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Department of Defense Press Briefing with General Weidley via teleconference from Southwest Asia

COLONEL STEVE WARREN: General Weidley, can you hear me? This is Colonel Steve Warren.

BRIGADIER GENERAL THOMAS WEIDLEY: This is General Weidley, I have you loud and clear.

COL. WARREN: All right, sir. Thank you very much. I'll -- I'll open things up here. And to give you a sense of what I'm looking at here, I'm standing behind the podium. Your photo is off to my left on a screen. There are approximately 40 reporters sitting in front of me. So, I'll -- I'll -- we'll start now.

So, thanks, everyone for coming. On the line here, we have Brigadier General Thomas Weidley, Brigadier General Thomas Weidley, chief of staff, Combined Joint Task Force, Operation Inherent Resolve. He will make a few opening comments and then he will take your questions.

I plan to run this for about 30 minutes. Because of the audio situation, I've got two officers in the back of the room with microphones so we'll have to speak into the microphone, so that he can hear us.

So without any further ado, sir, we'll pass it off to you for opening remarks.

GEN. WEIDLEY: So, let me start by saying thank you for the opportunity to engage with you about ongoing coalition efforts to degrade, dismantle and defeat Daesh militarily in both Iraq and Syria. My hope is that this is the first in a new series of more frequent engagements with Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve leaders and the Pentagon press corps.

I'd like to open with a little bit about a few areas that are likely on your minds, in particular ongoing operations in Baiji and Ramadi, and at the conclusion of which I'd be happy to take your questions about operations, actions and activities in both Iraq and Syria.

Within Baiji, as earlier -- as with earlier assessments, the security situation within the city of Baiji and the outlying oil refinery remain contested. This is a dynamic and fluid battle space at the moment as the ISF, supported by the coalition, makes concerted efforts to remove Daesh from this key infrastructure and critical crossroads.

Baiji oil refinery remains a focal point of the current fight, as Daesh terrorists have placed continuous and at times significant amounts of pressure on the friendly forces located at the refinery. Daesh has breached the refinery's perimeter and maintains episodic control of some refinery facilities in order to continue attacking Iraqi Security Forces.

It is a tough fight right now and the Iraqi Security Forces are working continually to improve their position, not only within the refinery itself, but along the route leading to the refinery. Iraqi Security Forces have been able to provide limited resupply of their forces at the refinery as the Iraqi air force has successfully air-dropped numerous bundles of supplies.

Since the liberation of Tikrit in early April, the coalition has executed 176 airstrikes in the Baiji area, destroying numerous fighting positions, mobility platforms, vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, weapons caches, fighters and other military capabilities.

There have been approximately 330 airstrikes in support of Iraqi Security Forces in the vicinity of Baiji since the beginning of the campaign. The coalition has conducted 17 engagements within the last 72 hours and our advise-and-assist planners are working closely with the ISF to control critical infrastructure and lines of communication.

Baiji remains important to the Iraqis and the coalition will fully support their efforts to gain control of this key terrain for the government of Iraq.

In Ramadi, after a period of relative stability in the tactical situation, Daesh executed a complex attack on Iraqi Security Forces today. These forces were able to repel most of these attacks, but some gains were made by Daesh in previously contested areas. At this point, areas of Ramadi remain contested as Daesh terrorists attempt to consolidate and defend some of their recent temporary gains in the east and south of the city.

Iraqi Security Forces, as well as federal and local police, continue to control most of the key facilities, infrastructure and lines of communication in the area. Ramadi is a major population center, the provincial capital of Iraq's largest province, and a location where Iraqi Security Forces, police and local tribes have been working together for nearly a year to defend.

Since the beginning of OIR, the coalition has provided precision air support for the ISF with approximately 420 airstrikes in the Fallujah-Ramadi area. In the past month, we've conducted 165 airstrikes in support of Iraqi Security Forces in Ramadi, which have destroyed operational resources and facilities such as Daesh-controlled buildings, fighting positions, armored and technical vehicles.

The coalition has conducted 12 engagements in the last 72 hours and our advise-and-assist elements are working closely with ISF to plan for future operations to remove Daesh from the area. Recent efforts by the government of Iraq to enroll Sunni tribes within the popular mobilization forces will provide additional needed combat power to Ramadi ISF commanders. As well, the coalition remains steadfast in support of the government of Iraq within Ramadi.

It's worth noting that these two areas that I just described, along with four other areas throughout Iraq, are locations where active Iraqi operations against Daesh are being conducted simultaneously. We firmly believe Daesh is on the defensive throughout Iraq and Syria, attempting to hold previous gains, while conducting small-scale, localized harassing attacks, occasional complex or high-profile attacks, in order to feed their information and propaganda apparatus.

We can expect Daesh terrorists to continue to contest any Iraqi or Kurdish gains whenever and wherever possible. This is a long-term effort and the coalition is committed to the end-state, the defeat of Daesh in both Iraq and Syria.

So let me just conclude by saying that it's the CJTF's assessment that the Iraqis, with coalition support, are making sound progress.

So with that, I will take your questions.

Col. Warren: The first question will go to Bob Burns from the Associated Press.

Q: General, Bob Burns here. Thank you.

A question about Ramadi, a follow-up question on your description of what's happened today in Ramadi. Is it true that the ISIL fighters have captured the main government compound there and raised their flag? Doesn't this amount to a severe setback for the Iraqi forces and also for your training of the Iraqi forces?

And one last thing, could you say whether our U.S. trainers have either been moved or evacuated from Assad, rather, or is it Anbar as a result? Thank you.

GEN. WEIDLEY: I'll start with your last question first. There's been no change in the coalition force disposition anywhere throughout Iraq. The -- we have seen reports on social media that show apparent Daesh taking of specific buildings within Ramadi. But this is similar to the TTPs they've used in the past where they've conducted attacks, trying to gain social media gains by taking photos and documenting small-terms gains and then using it for propaganda purposes.

The individual government buildings, that again, we see -- we can't confirm that yet because our reporting is continuing to develop from within Ramadi. But what we've seen on social media the building is located close to where the dividing line was between Daesh and ISF forces. And this is an area that's been contested in the past.

Q: Thank you. Could you address my other question about the implications of this offensive you've described? You just described earlier this ISIL as being on the defensive. But clearly, this has been more of an offensive action. And isn't this a setback for your efforts overall?

GEN. WEIDLEY: I don't believe so. I believe, again, if you look overall throughout both Iraq and Syria, Daesh does remain on the defensive. Again, I talked before about we will see episodic temporary successes. But again, these typically don't materialize into long-term gains. We've seen similar attacks in Ramadi over the last several months of which the ISF has been able to repel. And we see this one being similar to those, where the ISF will eventually take back the terrain that's been lost at this point.

COL. WARREN: Sir, next we'll go to David Martin from CBS.

Q: General, can you explain why airstrikes seemed so effective in lifting the siege of Kobani, but have not succeeded in lifting the encirclement of the Baiji oil refinery or these attacks on Ramadi?

GEN. WEIDLEY: Thanks, David. For that question, again, I would say that what we've seen over the past eight months or so is that when you've combined ground force operational maneuver with the power of the Coalition's aviation assets, that remains the key to success on the battlefield.

Baiji has been contested for quite some time. We do see that every time the Iraqi Security Forces maneuver in and around Baiji, we do see that that basically uncovers Daesh and allows us to strike them more easily, as they become visible to our aviation and intelligence-gathering assets.

Q: Well, is the difference then the quality of the ground forces, the Kurdish forces in Kobani, as compared to the ISF forces in Baiji and Ramadi?

GEN. WEIDLEY: Again, we see that the forces both in Syria, as well as in the Iraq theater, again, are -- continue to make gains. We continue to conduct training with these folks in order to bring along their proficiency.

Again, we believe that throughout the campaign, there'll be periods of progress and periods of setbacks. And again, the contested -- the stalemate essentially that we've entered in Baiji, we believe that over time, as the Government of Iraq continues to commit resources to this particular fight, along with all the other evolutions I spoke of earlier, that they'll be successful.

Q: Thanks for doing this, General. Phil Stewart from Reuters. Just circling back to the last question, when will the Government of Iraq commit additional resources to Baiji and reinforce in Ramadi, as well? And on Ramadi, can you give us a sense of how much of that city remains in ISF control and how much of that city is in the control of ISIS? Thank you.

GEN. WEIDLEY: In terms of Baiji, again, obviously, we're supporting the government of Iraq. We work essentially -- our support is leveled based upon their timelines, based upon their commitment of resources and we'll continue to join in that partnership to defeat Daesh throughout Iraq.

Within Ramadi, again, it's difficult to say specifically in terms of percentages, how much each side controls, if you will. But I can tell you that, again, most of the facilities that the government of Iraq and Iraqi Security Forces, as well as federal police and local police in Ramadi have control, remain in their possession.

There are some contested areas to the east and to the south that continue to be fought over. These areas have been contested for several weeks now. And we -- I believe that eventually the Iraqi Security Force will be successful in reclaiming these areas and continuing to drive Daesh out of this critical city.

Q: Dan Deluce with AFP. General, can you tell us what the situation is in Tikrit, where there was such a major operation there? What's the security situation? And then, in Baiji, for the Baiji refinery battle, can you say how many ISIL fighters, roughly, are involved and how many Iraqi Security Forces are involved, to give us an idea of -- just a simple idea of what's going on there?

GEN. WEIDLEY: Yeah. As far as Tikrit is concerned. Again, we see Tikrit as being secure. Again, this is a great example of the power of the coalition combined with Iraqi Security Forces, are able to liberate Tikrit on short order.

There was a U.N. scoping mission that went into Tikrit a few weeks back --I believe it was on the 16th of April -- essentially determined that essential services were not yet restored. There remained a significant number of improvised explosive devices and unexploded ordnance remained within the city, which would make it untenable to bring the people back in. We do know that provincial-level government, as well as the government of Iraq are working together to clear that unexploded ordnance and those IEDs and return services so that the population may return to the city.

In Baiji, again, the Iraqi Security Forces, roughly, a battalion-sized unit that's located actually at the refinery. They have several other like units that are located to the south and working on the lines of communication.

Within Daesh's sphere, we see a group -- essentially, several hundred fighters would be the estimate of forces in and around the Baiji area. As you know, Baiji is quite a large piece of terrain.

For example, the Baiji oil refinery, if you -- if you think about it, you know, most people just believe that it's a refinery like they saw back in the -- in the States somewhere, when if you actually look at the square footage, if you drew a line from Georgetown to the Washington Navy Yard over to Reagan National Airport and then over to Arlington National Cemetery, and connected that, formed a sort of a rectangle, that's the size of the Baiji oil refinery itself.

It's a very large, complex structure. Obviously, it has an urban attribute to it as well as, you know, the normal piping and fuel tank storage areas, et cetera, you would -- you would associate with a -- with an oil refinery.

So, again, very complex terrain. That's why this battle in there becomes so difficult.

Q: Tony Capaccio, with Bloomberg News. Periodically your task force releases a list of equipment and targets destroyed. To what extent should the public view that list as a -- as a metric for the success you're having against ISIL or Daesh?

GEN. WEIDLEY: I believe it's difficult to make that assessment, simply because, you know, from a -- from a mathematical sense, you would need to know what the beginning state was, in terms of what was the -- what did Daesh start with, and then you subtract what has been removed, and that might give you an idea of their capability that they have left, remaining.

Very, very difficult, as you know, to assess what the starting point is or what the current inflow of materials and weapons are to Daesh throughout Iraq and Syria. We do know they made some significant gains as they moved across Syria and across northern Iraq, down into the central Iraq, taking over arms depots and things like that from the Iraqi security forces.

But, again, I would just tell you that it's a difficult problem to basically state, for sure, that a specific amount of capability has been reduced from Daesh without knowing the initial state.

Q: So the public shouldn't take this as a major metric, but a data point in time, basically, that this is what they don't -- they no longer have, but it shouldn't be seen as we're really degrading them.

GEN. WEIDLEY: Again, I would believe that based on the numbers of equipment that's been removed from the battlefield, as well as military capabilities, that it is having a significant impact.

You can take a look at how Daesh operated last summer to how they're operating today, it's significantly different. And that speaks to the degradation that Daesh has undergone over the last eight or nine months.

Q: Hi General, Heath Druzin with Stars and Stripes.

I understand that there's been some discussions about putting U.S. troops closer to the fight in Iraq. Can you tell me what's prompting that on the ground and what that might look like?

GEN. WEIDLEY: Yes, I believe that our -- our current strategy is working. I mean, the authorities that we are provided are allowing us to achieve success in the battle -- a battle space with the current disposition of our forces and with the current authorities we have to move around the battle space, and with the current networks for engaging targets.

I think we've -- again, our current campaign, our current strategy and our current authorities are allowing us to achieve success in the battle space.

So we continue to look at other options for -- to support Iraqi security forces, and we will continue to work those things with our leadership, with the combined forces command, in order to, again, find the appropriate solution to continue to take this fight to Daesh.

Q: General, Barbara Starr, from CNN.

Regarding ISIS's current leadership, what is the assessment that you currently have, given all the rumors about the fate of al-Baghdadi? There was a message posted yesterday from him.

Does -- one, does that message cause you concern? Do you believe he's alive? Do you believe he's been injured? His fate and the fate of number two, al-Afri? Thank you.

GEN. WEIDLEY: Yes, Barbara. We have not been able to confirm that the audio recording released yesterday was authentic. But, again, I would say that the message is indicative of the state that Daesh is in, right? He asked for additional recruits, which shows that they are potentially stressed in terms of manpower to continue the fight.

Again, we've also heard the reports of al-Afri's death. That's -- we cannot confirm that either. We have seen the reports in open source and some of the reports from the Iraqi leadership. I believe the combined forces command put a release out yesterday that kind of clarified some of those initial reports.

But, again, we will continue to target leadership figures within Daesh. I mean, that's certainly part of our operational construct to defeat Daesh.

Q: General, it's Jennifer Griffin, from Fox News.

Are you concerned that the Iraqi Defense Ministry put out nose cone video that indicated that the number two, al-Afri, had been killed? And are you going to put into place methodology so that they can't use U.S. video for propaganda purposes?

And, second, have you called off any missions, air missions, because you were concerned you were getting drawn into Sunni-Shia fighting within the Iraqi military and with Shia militias?

GEN. WEIDLEY: I will state the answer to your second question is no. We do not feel that we've been led in or drawn in to any of those types of engagements throughout the -- throughout the theater.

And could you repeat the first question again? I'm sorry.

Q: Are you concerned about the Iraqi Defense Ministry using nose cone video to suggest that the ISIS number two was killed, when, in fact, that video was supposedly from a previous operation?

And are you going to put into place a methodology so that that can't happen again?

GEN. WEIDLEY: Yes, Jennifer, thank you for repeating the question.

Again, this is something that we continue to work with our Iraqi partners to ensure that they are putting out accurate information within the narrative sphere, to make sure that the integrity of the information that's being provided is sound.

And we -- again, we would continue to partner with them to make sure that the -- that the videos that we do provide them are accurately portrayed in the right locations with the right targets identified.

Q: General, Carla Babb, Voice of America. Thank you for doing this.

When you were talking about Baiji and Ramadi, you mentioned four other areas that the ISF were operating against Daesh simultaneously. Can you talk about those areas?

And is it the same as in Ramadi and Baiji? Is ISIL making gains there or would you say that Iraqi security forces are making gains in those areas?

GEN. WEIDLEY: Well, again, it depends on which areas you're talking about. Again, the operations continue to be successful. These are operations that are occurring in the -- in the northern areas of Fallujah as well as along the 1,200 kilometer Kurdish forward line of troops, as well as out in the central Euphrates river valley.

In addition, as you know, the Khadamiya pilgrimage is ongoing, and the Iraqi security forces have significant elements committed to security of that -- that pilgrimage.

Q: General, Jim Michaels of USA Today.

You mentioned you're monitoring social media regarding the Ramadi government center. Does that suggest that there -- that you have a shortage of ISR or other intelligence gathering capabilities?

And sort of related to that, do you have the -- do you feel you have a clear-enough picture on the ground in Anbar and other areas to provide dynamic targeting and be able to react quickly to a changing situation on the ground?

GEN. WEIDLEY: Yeah, we just use -- social media is just another in a series of -- of elements that help us form the -- the picture on the ground in -- in Iraq.

So again, as -- as the narrative has become a significant force multiplier for Daesh, we're looking to make sure we understand that environment, and we're able to counter it appropriately.

We do have good connectivity for the most part with our partners that are inside of -- inside of Ramadi, the partnership allows us -- and again, alongside the ministry of defense and their key leadership, allows us to make decisions on targeting at -- at a rate that's appropriate for the -- for the operations that they are conducting in terms of defending key terrain. And then when they go on the offensive, it's a similar -- similar undertaking.

Q: General, this is Dion Nissenbaum with the Wall Street Journal.

I wanted to ask you a little bit about the strategy going forward in Ramadi. There are some Sunni tribes that are asking for the entry of Shia militias into the fight, which is obviously a major concern.

Would you support a major entry of -- of Shia militia into the fight in Anbar, and has there been any warning or discussion about withholding U.S. airstrikes up until now if they had entered the fight without being under Iraqi government control?

GEN. WEIDLEY: No -- no talk of withholding -- withholding airstrikes.

And again, the coalition will continue to support the government of Iraq as they conduct operations in Ramadi.

And as we've discussed, I think, previously, over the last several months, the coalition will continue to support the government of Iraq and their aligned forces.

Again, if there are popular mobilization forces that are aligned with the government of Iraq, they are underneath Iraqi security force control, we understand the disposition of those forces in the scheme and maneuver, and it's integrated in with the coalition fires and intelligence and -- and advise and assist plan, and we will continue to support the government of Iraq in those endeavors.

Q: General, this Nancy Youssef from The Daily Beast.

I'd like to go back to a point that you said earlier about ISIS being on the defensive in Iraq.

Given that they were able to launch a complex attack of sorts in Ramadi, that they have enough fighters to battle in Baiji for months and that they continue to hold Mosul, can you help me understand in what ways they are on the defensive and in what parts of Iraq they are on the defensive?

Thank you.

GEN. WEIDLEY: Great question.

I -- I would take a look at what -- what the losses are that Daesh has -- has undertaken over the last several months, places like the -- the town of Kobani and the Kobani Canton, which continue to expand each and every day.

The Tel Hamis pocket up in the northwest Syria, again, lost by Daesh, and that is an area also that continues to expand each and every day.

Along the Kurdish -- Kurdish regional government, the Peshmerga forward line of troops, roughly 1,200 kilometers long, they've made significant gains along this forward line of troops over the last four or five months, places like Sinjar Mountain, places like Kisik Junction.

South of Tikrit on the 16th -- excuse me, the 18th of April, they did another operation, the Peshmerga did, gaining back another 25 square miles of -- of terrain from Daesh, including all the villages that lied within, and they did that in about two days.

In Tikrit, the -- Tikrit was liberated. We saw that step, that evolution.

Areas north of Fallujah today, Baghdad, Baiji, again, they're still -- remain -- Baghdadi, excuse me, and Baiji, they continue to remain contested, but we believe that, again, as -- as the coalition continues to support these operations and that Iraqi -- you know, we partnered with the Iraqi security forces to combine the power of the coalition with those forces on the ground, and we think we're going to achieve success.

Q: Those -- those are territorial changes, but I guess what I'm trying to understand is, in what way are they on the defensive? In what way have they had to adjust and position themselves defensively?

GEN. WEIDLEY: Well, when we -- when we saw Daesh operating last summer, we saw mass fighters, hundreds of fighters together, large public displays traveling openly in large formations, displaying Daesh flags, those types of activities.

Now, we see them, again, on the -- you know, we see -- you know, again, at that point, they were -- they were, you know -- the tactical successes that they gained gave them confidence to behave like a conventional force, you know. They were wearing uniforms, congregating in large numbers, those types of actions.

Now we don't see any of that anymore. We see Daesh on the defensive again, desperately holding on to the gains it made. Again, it will conduct episodic attacks, sometimes complex attacks, in order to gain a narrative -- narrative advantage.

You know, when airstrikes began, Daesh used to cover their vehicles -- (inaudible) -- started using ISF and KSF uniforms. You know, this isn't the -- the actions that a -- an offensively-minded conventional force starts to undertake, so they started the transition to the defense when coalition air started to enter the -- the battlespace.

Again, they no longer field large conventional formations; they travel in civilian vehicles, they travel in small numbers, which, again, slows their -- their ability to move in and around the battlespace, and their ability to maneuver is very, very limited at this point.

They use IEDs to slow the ISF and KSF operations, again, which demonstrates their shift from hybrid conventional tactics in a force that's more reliant asymmetric terror attacks.

Again, we see the lack of training and the rush to deploy inexperienced replacements to the battlefield. I mean, that's evident in what we see in terms of targets presenting themselves on the battlefield, and the coalition is able to remove those -- those terrorists fairly -- fairly easily.

So again, it's a combination of all these things, you know berming and trenches and those types of things in and around Mosul that demonstrate a transition to defensive operations, trying to hold the territory that they have, destroying bridges to cover their retreat and limit the advances of Iraqi and Kurdish security forces.

You know, we see these things all around the battlespace. We see them struggling to provide local populace with, you know, the promise of basic services and governance.

You know, for example, in Mosul, you know, civilians are no longer able to -- to come and go as they please, and there're strict rules that prohibit cell phone use, communication -- communications use, all these things, again, in combination go to show the current state of Daesh, which we believe is on the defensive.

Q: Hi, sir. Tara Copp with the Washington Examiner. Thank you for doing this.

To follow on to Nancy's question, could you give us an idea of the losses that ISF has taken in terms of the members of ISF who have been injured or killed? And then second, could you put into a larger context the importance of Baiji? We had heard that the refinery itself has been pretty substantially damaged or destroyed? At this point, how important is the refinery to the strategic win of getting Baiji back from ISIL?

GEN. WEIDLEY: Okay, some great -- great questions. Again, on the losses of the Iraqi Security Force that are killed and are injured, I -- you know, I would refer you to the government of Iraq to discuss those -- those statistics with you.

In terms of the importance of Baiji, again, as we look at it, this -- this is an important crossroads. It's an important piece of infrastructure to the government of Iraq. And, therefore, the coalition will support them in their -- their aim to defend the terrain that they possess there now, and to gain increased control over this critical crossroads, as well as the key infrastructure in this location.

COL. WARREN: Final question – final, final question. Go ahead.

Q. General, James Rosen with McClatchy. Thank you for doing this.

I believe you said that there are roughly several hundred ISIL fighters in and around, if I understood you correctly, the Baiji refinery. To this non-military civilian and a lot of my readers, that might not sound like a very large number. Why can't the ISF bring in reinforcements from -- from outside the refinery and -- and attack those fighters in -- you know, in much larger numbers?

GEN. WEIDLEY: Again, Baiji remains a contested -- contested location. Daesh isn't only located in and around the refinery. Like I said, the town of Baiji and the -- and the oil refinery are large -- large pieces of -- pieces of terrain. So as Iraqi security forces continue to secure the line of communication that goes from the South up to the oil refinery, they continue to contest with Daesh forces, interdicting their -- their transit through those -- those lines of communication.

COL. WARREN: Sir, I think you had a couple of closing comments you wanted to make?

GEN. WEIDLEY: Yeah, I was just going to say -- again, thank you for the opportunity to address the press corps. And, again, I hope this -- this becomes a more frequent undertaking for us at -- at the combined joint task force.

Again, we believe across Iraq and Syria that Daesh is losing. They remain on the defensive, continuing to protect the territory it currently possesses. And, again, we're going to continue to see these episodic attacks -- harassing attacks, sometimes complex attacks, sometimes high-profile attacks, in order to further their -- their message.

The coalition strategy, I believe, is clear and our campaign is on track. And we understand that both of these will take time. The coalition support to ground forces, I believe, has been the catalyst for hundreds and hundreds of square kilometers, key cities and infrastructure and critical lines of communication in both Iraq and Syria that have been lost by Daesh. And we believe this will continue.

Right now, this is an Iraqi-led coalition-enabled fight. And we will move at the pace of the government of Iraq by providing the power of the coalition, as it's requested, to enable their success on the battlefield.

And, again, although we see localized attacks and high-profile attacks from Daesh, our experience over the last eight months or so has shown that these gains are typically short-lived and highly costly for Daesh.

Again, I appreciate this opportunity. Thank you.

COL. WARREN: Thank you, sir.

And, for the reporters, I have a -- thank you, sir. We appreciate it. And we look forward to the next opportunity.

For the reporters that are here, I do have a statement from the secretary of Defense on Nepal, if you want us to -- so we're done with that briefing, but now I'm going to go with my Nepal statement. This is from the secretary of defense. We'll post this, but I wanted to read it out to you. It's a statement by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter on the helicopter crash in Nepal, Friday, May 15th.

Today our hearts are heavy with grief for the U.S. Marines who perished when their helicopter went down in the mountains of Nepal earlier this week while providing aid to earthquake victims there.

We also join our Nepalese partners in mourning the loss of their servicemembers who were onboard the helicopter at the time. And we thank the Nepalese and Indian governments for their continued support in search-and-recovery operations.

This tragedy is a reminder of the vital, but dangerous role that American servicemembers play in developing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Our mission continues in Nepal, and we remain dedicated to answering the call when disaster strikes, both in the Asia Pacific and around the world.

As we approach Armed Forces Day, when Americans recognize the immense contributions made by our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Coast Guardsmen and Marines, the men and women of the Department of Defense stand strong alongside the families of these fallen patriots.

Today their loved ones are in our thoughts and in our prayers.

So that's the secretary's statement. We will post it.

And that's it.

As per normal, I'll be happy to answer any gaggle-style questions you may have.

Q: (off-mic)

COL. WARREN: So, the terrain and the weather are exceptionally difficult. So there is a search-and-rescue team in Nepal, but they have been called off the location of the crash site because of some extreme weather conditions that kicked up.

Q: (off-mic)

COL. WARREN: They were there. And then the weather became so severe that they withdrew. At sun -- it was a combination of weather and darkness, frankly. So at first light and if the weather clears, they will -- they will return to the crash site.

Q: (off-mic)

COL. WARREN: No remains have been recovered as of several hours ago. They have visually identified two sets of remains.

Q: Extreme weather conditions, are you talking about wind and rain or?

COL. WARREN: Apparently, it was -- I don't know specifically. I know it was high winds, was the main thing that was cited. Remember, this is at 11,000 feet as well, so presumably the temperature is also a factor.

Q: There were some -- I know you said initially before there was no distress call, no beacons, so there was no indication of the -- of the (inaudible), but there was also apparently some communication that was overheard, some -- and I know this is under investigation, but is there any indication at this point what may have lead to the -- to the crash?

COL. WARREN: So far, no indication. And there were -- there was, obviously, as is the case in any tragedy like this, there are a lot of initial reports that come out. So there were some initial reports about radio chatter and fuel and these things. They've since not been confirmed.

So I've deliberately not brought them up again. So we're just gonna have to let this develop.

Q: The helicopter's the UH-1, is, you know, a venerable helicopter that goes back to the Vietnam war. Is there any indication that there's a problem with the aging fleet of these helicopters?

COL. WARREN: Well, these were Yankees, so they're not as old. I mean, these are relatively new, with a 10-year-old airframe.

Q: (inaudible) continue to fly the other UH-1Ys that are there for this?

COL. WARREN: Absolutely.

Q: No indication that there was a problem with that group of helicopters or the squadron up there?

COL. WARREN: No such indication.

Q: Do you know if there's notification to the families of the Marines (inaudible)? Have they been told they're presumed dead then, since you haven't recovered remains (inaudible)?

COL. WARREN: The families have been notified that their loved ones were aboard the helicopter. And so, they've been formally notified of the status, DUSTWUN [duty status-whereabouts unknown], several days ago. And now, of course, each family member is in direct contact with the casualty assistance officer, who will keep them continually updated.

Q: (inaudible) -- told that they've lost...


COL. WARREN: They have not yet been declared finally, each. You know, we haven't made -- identified any remains.

Q: (inaudible) -- their names become available today?

COL. WARREN: In accordance with our normal procedures, 24 hours after we have identified or declared and then notified family members, we'll make the names available.

Q: (inaudible) -- people onboard, only two bodies have been seen so far?

COL. WARREN: That is correct.

Q: Well, how do you know that everybody else is -- everybody onboard is dead?

COL. WARREN: I can't. General Wissler, you heard him this morning, based on the conditions of the crash, the location of the crash site, it is likely that they've all perished.

Q: I'd like to ask you about the Strait of Hormuz issue and Iran's effort to seize the tanker. Is the Pentagon thinking about resurrecting the accompaniment mission in the strait? Are you concerned about Iran's apparently illegal efforts to settle its commercial disputes by seizing tankers -- (inaudible)?

COL. WARREN: Certainly, we're concerned by these actions. They are not actions normally taken to resolve simple economic disputes.

That said, remember, we're a planning organization, and we'll look at any options. But there are, as of now, no indications of a resumption of accompanying missions.

Q: (inaudible) -- this is the third time they have tried to do something like this in about a month. Does it suggest that they're trying to exert much more control over commercial operations in the strait?

COL. WARREN: It's difficult to say what it suggests at this point. It is three in a month, which certainly is -- indicates a pattern has developed here.

But I don't know that we're prepared, really, to indicate what this pattern amounts to.

All right, you guys, we'll see you Monday.

Q: The Iranian cargo ship headed to Yemen? (inaudible) -- Iranian warships are accompanying that cargo vessel?

COL. WARREN: We are keeping a close eye on the Yemeni cargo -- excuse me -- we're keeping a close eye on the Iranian cargo vessel that is moving south through the Gulf. No indication yet that it is being escorted by any other ships. It is -- it is right now traveling alone. So we're gonna keep an eye on it.

All right, you guys.

Q: Have a good weekend.