the level where they're operational, where they can tie their tactical engagements and battles together into an operation, nor can they hold or seize territory, and certainly, strategically, across the globe, not viable — maybe strategically plotting but not capable of controlling large areas or territory.

So if you're looking at numbers, what we're going to say is we assess that the numbers are very, very much around the 1,000 or so in Syria and in Iraq.  And that's if you count facilitators, fighters, financiers, the network that would support the Daesh fighters in those locations.

And in both areas, they're not in urban areas.  They're disrupted.  They're suppressed.  They are in complex terrain and mountain environments or in some of the less-governed spaces in the Badiya desert, Syria, or in some of the places in central Iraq around the Kirkuk Saladin province, for example, where the Iraqi security forces are constantly working their intelligence platforms to detect and track these small ISIS cells.

So, again, it's not about numbers; it's about a capability.  They're not — Daesh is not capable beyond small attacks, currently in Iraq and Syria, thanks to the great efforts of the Iraqi security forces, who are doing quite well at keeping a handle on the Daesh challenge.  Over?

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  We have time for just a couple more questions.  We'll do Phil Stewart with Reuters.

Q:  I understand that the termination of the HMC has yet to be finalized, but is it the goal of the Biden administration to maintain a U.S. troop presence in Iraq, long-term?

And then my other question was, if the senior military official could bring us up to date about the number of U.S. wounded in the attacks by militia in Iraq and Syria, to date?  Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  This is the senior defense official.  Well, the United States, and really both nations, remain committed to security cooperation and our shared interests in regional stability.  Together we'll work to shape the future U.S. military presence and ensure an Iraqi-led enduring defeat of ISIS.  I think that's the most I will say on that.

Regarding the attacks and the casualties, I believe we've stated previously — I'm forgetting if it's two or three U.S. personnel wounded in the most recent attack at —

(UNKNOWN):  Al-Asad.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  — at Al-Asad Air Force Base, and one seriously injured Iraqi Security Force service members.

Q:  Do you have a total figure?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Total figure?  I don't have that.

Q:  In all the attacks?  Thank you.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL:  Yeah, this is the Senior Military Official.  So we've had one very serious injury in all of the attacks since October 18th and we've had 70 injured in various forms, lightly injured, mostly those, to be frank, are from concussive events from rocket, mortar, indirect fire, or one-way UAS attacks with anything from eight to 50 kilograms worth of explosives.

So we're very thankful the casualties have not been severe or more numerous, and the injuries are not necessarily wounds, it's just some of the concussive effects that happened during the blast that happened near their locations on bases.  Over.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  We'll turn it over to Lara Seligman with Politico.

Q:  Thanks for doing this.  I wanted to ask you what has been the impact of these recent attacks and the environment in the Middle East on the discussions?  I know you said the timing of the discussions is not related but I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit and characterize what — how this change in the strategic environment is impacting the talks?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  This is the Senior Defense Official.  You know, if anything, the militia attacks delayed our original plan.  The HMC was initially a — the commitment to do it was initially announced in August of 2023, the plan was to proceed later in 2023.

Obviously, events in recent weeks have, you know, caused everyone to have to tend to other business.  But we're now back to the long-planned and originally planned launch of this HMC, and if anything, we're here despite the militia attacks, not because of them.

So, you know, we're committed to — along with our Iraqi partners, to consistently revisit the question of timing, but we'll ensure as we do that the HMC is this comprehensive, efficient, and professional process.

Q:  And just to follow up, you've — you're kind of — everyone keeps talking around the — calling it a transition to normal — a normal bilateral security cooperation relationship and sort of talking around the fact that — what that means is a eventual drawdown of U.S. troops.  So can you just clarify that we're — we're understanding this correctly, like, the — the ultimate goal is eventually a drawdown?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Again, the Senior Defense Official.  You know, we are going to, together with our Iraqi partners, help determine the shape of the future U.S. military presence in Iraq, and at the same time, ensure an Iraqi-led enduring defeat of ISIS.  But beyond that, we won't speculate.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  We'll do one last question from Mike Glenn with Washington Times.

Q:  No, I'm good, (Pete ?).  You can go on to somebody else.  My question's been answered.

MODERATOR:  Okay.  Thank you.  Spencer Ackerman with Nation Magazine?

Q:  Thanks very much.  Can you talk about the impact, notwithstanding your answer just now, of the Iraqi Prime Minister saying that after the drone strike in Baghdad earlier this month, it was time to talk about something closer to a terminal phase of the U.S. military presence in Iraq?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  This is Senior Defense Official.  I'll refer you to the government of Iraq to address comments made by Iraqi government officials.

The announcements today coordinated between our two governments about the launch of the HMC process describe — and I've repeated it a couple of times — what we intend — how we intend to conduct this process and what we're trying to achieve.  So that — I think that's the best way I can answer that question.

MODERATOR:  Okay, thank you all for joining us today, and of course, to our briefers.  Again, this briefing was on background and all comments should be attributed to a Senior Defense Official, Senior State Official, or a Senior Military Official.

Thank you very much.