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Department of Defense Press Briefing with Brigadier General Thomas D. Weidley, chief of staff, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve via DIVDS from Southwest Asia

COLONEL STEVE WARREN: Good morning, members of the press corps. Great to see you here on Friday. We finally made it to Friday.

Today, we have Brigadier General Thomas Weidley, the chief of staff, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, who will brief us from southwest Asia. He will make a few opening comments. He'll then take your questions.

We have about 30 minutes in total for this briefing, and I'll call on people for questions. While you're able to see him, he cannot see you, so do everybody a favor and remember to state your name and outlet.

Also, because of the technology, there's a little bit of a delay, so, you know, words and video aren't quite synched up. It will be a little bit like watching a kung fu movie in the '70s. (Laughter.) So with no further ado, I'll pass it off, sir, to you for opening remarks.

BRIGADIER GENERAL THOMAS WEIDLEY: Again, thank you, Colonel Warren. I appreciate the opportunity to address the press corps again.

I'd like to give just a few opening remarks and then open it up for questions.

I'd like to begin by talking about the latest operational development in Iraq -- the deployment of coalition forces to eastern Anbar province. This new advise and assist and tribal engagement platform is an extension of our existing platforms in Iraq.

Like similar coalition force -- excuse me -- like existing coalition forces in Iraq, these elements partner with the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] operational-level headquarters and tribal leaders to coordinate, integrate and synchronize the unique capabilities that the coalition brings, with the operations being conducted by these Iraqi command and leadership nodes.

We had a good tribal ceremony at this location on Wednesday, in which 500 Sunni tribal fighters attended, and were inducted into the popular mobilization forces, including pay and arms.

Our latest operational development in Syria is focused on the gains that anti-ISIL forces have made against Daesh in northern Syria. These anti-ISIL forces, which are comprised of ethnic Syrian Kurds, Arabs, Turks and non-Kurdish Christians, among others, have been making significant gains against Daesh for months, including expelling Daesh from Kobani and from the Tal Hamis pocket in northeast Syria.

Since early May, anti-ISIL forces have been conducting operations to close the gap between these two locations, which culminated earlier in the week with Daesh retreating from the Tel Abyad border crossing and terrain equivalent to 82 times the size of Ramadi, roughly 4,100 square kilometers was rid of Daesh terrorists and their control.

These gains have severed multiple primary and secondary lines of communication into Daesh-dominant territory, as well as east-west lines of communication across northern Syria towards Iraq. The results of these developments will further constrict Daesh mobility, supply, sustainment and communications within Syria, and will have positive effects for the Iraq portion of the campaign as well.

Two other updates I'd like to touch on before we move to questions relate to Bayji and Ramadi. In terms of Bayji, Iraqi security forces and popular mobilization forces (PMF) are making steady progress as they increase their footholds in and around the Bayji area. PMF elements are conducting clearing operations within the urban areas and are making measured progress, despite a large number of IEDs [improvised explosive devices].

Ground forces continue to hold their positions, despite small-scale Daesh attacks, including mobile suicide bombs which are aimed to disrupt ISF and PMF efforts. The ISF located at the Bayji oil refinery is benefiting from reinforcement and resupply capabilities through the line of communication from the south, which the Iraqis have been able to sustain since the last week of May.

The fighting continues in and around Bayji, and many portions of the area remain contested. The ISF and the PMF both report solid progress toward their objectives, so efforts are continuing in the right direction. The coalition has conducted numerous strikes in Daesh support zones located in Hawejia, Sharkat, and along the Tigris River to the north, including Mosul. This interdiction has resulted in significant disruption to Daesh support to Bayji.

In Ramadi, we remain encouraged by the government of Iraq's activities already in progress which set the stage for a future Ramadi counterattack. Great efforts have been made in advancing organizational and command and control changes that will facilitate success in future operations. We view this as a positive step.

The situation in Ramadi is probably best described as anticipatory, both from an ISF perspective and from a Daesh perspective. We continue to observe Daesh activities in preparing their defenses within Ramadi. Forces supported by the government of Iraq are currently conducting shaping operations and working towards the liberation of Ramadi from Daesh occupation.

Shaping operations in this case are activities that set the conditions for follow-on operations. Activities such as securing logistical lines of communication; securing key road junctions, intersections, key terrain; establishing logistics areas; finalizing planning; rehearsals; preparing equipment; and collecting intelligence information are all examples of these shaping activities.

With those remarks, I'd be glad to take your questions.

Q: (inaudible) -- hold to that view. And if I could ask a more specific question about current operations there.

Could you give us a -- more of a complete breakdown of the recently announced plan to send the additional 450 U.S. personnel to Taqaddum? And will that include some activity at nearby Habbaniyah? Could you describe that in more -- in more detail, please? Thanks.

GEN. WEIDLEY: Yeah, thank you for the question, Bob.

Again, what we see across the battle space in both Iraq and Syria, we see gains in many areas. And we also see, again as we've seen the last time I addressed this audience, is a few days later, we saw a setback in Ramadi. We see great progress being made in Syria, which I just spoke about. We see repeated abilities of Kurdish forces to repel counter -- repel attacks in the Kurdish forward line of troops up in northern Iraq.

We see civilian population returning to Tikrit this week, supported by the government of Iraq and Iraqi security forces, as a positive step forward. Again, as I described, we see advances in the operations within Bayji. We see successful tribal operations being conducted out in the Euphrates River valley in the vicinity of Baghdadi and Haditha.

We see, again, additional ISF activities in and around Karma, which are yielding success in expelling Daesh from their support zones in that area. And we see the ongoing planning in Ramadi.

So, when I look at the battle space and all of the -- those individual efforts, we see great things happening out there.

To your second question about the -- the tribal engagement and advise-and-assist platform in Taqaddum, we see this, again, as an extension of our -- of our already existing advise-and-assist platforms out there. We are currently focused on Taqaddum as the location. We continue to build forces there.

And for operational security reasons, I'm not go into the specific numbers or sets of capabilities, but we again have established a node there that can provide advise and assistance and coordination and ability to integrate the power of the coalition with Iraqi operations centers and tribal leaders that are located at that same location, and able to synchronize all those efforts in order to conduct successful operations in the future.

Q: (inaudible) -- Barbara Starr from CNN.

One follow-up on Taqaddum, and then a different question.

On Taqaddum, it's still a little unclear to me: Are U.S. personnel going to engage in any training of the Sunnis who have signed up? People are still using the word "training." It's not clear. Will you engage in training?

But my question goes really to the issue of IEDs, the kinds of IEDs you're seeing -- the size, the volume. Could you talk a bit about that and how ISIS is using IEDs as a battlefield weapon now to secure and hold territory in places like Ramadi, Bayji and Mosul, quite different than what you saw during the years of U.S. engagement in Iraq?

Thank you.

GEN. WEIDLEY: Thank you, Barbara.

On the issue of training at Taqaddum. Again, on the tribal side, with our tribal engagement elements that are there, they will conduct subject-matter experts' exchanges with individual tribal elements, which again will then in turn conduct training of tribal forces. So it's almost an example of a -- again, we provide the expertise to the tribal trainers, and then the tribal trainers then will go ahead and conduct training with their individual forces.

So those subject-matter expert exchanges have already commenced at Taqqadum.

With regards to IEDs, we see those, again, as obviously it becomes the precision-guided munition, if you will, for Daesh. The -- their ability to produce IEDs is something we continue to focus on our targeting efforts. But we see them, again, as one of their primary weapons systems in order to disrupt, in order to penetrate ISF or KSF [Kurdish Security Forces] lines. So it is a very effective weapon.

And again, we've taken great efforts to advance our targeting capabilities in order to allow us to find these locations where IEDs are being produced, and target them appropriately. We've also, again as I think you're aware that the U.S. government, through our Iraqi train-and-equip funds, have provided AT-4 weapons systems to allow the ISF to be more effective against vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices. We've already seen instances of them using these weapons to great effect.

Q: General, it's Jamie McIntyre from Al Jazeera America.

I have a question about civilian casualties. It's in two parts. It's pretty simple. But the first part is, do you actually have any idea how many civilians or noncombatants have been killed in the U.S. and coalition airstrikes? Are there -- is there any hard data? Do you know even the scope, whether it's dozens or hundreds or more than that?

And is there any way for you to know? Or do you just not know because you don't have people on the ground to investigate these airstrikes?

And related to that, you're probably aware there's a big debate in Washington about the effectiveness of the air campaign, and some people questioning the laudable goal of avoiding civilian casualties has essentially hamstrung the effectiveness of the air campaign. Could you address that as well?

GEN. WEIDLEY: Thank you. Good question.

On the coalition -- or on the civilian casualty issue, we take great pains, as you know. We go through excruciating steps in order to avoid civilian casualties. When an accusation of a civilian casualty incident comes into the CJTF [Combined Joint Task Force], we take every one of those allegations seriously. And we conduct investigations in order to determine their credibility. And if found credible, then we take follow-on formal investigative steps in order to make a formal determination on whether civilian casualties occurred.

I believe it was a few months -- actually, about six weeks ago that we released the first report on -- that had a finding of civilian casualties from the CJTF. We currently have five ongoing investigations. And for security reasons and for appropriateness reasons, we will not discuss any further details on those investigations at this time. But we will upon conclusion of those investigations make the details public.

And I believe on your second question in regards to the effectiveness of the air campaign, I know Lieutenant General Hesterman engaged the press corps a few weeks back. And I think he provided specific details that address your question. And I don't have anything additional to add.

I will tell you, at least from our perspective, the coalition airstrikes are being extremely effective. They're precise and they're allowing us to achieve our objectives in combination with ground force maneuver.

Q: General, it's Tom Bowman with NPR.

We keep hearing there are more Shia militia fighters in Anbar than Iraqi security forces. Could you give us a sense of that? Is that true? I know you probably don't want to get into numbers, but if you could talk percentages? Are they 20 percent higher, 50 percent higher?

And also, you talk about shaping operations in Ramadi. Could you give us a ballpark on when you expect to see a full-blown operation there? Are we talking weeks away, months away? And the same with Mosul -- is Mosul off the table in operation there this year?

GEN. WEIDLEY: And again, for operational security reasons, I'm not going to go into the specific timelines of Iraqi security force operations. I will tell you that there's positive steps moving forward in the shaping for both of those operations, both Mosul and Ramadi. And again, we remain encouraged by the steps that the government of Iraq is taking in order to set the conditions for successful operations in both of those areas.

Q: And the Shia militias? Are there more of them in Anbar than ISF?

GEN. WEIDLEY: The purpose of the coalition is to support the government of Iraq and their aligned security forces and their operations against Daesh. And that's what we will continue to do. In terms of estimates of numbers of non-aligned units, I have no comment on that at this time. Those aren’t something we track. We continue to again support Iraqi security forces in their fight against Daesh.

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

I wanted to ask you a little bit about the next phase in Syria. In Tel Abyad, the Kurdish forces there are saying they're going to take the fight now directly south to Raqqa. I'm wondering if the coalition is prepared to support the Kurdish fighters if they go into Raqqa? And whether you think that's a serious claim or if it's more of a boast?

GEN. WEIDLEY: Much the same as the Iraqi security force operations, I won't go into details on anti-ISIL forces that are located in Syria. I will tell you that we have a common goal, and that goal is to defeat Daesh. And we will continue to support them in that effort.

Q: General, this is Phil Ewing with Politico. Thank you for taking this time with us this morning.

I wanted to ask you to go into more detail, please, about the 500 Sunni tribal fighters you talked about being inducted into the PMF. How soon will they get into the fight? What pay and arms are they receiving? And do you have a goal for the number of Sunnis you'd like to bring in? Is it as many as possible? Was there a target you're trying to hit in terms of those forces?

GEN. WEIDLEY: Thank you for that question.

A great question, though, for the government of Iraq, as they are the ones who enroll forces inside the popular mobilization force. Again, we saw the tribal ceremony this week, which again is another positive step forward. It's a move by the government of Iraq towards a more inclusive popular mobilization force element.

We will conduct -- start to conduct subject-matter expert exchanges with these tribal forces and make sure that they are -- have the equipment and the support necessary to be successful in their operations against Daesh.

Q: Sir, I want to follow up on that. Tony Capaccio with Bloomberg News.

What is a reasonable metric that the public should be looking for to judge whether your tribal engagement effort has succeeded or is succeeding? And a reasonable timeframe for determining whether in fact the engagement effort is succeeding?

Secretary Carter at a hearing this week was asked about that, and he said, "A matter of weeks would be a reasonable timeframe." Do you agree with that?

GEN. WEIDLEY: Again, I guess it would most likely go towards your definition of "success." I will tell you we've -- this isn't the first ceremony in which we've inducted Sunni tribesmen. We've done this before. We've done it -- and we have those forces right now that are engaged in operations in and around the Euphrates River valley between Haditha, if you will, and Hit.

(inaudible) -- disrupted tribal -- (inaudible) -- particularly when enabled by the coalition. And we see this again continue to repeat itself as we -- as we gain more forces, more Sunni tribal elements into the PMF and we start to coordinate more closely with these forces as they conduct operations. And that's, again, the purpose of the tribal engagement platform that's being inserted into Taqqadum.

Q: Hi, this is Courtney Kube from NBC News.

Phil and Tony actually just asked my questions, but then your answer just brought up another one. So, how many additional Sunni tribesmen have you already trained? And I'm still unclear about the 500. It sounds like it's a train-the-trainers, so the U.S. forces are training tribal elders who are then training them in basic combat. Is that correct?

And can you say, if I didn't ask, how many Sunni tribesmen you have now in total that are actually trained by the U.S. or in some capacity by the coalition, that are out there now fighting? Thanks.

GEN. WEIDLEY: Yeah, I'll have to get back to you with the exact -- with exact numbers. I know we have conducted multiple tribal -- tribal ceremonies out in Al Asad Air Base over the past few months. And those ceremonies inducted several hundred tribal fighters within each one of those ceremonies. But I will get back to you with the exact numbers.

In terms of the subject-matter expert exchanges that our tribal engagement elements will conduct, they will teach the tribal elements -- the Sunni fighters in those PMF units how to conduct basic soldiering skills, those types of activities.

Some of these tribal elements that were inducted have already been fighting on the battlefield. So again, the types of training, the amount of equipment that they need is all kind of determined on what their current proficiency is.

Q: Hi, Missy Ryan from The Washington Post.

I'd like to follow up also on the question about the tribal engagement. Does -- do the U.S. troops there at Taqaddum have any role in recruiting and vetting the tribal people who are coming on to shape this new force? Do American troops go off-base to hold engagements with local tribal leaders?

And last part of the question is: Is there any commitment from the government of Iraq to these tribal fighters for the sort of post-ISIS future in terms of, you know, jobs with the security forces or anything like that, given that there hasn't been passage of the national guard law? Thanks.

GEN. WEIDLEY: Missy, could you repeat the first part of your question? I think you cut out there for a second. I mean, I can answer the last part right now. And again, I think that's a great question for the government of Iraq on how they view the role of popular mobilization forces in the future.

For now, we are again leveraging their capabilities as long as they're partnered with the Iraqi security forces under the government of Iraq control to conduct operations against Daesh. We will continue to support them.

And again, I didn't catch the first part of your question.

Q: It was: Do American troops at Taqaddum have any role, or elsewhere in Anbar, have any role in recruiting or vetting the tribal fighters? And do the troops go off the bases to do engagements with tribal figures? Thanks.

GEN. WEIDLEY: Yeah, the recruiting of tribal elements is done by the government of Iraq. So the U.S. and coalition forces don't participate in the actual recruiting efforts. And they do not right now at this time venture outside -- outside of Taqaddum in order to conduct those types of activities.

Q: Do the American troops or does the U.S. take -- have any role in the vetting of those tribal fighters?

GEN. WEIDLEY: Those tribal elements are vetted by the government of Iraq.

Q: Hi, sir -- Tara Copp with The Washington Examiner.

In the last week or so, the Combined Joint Task Force releases have noticed the hits on tunnels. I was wondering if you could please explain the importance of hitting the tunnels in Iraq and if you are seeing ISIS move troops or equipment through these tunnels?

GEN. WEIDLEY: Good question.

We continue to hit ISIL wherever we can find them. And if we find their tunnel complexes, we will continue to attack them in those locations. We have seen several instances, and I think you're aware of the open source reporting and some of our strike reporting that we do see tunneling as a technique that Daesh uses. We see them used not only to move equipment and fighters, but we also see them used as IEDs, if you will, a tunnel IED. And I think we saw that in Ramadi earlier.

So these, again, wherever we can find these tunneling activities, we will look to strike them.

Q: Hi, Heath Druzin with Stars and Stripes.

I'm wondering if the 450 additional troops -- does that signal a shift more from actually training Iraqi forces, which is a more long-term goal, to helping them plan to retake Ramadi? And if so, what will that look like, their role in that planning operation?

GEN. WEIDLEY: Again, good question. And the way we see the element at Taqaddum is that it's essentially an extension of our advise and assist and tribal engagement platforms that we have at other locations in Iraq. We see the advise and assist elements will link up with their Iraqi counterparts. So essentially you will have situations where a coalition intel officer will link up with his Iraqi intel officer counterpart, and they will conduct intelligence sharing and intelligence preparation of the environment for an operation.

You will have a logistics representative partnering with his logistics counterpart and be able to look at the plan from a logistics perspective and make recommendations on how to shape those operations.

So, we are doing this at several other locations where there are operations centers and headquarters elements throughout Iraq. And we will -- we see great benefit in these partnerships. The -- the way we've done it prior to being co-located is we would try to do these types of activities via -- via phone. And those types of activities are very difficult to do if you insert translators into those phone communications in order to try to conduct that type of coordination.

So the fact that we're able to get on the ground with our counterparts in the operations centers, with the tribal leaders there together face to face, day in and day out, provides us great benefit, and we think we'll be able to move forward with the synchronization of coalition efforts with Iraqi security force and tribal efforts in developing positive outcomes in the future.

Q: Hi, this is Jessica Schulberg with The Huffington Post.

Earlier this week, Secretary Carter said that there are enough train-and-equip centers for Syrian recruits, but not enough recruits. And members of Congress have expressed concern that without providing Syrian recruits with some level of protection from Assad's military, we won't get enough recruits.

Can you comment on whether or not that's a concern that you share?

GEN. WEIDLEY: Again, the recruiting effort within Iraq is the government of Iraq's responsibility and they are continuing to adjust some of their previous policies in order to recruit additional forces into the Iraqi security force construct.

We have established, again, the build partner capacity sites at the request of the government of Iraq in order to conduct training and prepare their forces to counter Daesh.

So it's, again, we see it incumbent upon the government of Iraq to ensure that their forces are pushed into these build partner capacity sites so we can conduct the training that's necessary in order for them to be successful on the battlefield.

Q: Sir, I was talking about in Syria. There's concern that we won't get enough recruits for the Syrian train and equip program unless we provide protection against Assad's military strikes.

GEN. WEIDLEY: Yeah, the Syria train and equip program is not a task that was given to the Combined Joint Task Force. And I would direct your question to the Combined Forces Command to provide you those -- that response.

Q: Hi, sir. This is Aaron Mehta with Defense News.

You mentioned early on that you're seeing shaping for Ramadi from the ISIL forces as well, as they prepare for what everyone knows is the coming attack there. Can you kind of characterize what you're seeing in terms of how they're digging in there? And can you say if any of that is driving the choices and the equip options, given that we know there's a push from the U.S. to get more gear on the ground there?

GEN. WEIDLEY: Thanks, Aaron.

I would tell you that what we're seeing in Ramadi is not unlike what we see at other urban areas that are occupied by Daesh in terms of their defensive preparations. We see everything from trenching to IED emplacement, those types of activities that have been essentially standard tactics, techniques and procedures used by Daesh as they defend urban terrain.

Q: Yes, hi, sir. This is Paul Shinkman with U.S. News and World Report.

I wanted to go back to Dion's question about recent successes on retaking ground in Syria. There were some reports that there were elements of the Syrian opposition that were fighting along-side Kurdish fighters to retake that ground. I wonder if there's been any consideration for plans to use those fighters elsewhere, or to somehow sort of bolster what the kind of success they were able to achieve there.

GEN. WEIDLEY: Yes, I'm unaware of those -- that type of reporting of regime alignment with anti-ISIL forces that the coalition is supporting and again for operational security reasons I'm not going to go into future operations that will be engaged by those anti-ISIL forces.

Q: Sorry, sir. This is Paul again. Just to be clear. That wasn't with Syrian regime forces. That was with moderate opposition -- the rebel fighters in Syria working with the Kurds.

GEN. WEIDLEY: Again, I'm unaware of those types of reporting, those reports. It doesn't sound like anything I've seen. But again, I'll certainly check into it, though.

Q: My name Laurent Barthelemy from Agence France Press. I wanted to ask you, on the 450 military personnel that must be deployed in Taqaddum, how many of them have actually arrived? Can you give us an estimation, if not a precise number?

GEN. WEIDLEY: Thank you. I'm not going to go into the force build at Taqaddum for obvious operational security reasons.

Q: Hi, sir, Jeff Seldin from Voice of America.

I was wondering if you'd talk about the way the Islamic State has been acting on the battle field. There have been suggestions from intelligence officials and others, that in many cases they are simply not willing to put up a fight.

Do you see that as an overall strategy where they are focusing on key areas or do you see it more as the Islamic State being a little bit in disarray?

And also how much have they been able to reinforce with foreign fighters others their ranks given the high number of casualties the State Department and others have been talking about.

GEN. WEIDLEY: Again, I think I've talked a little about what we see on the battle space in terms of Daesh's reaction to anti-ISIL forces up in Syria. Some of the reflections we're seeing from their attempts to penetrate Peshmerga lines on a near daily basis. Some of those things continue to portend that they have that capability that continues to manifest itself on the battlefield. However every time Daesh manifests itself like that, it simplifies our targeting process, and we're able to strike them much more freely when they present themselves in that manner.

STAFF: (inaudible) we have three minutes and 47 seconds (inaudible) Dave Martin
Q: Hi, Dave Martin with CBS. It seems like the Kurdish fighters are able to take much greater advantage of the coalition airstrikes than the Iraqi forces. Is that the case, and if so, why?

GEN. WEIDLEY: Thanks, Dave. And when you are referencing Kurdish fighters, are you talking about northern Iraq?

Q: Both northern Iraq and Syria.

GEN. WEIDLEY: Again, that's a great question. What we've seen is that the Peshmerga enabled by coalition continue to be very successful against Daesh. I don't believe the Peshmerga have yielded any terrain to Daesh since the beginning of last winter. We see them as well as the anti-ISIL forces up in Syria being able to make considerable gains against Daesh, when enabled by coalition air.

The terrain perhaps is more conducive to open area air strikes as opposed to the urban complex where air strikes in coordination and collateral damage is a little more complex. So, that could be a contributing factor into why we see some of the successes we've seen along the -- in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq and as well as anti-ISIL regions in northern Syria.

I think you've heard the -- that way the terrain is oriented, particularly in Peshmerga areas in northern Iraq, I mean it's -- there is a well-defined forward line of troops, which again, simplifies the targeting process. Whereas down in southern -- excuse me, central Iraq, the battle space is much more complex, it’s much more mixed. Disaggregated forces, et cetera, which complicates our targeting efforts.

COL. WARREN: Sir, that concludes our time here today. We really appreciate you taking the time to explain current operations in your area. And with that, we'll sign off from here. Thanks, sir. Keep your head down over there.

GEN. WEIDLEY: Thank you, Steve. Thank you, everybody.