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Department of Defense Press Briefing by Gen. MacFarland via Teleconference in the Pentagon Press Briefing Room

PETER COOK: Morning. Hope everyone's doing well. Happy Monday.

Before we get to General MacFarland, who I know is the star of the hour here, some housekeeping. We're going on the secretary's schedule.

The secretary will deliver a major speech tomorrow on the budget, in front of the Economic Club of Washington. That's going to happen at 8:30 tomorrow morning, at the Ritz-Carlton downtown. That is going to be followed by a moderated discussion on stage with David Rubenstein, the club's president.

Then the secretary will travel to California and Nevada for stops that will further highlight his budget priorities.

Now, with regard to today's topic -- over the past month, Secretary Carter has spoken several times about the coalition military campaign plan we're following to accelerate the defeat of ISIL. At Fort Campbell -- (inaudible) -- to discuss the campaign with the 101st Airborne, he will soon deploy to assume the training and assistance mission being carried out right now by the 82nd Airborne.

In Paris, he met with coalition partners and discussed steps to accelerate the campaign for ISIL's lasting defeat. And in about two weeks' time, he will meet in Brussels with about 26 member nations of the military coalition, as well as representatives from Iraq to discuss the capabilities needed for this fight, going forward.

The campaign has three objectives: one, to destroy the ISIL parent tumor in Iraq and Syria by collapsing its power centers in Mosul and Raqqa; two, to combat the emerging metastasis of the ISIL tumor worldwide, and three, to protect our nations from attack.

This morning, to try and give you a better sense of the situation on the ground and where the campaign is headed from here, we are joined by Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland. He's the commanding general of combined joint task force, Operation Inherent Resolve.

This is the first in what we hope will be a series of updates from top commanders involved with the counter-ISIL campaign. And I want to express my thanks to General MacFarland for joining us today.

He's going to have an opening statement, then we'll open it up for Q&A. For his benefit, if you could -- because he cannot see everything happening back here in the briefing room -- you could say your name and your media outlet when you're asking a question. We would appreciate it.

And with that, general, thanks again for joining us. And the stage is yours.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL SEAN MACFARLAND: Thanks. Thanks, Peter. As Peter said, my name is Sean MacFarland, and I'm the commander here of my joint task force, Operation Inherent Resolve.

And it's good to see some familiar faces in the audience today. I saw you as you were gathering. And to the rest of you, welcome. Nice to meet you.

I have a little statement, and then I'll open it up for questions.

So, the mission of the combined joint task force is to defeat the Islamic State, or Daesh, as it's also known in our area of operation, which includes both Iraq and Syria.

The 3rd U.S. Corps assumed responsibilities from the 3rd U.S. Army on 19, September last year, as the nucleus of this combined joint task force. And we've been fighting the enemy every day since then.

The CGTF serves as the operational-level headquarters charged with synchronizing combat operations with supporting efforts.

The way in which we will defeat Daesh militarily is straightforward and not a huge military secret.

We'll attack the enemy with airstrikes across the breadth and the depth of their so-called caliphate to weaken them from within, and we'll enhance the lethality of our partner forces on the ground in both countries through training, equipping, advising and assisting as they attack the enemy's perimeter and shrink it.

And as we do this, we'll work to get the maximum possible effect on this out of our coalition partners' contributions to the fight. Easy to say, tougher to do, but we're making progress.

Allow me to provide a little context on how far the operation has come in 18 months. The coalition conducting its first air strike in Iraq in August of 2014 and its first strike in Syria a month later. Since then, we've conducted over 10,000 strikes: about two-thirds of them in Iraq and about one-third in Syria.

Coalition air strikes initially blunted Daesh's advances and prevented a battle in Baghdad and along with it, the very survival of Iraq. Now, coalition strikes not only target the enemy on the front lines, they are increasingly hitting Daesh across Iraq and Syria and its ability to fund and control terror operations.

The cumulative impact of our air strikes have ground the enemy down. When applied in support of our partners, we've forced the enemy to give up terrain. In May of last year, the enemy was able to seize Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria.

Since then, Daesh has not only not gained any area in Iraq. It's actually lost a great deal. In fact, the enemy now controls about 40 percent less territory than it did at its zenith. With the support of coalition air power, the Peshmerga were able to push the enemy out of Kurdish areas in Northern Iraq and have recaptured the important town of Sinjar, home to the persecuted Yazidi minority, an important position along one of the main lines of communication, connecting Mosul and Raqqa, the enemy's two most important cities.

Iraqi Security Forces, followed and supported by volunteer forces known as the popular mobilization forces, or PMF, were able to eject the enemy from the important city of Baiji along with the oil refinery nearby, which is north of Baghdad and in the Tigris River Valley. More recently and most importantly, the Iraqi Security Forces, with the support of Sunni tribal forces working alongside them, recaptured the symbolically and operationally important city of Ramadi in the Euphrates River Valley west of Baghdad.

Make no mistake, the recapture of Ramadi was a turning point in this campaign. The enemy suffered devastating losses and the Iraqi Security Forces have proven themselves capable of defeating Daesh, even when the enemy has all the advantages of prepared defense in an urban area. But we aren’t resting on our laurels. We understand that we are closer to the end of the beginning of this campaign, than we are to the beginning of the end, as Winston Churchill put it.

Just over a year ago, the coalition established several sites to build partner capacity, and begin training the first Iraqi army battalions. Since then, a rapid and effective train and equip program has helped rebuild significant portions of the Iraqi Security Forces into a force capable of defeating the type of enemy we are now facing.

We've trained more than 17,500 Iraqi soldiers and about 2,000 police now. And there are more than 3,000 soldiers and police in our training sites as we speak. We've been flexible enough to modify the type of training and equipping along the way that we're delivering to ensure that we are providing the right skill and gear the Iraqis need.

In particular, we have shifted from a pure counterinsurgency focus and are now preparing the ISF to conduct, what we refer to, as combined arms operations. The ability to integrate infantry, armor, artillery, air power, engineers and other assets on the battlefield, provides the Iraqis with a decisive advantage over a static enemy dug in behind complex obstacle belts. It also allows them to defeat enemy attacks with far fewer friendly casualties.

The ISF has already proven the value of this modified training and equipping program during their liberation of Ramadi and we've learned some important lessons from that battle and are already adjusting our approach as a result.

We've also seen progress in Syria, where we have partnered with multiple groups willing to fight Daesh. The Syrian democratic forces have made dramatic gains against the enemy in northern and eastern Syria, while the vetted Syrian opposition and other groups are holding the enemy back along what we call the Mara line in northwest Syria.

With our help, the SDF has fought back from its embattled enclave in Kobani, and now, it controls key terrains such as the Tishrin Dam on the Euphrates River and are not very far from the enemy capital of Raqqah.

There have been some setbacks along the way and you can expect that there will probably be some more, because after all, this is a war. Daesh can still launch local counter attacks in Anbar, and as the ISF methodically clears Ramadi and the rest of the Euphrates River Valley in Iraq, they'll find that the enemy is resilient and dug in.

The enemy is still strong in Syria, where we have no partnered opposition forces and the situation along the Mara line remains fluid. We will continue to have good days and bad days for a while longer in that area. But overall, the trend, I believe, is going in the right direction.

I'll be happy to answer any of your questions about current operations within reason. As the operational commander, though, I don't want to answer any questions about strategy, especially about future operations for obvious security reasons. I believe surprise is really an underappreciated principle of war.

But with those caveats in mind, I'd now like to open it up to your questions.

MR. COOK: Great. We'll begin back here. Phil Stewart of Reuters.

Q: Thank you for doing this briefing, general. Could -- just to start off very quickly with Iraq, do you have a sense from the Iraqi government -- we -- we've been told you had conversations with them about what kind of support they will need and they will accept in the run-up to Mosul. Could you give me a sense -- they didn't accept close air support and some of the kind of support that Secretary Carter publicly offered (inaudible) of Ramadi -- during Ramadi.

Do you have a sense that they will accept greater U.S. support for Mosul? And then I had a question on Syria.

GEN. MACFARLAND: Yeah. Well, let me just clarify a little bit on the air weapons teams or the apaches and their support. The prime minister didn't actually turn it down flat. What he said was, you know, around Ramadi, things seem to be going in a pretty good direction. I'm not sure I need it right here, right now. But he didn't say no. He said, you know, maybe a little bit down the road we'll need it for other places in -- in Iraq.

So it's not turned off, we're not rebuffed or anything like that. But we are in a constant dialogue with the Iraqis about what kind of support they require and what kind we can provide. But as I said with -- in regard to the apaches, you know, hey look, you know, we can't inflict help on somebody, you know? They have to ask for it, they have to want it and -- and we're here to provide it as required.

Q: And then on Syria, if you could help us understand a bit. You talked about how the situation along the Mara line is fluid and we know that General Dunford has -- is reviewing a request from Turkey to help them train hundreds of -- of forces they think can help clear that pocket. Could you give us a sense of where that stands and what kind of support your coalition has in that -- in that pocket right there?

GEN. MACFARLAND: Thanks. Yeah.

We are working with a number of groups where we do provide them with some supplies. We are recalibrating the approach that we're using and how we're supporting forces in that area to make sure that it's the right kind of support. And what we find is that where -- the types of units are that we are working with, we tend to see more success along the line than in areas where we haven't worked with them. So, it's very complex, very complicated up there along that area.

You know, we call the area between the Mara Line and the Euphrates River, the (inaudible), and a lot of people would like to lay claim to that area and we're trying to come up with the right approach to block the enemies' access to that important corridor.

MR. COOK: Jim?

Q: General, Jim Miklaszewski with NBC News.

At the recent World Economic Summit in Davos, Secretary Carter said that the U.S. will be providing more boots on the ground in his words, in Iraq, as the U.S. prepares to assist the Iraqis in terms of taking Mosul and suggested that the Americans would be taking a more proactive, if not aggressive posture, in what they're doing there in Iraq.

Can you flesh that out a little bit? How many more American troops do you think are needed? Just what would they be doing, and do you foresee U.S. forces involved in ground combat operations, directly involved. And not just the occasional raid, but an actual ground combat operations there in Iraq?

GEN. MACFARLAND: Well, I've been directed to come up with a series of proposals. Some would call them accelerants to the campaign that would allow us to increase the pressure on the enemy. Now, that doesn't necessarily equate to boots on the ground. It doesn't necessarily equate to American boots on the ground. It could be coalition boots on the ground. It could be a capability that doesn't require any significant number of troops on the ground.

So, I prefer to think about capabilities. And as we look at the geography of the campaign as we extend operations across Iraq and into Syria, yes, there is a good potential that we will need additional capabilities, additional forces to provide those capabilities. And we're looking at the right mix and we see in consultation with the government of Iraq and our other partners.

So, I don't want to get too much into what those precise capabilities would be because, you know, I'd like the enemy to find out about it for the first time when, you know, the area around them is, you know, area around them is going up in smoke.

MR. COOK: Tom?

Q: Hey Joe, it's Tom Bowman with NPR. I was in Baghdad back in December. Sat in on a meeting with Iraqi -- senior Iraqi generals. And you were in that meeting as well. In the generals, the Iraqi general said they expected to retake Mosul by the end of 2016 or early 2017. Do you agree with that timeline? Do you think they can do it?

GEN. MACFARLAND: Well, I think, you know, there are probably a number of estimates out there, that -- some faster, some slower. My job is to get them there as quickly as we possibly can.

So, that is their estimate, and we're looking at that. And part of the thing that I was just -- you know, the list of enablers or accelerants that I was just talking about is looking at ways that we can get, you know, the rest of Iraq, not just Mosul back under control of the government of Iraq as quickly as we possibly can.

So, I don't want to put a date out there, because I'm 90 percent sure that whatever date I tell you would be wrong. So, let me just say, I would like to get this wrapped up as fast as I possibly can. I would like to go home and see my granddaughters.

Q: You're looking for maximum possible effectiveness of local ground forces. And you said, "It's easy to say, tougher to do." What did you mean by that?

GEN. MACFARLAND: Well, this is a really complex fight. You know, there's a dynamic here that really, we didn't have during Operation Iraqi Freedom, which is everything that we do is by, with and through a partner force on the ground.

Some of them are government forces in Iraq and Syria. They're all different kinds of groups, right? So, you know, everything that we do here is really a matter of influence. I can't direct any force on the ground other than my own, and my forces are only here to support those indigenous forces.

So, you know, it's a -- it's really a matter of influence and providing the capabilities, the enablers that they require to fill in their gaps to help them move forward.

So, you know, I often use the analogy -- or the metaphor of Judo. You know, I try to take where one group wants to go, and direct it into a slightly different direction, or do it at a time that might be synergistic with something else that's going on, and maybe in a different country, but supports the overall campaign against the enemy.

So, yeah, that's why I say it's easy to say, hard to do.

MR. COOK: Dave.

Q: General, you used the -- oh, I'm sorry. Dave Martin, with CBS.

You used the line, "closer to the end of the beginning," than the "beginning of the end." So, how do we know when you have got to the end of the beginning?

GEN. MACFARLAND: Well, I think we're at the end of the beginning. When we got Ramadi back, that proved that the Iraqi Security Forces have the wherewithal, have the skill to defeat the enemy in open battle. And that is a tremendous signal that really, the defeat of the enemy in Iraq is a matter of time.

All we have to do is keep supporting the Iraqi Security Forces in helping them bring the fight to the enemy, and we will push the enemy out of this country that I'm standing in right now.

Now, Syria is a more complex problem set. And you know, when I would say we would be at the beginning of the end is when we get Raqqa back. I mean, that would be a really strong signal that the enemy is in its final death throes.

MR. COOK: Barbara.

Q: Barbara Starr, from CNN.

General MacFarland, can we go back on a couple of points you were making about your options and measures that you're going to suggest for accelerating the campaign.

You didn't actually rule out -- when you spoke of enablers and other troops, you did not rule out the possibility of U.S. forces on the ground in a combat role. So I am curious, have you yet been told that that is off the table, you may not consider it? Or is that actually on the list of things you're considering? Just to clarify, because you didn't rule it out.

And the other question I had -- you just spoke about, you know, success, I think, pushing ISIS out of Iraq. Do you believe you can, with the E.U. and the Iraqis, can completely eradicate ISIS out of Iraqi? You can -- you can absolutely get it out of that country?

GEN. MACFARLAND: Okay. So two different questions there. In terms of what the different accelerants are going to be, I really don't want to get into specifics. And the decision as to whether or not, you know, something is on or off the table is -- is not my decision. That's really, at the end of the day, that's my commander-in-chief's decision. So, you know, all of us in -- in uniform are, you know, preparing various options and -- and the president will decide. And so I'm -- I'm just going to leave it right there.

You know, certainly our -- well, I'll just caveat that. Certainly, our -- we'll -- we'll do everything we can to continue this campaign by, with and through the indigenous forces that are on the ground. That's really the best way to defeat the enemy. We -- you know, we believe. So with -- with that, you know, your -- remind me what your other question was because it was completely unrelated. I'm sorry.

Q: You suggested that you -- the -- you could, if the campaign continues successfully, you could eradicate ISIS from Iraq. I was curious if, as you look ahead, do you believe that ISIS could be fully put out of Iraq, eradicated from Iraq? And when you talk about Mosul and Raqqah, getting those two back out of ISIS hands, is that -- how much of that is actually the definition of success right now?

GEN. MACFARLAND: Well, I think that we can defeat the enemy -- as he’s -- currently configured, which is really more of a conventional force than anything else in Iraq. Now, will the enemy revert to some sort of insurgency? A low-grade insurgency or back to a terrorist organization and be able to do spectacular attacks or (inaudible) operations in Iraq? That's a possibility and we will ensure that the holding force that is in Iraq is sufficient to the -- to -- to deter or defeat those types of attacks or respond to them, should they occur.

So you know, that's what I mean by pushing the enemy out. I believe that yes, they will -- the Iraqi security forces in partnership with the -- the peshmerga with air support as well will get Mosul back and, you know, we have to get Raqqah out of the hands of ISIL. I mean, you just can't leave it there, so we're going to figure out how to do that.

MR. COOK: Nancy?

Q: General, this is Nancy Youssef with the Daily Beast. I had two questions.

One of the things we've seen particularly in Syria is that the U.S.-led strikes have benefited al-Nusra Front, and so I'm curious if you could give us your assessment of al-Qaida's current standing, particularly in Syria.

And then secondly on civilian casualties. With the strike a couple of weeks ago on the banks, for lack of a better term in Mosul. We heard about how there was a greater allowance for civilian casualties than in past attacks. Can you help us understand what the current rules of engagement are on civilian casualties? Has there been some leniency put into place in light of the fact that you have a coalition that is going more aggressively after the Islamic State? Thank you.

GEN. MACFARLAND: You're welcome. Yeah, I don't believe that any of the strikes that we're doing are benefiting al-Nusra Front. I mean, that's the last thing that we want to do.

Now, al-Nusra Front and ISIL/Daesh don't get along, so I guess you could say to the extent that we're weakening Daesh maybe it benefits al-Nusra Front. You know, if Daesh and al-Nusra Front want to fight each other, I wish them both success, but, you know, we're here to defeat Daesh, and that's what we're going after every day.

In terms of civilian casualties, we are still bound to the same laws of armed conflict we've always been bound by, and we do everything we possibly can to minimize the potential loss of innocent life with every single strike that we do. And that hasn't changed.

Q: In the case of those banks in Mosul, there is an allowance for civilian casualties we hear somewhere on the order of 50. How is that determination made, and what are some of the factors that you consider in those kinds of cases?

GEN. MACFARLAND: You know, I think that, at most, we might have -- there might have been three people killed in those bank strikes, and pretty sure that those guys were Daesh. So, you know, is a -- is an enemy banker a combatant or not, you know, just because he doesn't have an AK leaning up against his, you know, teller window, I mean, he's still a bad guy, right?

So -- you know, but we struck them at times a day when we were quite sure that we would minimize the loss of life, and so we're going after things like the enemy's money supply because that money directly goes towards the terrorist activities that we see that they're trying to conduct.

So we have these very sophisticated programs, computer programs, to look at density of urban terrain and we and look at the weaponeering of our -- of our aircraft and the bombs that they drop to be as precise as we possibly can. And when we hit these targets, I mean. we'll drop multiple bombs through the same hole and completely contain the destructive effects within the confines of that building.

That's the kind of precision that we bring to a fight, and we use that every single day, our airmen do, with their incredible skill and courage to protect the lives of innocent civilians even while we are degrading the finances of these terrible, terrible people known as ISIL.

Q: Hi, general. It's Kristina Wong from the Hill.

You mentioned the Iraqi government did not turn down the U.S. offer of apaches and advisers, and said, perhaps later. So, does that mean the offer still stands, and does that extend to Mosul?

GEN. MACFARLAND: It's -- it's an option, sure. You know, and like I said, everything that the secretary said is really still on the table.

Q: (inaudible), how much territory has ISIS lost in Syria? There's widely varying figures.

And with Russians airstrikes shoring up the Assad regime, how is the trend for the Syrian opposition positive?

GEN. MACFARLAND: Okay. Square kilometers -- I'll get that. You know, I don't want to throw a number out there, and me give you the wrong one.

You know, -- so, but what's the -- what are the -- it's a lot, though. What are the Russians' contribution to this? Well, the Russians are more focused on propping up the Assad regime than fighting Daesh. So, their strikes so far have had relatively minimal effect in defeating the enemy that we're fighting.

I think that answers your question.

Q: Thanks.

MR. COOK: (inaudible). You're good? You got a question?

Q: Yeah, I guess I'll throw another.

Hi, general. Thomas Gibbons-Neff from the Washington Post.

We've kind of been talking about the conventional side of the lead-up to Mosul. And you know, kind of want to talk about what we're doing with special operations forces, how you see U.S. SOF, maybe combined U.S.-Kurdish SOF contributing to that fight?

GEN. MACFARLAND: I'm not a special forces guy, so I don't like to talk about it very much. They're -- let me just say that, you know, our special operators are doing a fantastic job every single day.

But we really want to draw the curtain on what they're doing, because you know, they can't really be very effective if we reveal too much of it. so, I would rather not touch on that too much.

MR. COOK: Other questions? You have a question?

Q: Hey, general. Bill Hennigan -- (inaudible), Los Angeles Times.

There has been a lot of talk about the possible expansion of the fight against ISIS to Libya. I was wondering how involved you are in the planning of that? Or does that fall under AFRICOM?

And how important is it to root them from their strongholds in Libya?

GEN. MACFARLAND: Well, we have to follow the enemy where he goes, you know, and destroy him, root and branch.

So -- but fortunately, that is one problem that I am not responsible for in Libya. I have more than enough to keep me busy all day long in Iraq and Syria. So, I -- my brothers-in-arms in other headquarters have got the Libya problem set.

MR. COOK: Lucas?

Q: General, are you seeing an increase -- oh, excuse me. Lucas Tomlinson with Fox News.

Are you seeing an increased ties between Russia and the Syrian Kurds?

GEN. MACFARLAND: Well, I -- you know, I can't talk to that. But what I can talk to is our ties with the Syrian Democratic Forces, which do include the Syrian Kurds, but also Syrian Arabs. And they have been an incredibly effective force in northern Syria and we have to get to the number of square kilometers they've taken back.

But it's in, you know, the many thousands. And have really put the enemy on its back foot.

And so, they would not have been able to do any of that without coalition air support. And they know that. They know that -- they owe their existence really, to the support that we are providing them, and have provided them. I mean, if it wasn't for us, they would still have their backs up against the wall in Kobani, you know, if they were standing at all.

So, they know that and that's why they continue to work with us. And so far as I can tell, they have not turned away from us, toward the Russians.

Q: The Russians are conducing air strikes, as you said, against the moderate opposition. Some of those opposition forces in Syria are backed by the U.S. government. My question, sir: Is Russia and the United States fighting a proxy war?

GEN. MACFARLAND: Well, let me just say this. Russia and the United States are fighting very different wars than Syria. We're fighting in Syria to defeat Daesh. They're fighting in Syria, allegedly to fight Daesh, but in practice, they're supporting the Syrian regime against all comers. And some of those folks are also the guys who are fighting Daesh.

And that's where we kind of get into these intersecting, overlapping fights and you know, I wouldn't characterize it as a proxy war. I would say that we are pursuing different goals in that country.

MR. COOK: Time for about three more questions. General, we'll go to the back and then move back here for round two for two people.

Q: General hi, this is (inaudible) with Anadolu News Agency, the Turkish News Agency. Presidential envoy, Ambassador McGurk was in Kobani as we saw in social media, his pictures were there. How as her protected over there? Who was protecting him over there? Did you guys have special forces or any other forces?

GEN. MACFARLAND: Well, let me just tell you he was protected and leave it at that. Don't want to get into that too much.

Q: General MacFarland, Barbara Starr again.

I wanted to come back on something I'm sure you're aware of. People begin to ask the question, so why isn't the U.S. military just engaging in so-called carpet bombing in Iraq, in Syria. If you would just -- the theory goes, if you would just do something like that, this would go much quicker.

As a military commander, can you explain why the targets that you face and the mission you have may not lend itself to the concept known as carpet bombing.

GEN. MACFARLAND: Yes. Thanks, Barbara.

You know, as I mentioned earlier, we are bound by the laws of armed conflict. And, you know, at the end of the day, it doesn't only matter whether or not you win, it matters how you win. And we're the Untied States of America and we have a set of guiding principles and those effect the way we as professional soldiers, airmen, sailors, Marines, conduct ourselves on the battlefield.

So indiscriminate bombing, where we don't care if we're killing innocents or combatants, is just inconsistent with our values. And it's what the Russians have been accused of doing in parts of northwest Syria. Right now we have the moral high ground, and I think that's where we need to stay.

MR. COOK: Question -- (inaudible) -- Tom Bowman of NPR.

Q: General, Tom with NPR again.

There were reports that the Russians have been landing in a Syrian airfield in northeast Syria. A couple of planes have landed, apparently and there's some Russian troops up here doing measurements or something. Do you have any sense what they're doing? And if they were to use that airfield, what impact would that have?

GEN. MACFARLAND: First of all, you know, the -- the Russians and I don't talk about very much, you know, other than how to kind of stay out of each other's way for the most part. And -- so what they're up to in that area is -- is -- is a good question and I would encourage you to ask them and see what they tell you. I'd love to hear what they have to say about it.

Q: What would that mean for the operation were the Russians to start operating out of that airfield?

GEN. MACFARLAND: Well, you know, I'll just say this. It -- it wouldn't make things any simpler for us.

MR. COOK: General, I want to sincerely thank you for joining us today. We look forward to future visits here in the Pentagon Briefing Room. Appreciate it very much.

GEN. MACFARLAND: Okay. Thanks, Peter.

Thanks, everybody. Have a great rest of your day. Bye.