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Department of Defense Press Briefing by Col. Warren via Teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq

CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS: Good morning, Steve -- or good evening for you.

COLONEL STEVE WARREN: Good evening. Is there still any snow on the ground over there?

CAPT. DAVIS: Do you want to get started? If so, we'll let you do so. Otherwise -- or we can wait here for another minute for your slides. Oh, there it is. You're up.

COL. WARREN: Might as well get the show on the road, right? Okay.

Well, good morning, Pentagon press corps. I want to start out today by thanking Canada for their commitment. On February 8th, the Canadian government announced its plan to expand its contributions. Canada will triple the size of its train, advise and assist mission. We welcome this.

Canada will increase its compliment of military personnel to approximately 830. They will deploy troops at various headquarters to further support planning, targeting and intelligence. As part of these efforts, Canada will deploy medical personnel to train Iraqi medics and to provide medical support to coalition members.

Canada will also provide equipment such as small arms, ammunition and optics to assist in the training of Iraqi security forces. The Canadians have been a trusted and valuable partner of this coalition since the beginning of the campaign, whether it's providing aerial re-fueling and surveillance aircraft or trainers to advise and assist, they've shown great resolve and continue to enable this fight. The United States, Canada and the rest of our partners remain unwavering in our commitment to destroy ISIL.

With that, I'll move to the map, give you a quick operational update. In Ramadi, deliberate clearance operations continue. Iraqi security forces have control of the city, although there remain untold thousands of IEDs in the city, and the threat of enemy harassing attacks and acts of terror persists.

Between Baiji and Tikrit, which is star number two on your map if you're looking, ISF continue to retain and defend that territory. In Sinjar, which is star number three, Peshmerga forces continue to hold and improve their defensive positions. Coalition forces have conducted four strikes in that area since last week. That's the wrong map.

Moving south to star number four near Fallujah, ISF continue clearing operations along the Tharthar Canal. In Mosul, which is circle one on the map that's not up, since last Wednesday, the coalition has conducted 19 airstrikes. And in Darzor, circle number two, we conducted strikes against the Omar Gas and Oil Separation Plant.

Now, I've got two videos from those strikes that I want to show you, and the first one is an example of the extraordinary precision of our airstrikes, which stands in stark contrast to the reckless indiscriminate bombing campaign that's been waged by the Russians. The video shows the weapons striking the plant at the end of the pipeline, which you'll see illuminated in the video. So DVIDS, if you can roll video number one, please.


COL. WARREN: The second video that I've got teed up today is of a strike against a wellhead in that same oil field. This strike shows a single munition which has been weaponeered to most effectively attack the well head and ensure that it cannot be quickly repaired. And one on this is the cross hairs in the video are not the camera's aim point -- or excuse me, the cross hairs are not the weapon's aim point, they're the camera's aim point. So the munition hits exactly where the pilot wanted it to hit. So DVIDS, go ahead and roll that second video, please.


COL. WARREN: So that first video I think was a great example of the absolute precision we're able to bring to these fights. The second one I showed you, because it shows weaponeering. So, you know, that was one single munition that went down underground before it detonated and created that huge secondary explosion. So a demonstration of capability there.

So moving on, we're still in Syria, if the map is still up. That one should be the opener map. And the Mara Line, which is circle number three, we've seen vetted Syrian opposition forces remaining in their defensive position. And in Aleppo, which is a little further south, it's not -- I didn't identify it on the map -- we're continuing to monitor that situation.

And I'll tell you, we're concerned that with the reduced humanitarian access and continued strikes by the Russians and the Syrians, thousands of civilians are suffering. The situation in and around Aleppo has become, in our view, increasingly dire. Yesterday's U.N. report accused the Syrian regime of, quote, "inhumane actions," against Syrian civilians on a scale that, in their words -- the U.N.'s words, "amounts to extermination."

With the destruction of the two main hospitals in Aleppo by Russian and regime attacks, over 50 thousand Syrians are now without any access to live-saving assistance. Humanitarian organizations are responding, but ongoing military operations by Russia and the Syrian regime, as well as pro-regime forces are making access to populations in need increasingly difficult.

ISIL is virtually nonexistent in that part of Syria. Russia can no longer credibly claim its airstrikes there are doing anything other than supporting regime forces, as they mount what the United Nations has called a systematic and widespread attack on civilians. They forced tens of thousands of innocent Syrians to flee for their lives.

And with that, I'll take your questions.

CAPT. DAVIS: We'll start -- we'll start with Carla Babb.

Q: There -- since there's a map on Aleppo, what is being done to help the rebels near that area that are fighting Daesh? Because there's a -- there's a big, long solid line that I can see with the red rebels and the purple Daesh that could be using some help, but we haven't seen that many strikes in that area from the U.S. and the coalition.

COL. WARREN: All right. So we're -- and I talked about that. So what -- what you see there is the Mara line. We have been supporting partner forces there along the Mara line really for months. We continue to conduct strikes -- take strikes as the opportunities present themselves and we are continuing to work very closely with the vetted Syrian opposition that's along that Mara line and the enemy, which of course is there in the purple.

It's important to note, too, that some of the forces that we trained in the original Syria train and equip operation about a year ago are continuing to fight along that Mara line there. So -- and they bring with them probably the most powerful weapon on the battlefield, which is communications.

So those forces that we trained, the new Syrian army, we started calling them, are participating in that -- in that fight along the Mara line and they're continuing to use the skills and the equipment, the ammunition that we provided them to hold that line and against the enemy, and in some cases, even attack and -- and seize new villages.

Q: You can see through that map that the government forces have split the rebels. What is the United States and coalition doing? Because that's clearly affecting the fight against Daesh or Islamic state. Does the coalition plan on doing anything to help reunite those rebels that have been split by the Russian strikes and by the government troops?

COL. WARREN: Well, I'm not sure that I agree that it's clearly affecting the fight against ISIL there. You know, in Aleppo -- north of Aleppo, the area where the regime as able to create some space in between the opposition forces in Aleppo and other opposition forces north, and what we call the -- the Afrin pocket there. That's the -- that's the kind of brown area you see on your map.

Because those -- those forces are isolated in Aleppo, it is not impacting the ability of forces along the Mara line to be able to -- to be able to fight against ISIL.

Q: On the humanitarian aid, any talks of efforts to -- by the coalition to get humanitarian aid into Aleppo or try to establish a safe zone for people who are trying to escape?

COL. WARREN: Well, you know, the -- the United Nations and -- and other humanitarian organizations really have the lead for moving humanitarian relief into areas where it's required. I'll tell you, you know, the United States government has recently announced hundreds of millions of additional dollars in humanitarian assistance, targeted specifically to Syria. So the U.S. government is continuing to focus on that.

Operation Inherent Resolve, here in this task force, our focus really is -- is -- is to defeat ISIL. So that's where our focus remains.

Q: Okay. And my last question goes back to your video. What's -- what's the update on how much of the oil production has been destroyed? And is it still cost-effective with the decreasing price of oil? Is it costing the U.S. and the coalition more to strike these oil wells than they're actually producing?

COL. WARREN: Well, we haven't run the numbers on cost of a bomb versus barrel of oil reduced. What I'll tell you is our focus is to reduce or eliminate this enemy's ability to generate revenue to fund its terror activities, to fund its -- its -- its war-fighting activities in Iraq and Syria and around the world. So that's what we're focused on and that's exactly what we're doing.

We don't have fresh numbers, so we'll stick with the old numbers that we briefed about a month or so ago, a reduction of approximately 30 percent of this enemy's ability to generate revenue from oil. We'll continue to keep an eye out for new numbers to come out, but right now, we're sticking with those.

Q: Thanks.

CAPT. DAVIS: (off-mic.)

Q: Hi, Colonel. This is Laurent. You have mentioned the role that your Russian forces are playing in the offensive -- the regime offensive against Aleppo. Can you characterize this role? Can you say, for instance, how many strikes the Russians have done on Aleppo? Or -- or if there are -- can you -- can you confirm -- can you say also if there are any Russian special forces involved in that fight?

COL. WARREN: I don't have a total count. I know there was over 200 munitions dropped during the Geneva peace discussions, the early part of those. So here we have Russians dropping bombs during -- in the middle of a peace discussion, and that was over the course of about two days.

Have not seen evidence of Russians on the ground there. They're primarily overhead. Although, we have seen Russian equipment brought to bear. We know the Russians are providing equipment, both to the Syrian regime and to other actors that are on the battlefield there for their use.

CAPT. DAVIS: David Martin

Q: Steve, Dave Martin. Just so I make sure I understand this map, you've got three areas: rebel control, government control, Daesh control. And then, in the northwest corner of the map, you have another area that's colored beige but doesn't have a label. What's -- what's the label that goes on that part of the map?

COL. WARREN: Well, that is Afrin-Kurds, so that's -- that's Kurds. We refer to them as Afrin-Kurds just because the geography there.

Q: This morning's press release on the strikes mentioned rocket strikes. Sounded like surface-to-surface.

Where are those coming from?

COL. WARREN: So, we conduct -- so, those are -- those are ATACMS or HIMARS, depending. I don't know specifically what that strike was, but that -- that's some of the capability that we have.

We've got it in -- we've got Paladins in Taqaddum, primarily used as force protection, which haven't been used really much. And then we have got some -- at Al Asad, we do have some HIMARS capabilities there, which we use, you know, as required.

It's just -- it's another -- it's another arrow in the quiver. It's a great system, because it brings an all-weather capability, it's a great system because it's very rapid, it doesn't have to reposition.

So, it's just another -- it's just another method of strikes.

CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Tara.

Q: Hi, Colonel Warren. One on Aleppo, and then move to Libya.

The comments you made earlier about Russia, there seem to be a harder line on what Russia has done to Aleppo than what we have heard from you previously. And kind of following on Carla's questions, what, really, can the U.S. do to help the people of Aleppo besides try to get Russia back to the table, to make these statements -- what tactical things can the U.S. military, coalition do to help the people of Aleppo?

COL. WARREN: Well, this military coalition is focused on defeating Daesh. There really -- it's the humanitarian providers, it's the other elements of government that are focused on providing humanitarian support.

I don't know about the characterization of my Russian points. What we have seen is recklessness, indiscriminate strikes, primarily using dumb bombs, with really -- what I would refer to as a strategically short-sighted vision of operations inside of Syria.

You know, the Russians, early on, they claimed that they were interested in fighting ISIL. But we simply have not seen that.

So, the words and their actions do not align. The Russian actions have done nothing except prop up Bashar al-Assad, who we know is the root of the problem in Syria. And we don't see a future Syria that has Assad in it.

That said, our focus right now remains -- remains fighting ISIL.

Q: To follow on Syria, and then Libya.

The injection of the Saudis into the Syrian complex, what does that do to complicate or help U.S. and coalition efforts there?

COL. WARREN: Well, the Saudis have been a part of this coalition for some time. They have conducted strikes in Syria, and we welcome additional strikes and we welcome any other additional support that they're willing to provide.

And you know, the secretary of defense is right now meeting with many of our coalition partners to talk about exactly that. What more can coalition partners do to contribute to this effort?

And these contributions are vital. Our requirement is to dismantle and destroy ISIL. And what will generate that dismantlement more quickly is a stronger ground force here in Iraq.

That is one of the elements that will help us achieve our goal, which is the destruction of ISIL. One of the elements is a stronger Iraqi ground force. And so, as we see other countries contribute additional training capability, that will allow us to train the Iraqi ground forces more rapidly, generate the combat power that we require, which will then allow us to move on Mosul.

So, that's what we're looking for, and that's what the secretary, I know is discussing with his counterparts now.

Q: So, on Libya. Yesterday, in the budget drop, there is about a $200 million line item to expand operations in Northern Africa.

Given about the concerns about the increase of ISIS fighters in Libya, do you -- can you give us any context as to what that $200 million will go to?

COL. WARREN: Well, I don't know what that $200 million is for. That's Libya.

Our focus here is the CJTFOIR, is fighting ISIL in Iraq and Syria, which keeps us busy all day.

I do know that every dollar helps. And every ISIL member who's killed is one less ISIL member we have to worry about.

CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Andrew.

Q: Steve, hey, it's Andrew Tilghman. Could you tell us just a little bit more about Ramadi?

I think that -- you say that the city is now under control of the Iraqi security forces. That is a relatively recent development in the past couple of days, I think, if that's correct.

Also, are you seeing any reports of any kind of follow-on, guerrilla-style attacks? And do you have an estimate on how many ISIS fighters or sympathizers might be left in the city somewhere?

COL. WARREN: All right. So, this is also a new development where the CTS was able to -- you know, clean out, or at least, take control of the remaining neighborhoods in Ramadi, in the southeast kind of section of its -- south of the (inaudible) area there.

So, we're glad to see that, we're glad to see now that the Iraqi security forces really control all of Ramadi proper. But like I said in the opening, there are still thousands, if not tens of thousands of booby traps, IEDs, houses rigged to blow.

We've seen refrigerators with bombs in them. We have seen this enemy actually rig Qurans to blow, if touched.

So, really, ISIL has used this absolute scorched earth, kind of sow salt into the land style of warfare as they pulled out of Ramadi. And they left the place really in ruins.

So, now the Iraqi security forces have to very deliberately, very systematically, very carefully go through, almost house by house, throughout Ramadi to render that place safe.

So, it's -- it will take -- it will take some time to get that done.

We do see small teams, really teams, two, three person teams of ISIL fighters conducting these kind of harassing attacks, or terrorist attacks -- they are terrorists -- you know, throughout Ramadi.

And they have a very simple goal: What they want to do is tie up Iraqi security forces as long as possible, right? So, they will send in some sort of harassing attack, whether it's a one -- one person wearing a suicide vest, or somebody driving a truck bomb or a car bomb, or just a two-man team with an RPG and an AK, just to slow down the process, to slow down the Iraqi security forces' ability to make Ramadi safe.

And they want to do that because they want to -- they want to keep the Iraqi security forces in Ramadi as long as possible to prevent the Iraqi security forces from them moving their focus into either Hiit upstream or into Fallujah downstream.

So, I mean, we know what they're -- what this enemy is trying to do, we're continuing to strike them either from the air when we find them. The Iraqi security forces have really done well. They haven't done anything other than defeat these enemy harassing attacks everywhere we've seen them.

So we're definitely seeing as the Iraqi army spends more time in combat, we're seeing their confidence rise as we see their experience rise, their capabilities getting better. But again, you know, this is -- it's going to be a process to get this all cleaned up.

Q: And one last thing. So who is in -- who is securing Ramadi at this point? Is that a combination of Iraqi army units and some local Sunni tribal police forces?

COL. WARREN: Yeah, there's a combination of forces securing Ramadi right now. The CTS generally has the lead for clearing a neighborhood, although in many cases, there are also Iraqi army -- regular Iraqi army forces clearing other neighborhoods. But as a neighborhood is cleared, then either the CTS or the army will turn that neighborhood over to a hold force.

There are two flavors of hold forces, there are Sunni tribal fighters and there are police, both of whom have been trained in one way or another. The -- our Italian partners, the Carabinieri, have trained over 2,000 police officers, many of whom are part of the hold force in Ramadi. The Sunni tribal fighters have been trained by the Iraqi army with oversight provided by the coalition.

So again, to sum it all up, CTS and Iraqi army will clear a neighborhood. When that neighborhood is cleared, they will turn that neighborhood over to either police who've been trained by the Italians or they'll turn it over to tribal fighters, Sunni tribal fighters who have been trained by Iraqis which are provided oversight by the coalition.


Q: Just to go back to earlier, the Canadian announcement. So within a few weeks, the coalition was losing access to six CF-18s in addition to the B-1s that left a few weeks ago. Can you help me really understand how this doesn't really represent a big loss in capability of assets available to the coalition? Can you say if there's anything new that rotated into the area to make up this gap?

COL. WARREN: Great question. So two aircraft carrier groups have rotated into the area in -- within the last, you know, 30 to 60 days, so that really makes up for this -- for this gap. Additionally, we saw the Dutch provide additional fighter aircraft I think two weeks ago. So, you know, we're seeing, you know, additional forces come in that are able to make up for what's departed.

But more importantly, remember, the train -- everybody likes to focus on the airstrikes, right, because we get good videos out of it and it's interesting because things blow up -- but don't forget a pillar of this operation, a pillar of this operation, is to train local ground forces. That is a key and critical part.

We are not going to bomb our way out of this problem, right? It's never going to happen. So we've got enough bombers -- you know, we always could use more but what we have has worked -- but we can't lose sight of the fact that we have to train this Iraqi security force. This Iraqi army needs to be trained, it's one of our primary lines of effort and as we see nations like the Canadians agree to triple their presence, we find that extraordinarily helpful.

CAPT. DAVIS: Thank you.

Q: It's Nolan again. The Turkish president has criticized very severely the involvement of the U.S. with the YPG. What can you -- what can you say to convince the Turks that the U.S. are not arming the YPG?

COL. WARREN: Well, I'll tell you the -- you know, the Turks are a NATO ally and a -- and a long-time close friend of the United States of America, and we understand their concerns and we work very closely with them at the diplomatic levels to give them exactly those types of reassurances.

CAPT. DAVIS: Carla again.

Q: Hi, Colonel Warren. Carla again. Have you seen any problem areas forming in Iraq? Are there any areas that the coalition is focusing on because the Islamic State has made gains?

COL. WARREN: The Islamic State has not gained a single inch of territory in Iraq in months, really since Ramadi, frankly. So it's important to note that, yes, they still have some capability, yes, they've still got a little bit of fight left in them, but we have pummeled them. They have been struck from the air, their finances have been devastated through our Daesh cash strikes, their capability to fight has been crippled, their ability to move has been largely restricted. And this is a combination of devastating air power from this coalition and an increasingly competent Iraqi security force.

So this fight's not over yet. We've still got some fighting left to do. But understand this. This enemy is on its heels. They are in a defensive crouch right now, we are seeing examples of executions conducted by ISIL leadership of their own people for throwing down their weapons and running away from a fight, for giving up in places like Baiji, Sinjar and Ramadi. And so that's showing, you know, the egg is starting to crack a little bit more and eventually, we're going to see noting but yoke on the ground.

So that -- I think that's something that we all need to keep in mind. In Iraq in particular, these offensive operations are beginning to have an impact.


Q: Hey, Steve, it's Luis. A question about Aleppo. You spoke earlier about how the situation there is increasingly dire. What significance is it to fight against ISIS if the -- if the regime coalesces around Aleppo again?

COL. WARREN: Well there's little or no ISIL in the Aleppo area, so they're kind of, at this point, separate fights. The thing they have to worry about is who else will go to Aleppo in order to fight the regime, right? That's really the only link, and that remains to be seen.

So right now, our focus remains the Mara Line and fighting ISIL while, you know, we see the regime, backed by the Russians, conduct their operations inside of Aleppo City. So they're moving on the outside of Aleppo City now, difficult to say if or when they'll move into the city.

Q: A follow-up. You mentioned there were two -- there were airstrikes on two Russian -- I mean, on two hospitals inside Aleppo. Do you have a sense of what the casualty numbers may have been as a result of that strike?

COL. WARREN: Unfortunately, we don't have a casualty count from those strikes. Certainly, we do know that those -- the elimination of those two hospitals now leaves at least, we believe, 50,000 civilians who don't have the ability to get to a hospital and to get often care that would save their lives.

So I would submit to you that the casualties from those strikes continue to mount, as citizens and civilians who are unable to get to a doctor, unable to get to a hospital, then suffer and potentially even die from whatever ails them.

CAPT. DAVIS: Anybody else? One more for Tara.

Q: So would 50,000 be your estimate of the current civilian population of Aleppo? Is that correct -- is that a correct assumption?

COL. WARREN: No. The 50,000 is the population around those two hospitals that -- that fed into those hospitals. Inside of Aleppo, we believe -- it's very difficult to get a number, and you know, we know at one point, Aleppo's population was over three million. I've seen various numbers, but I think we can go with a ballpark of around one million, maybe -- maybe less inside of Aleppo at this point.

Q: Because we hadn't asked in a while, are there still about 3,500 U.S. forces in Iraq training? And could you give us a breakdown of what their roles are right now?

COL. WARREN: I don't have that with me. There are -- there are about approximately 3,700 right now -- American forces here. Has been -- it's been steady at that number for quite some time. And as you know, we're conducting a train, equip, advise and assist, all right? So that's what they're doing, and then providing security, obviously. You know, we have a -- a lot of security capability as well. You know, protect ourselves, force protection. -- and that's what we're doing. And then of course, all the sustainment piece too.

As you know, there's also what we called a RIPTOA, Relief in Place -- Relief in Place; Transfer of Authority. That's underway. So we've got personnel from the 101st Airborne Division who are beginning to flow in and replace personnel from the 82nd Division who are flowing out.

But those are really the missions that are going on. It's train, it's advise, it's assist, it's equip, and then it's, you know, the staff work that support all of that and the life support that supports all of that.

CAPT. DAVIS: (off-mic.)

Q: Have you yet come up with a number on the additional trainers that will be needed for the Mosul force?

COL. WARREN: Well, we haven't -- we haven't. What I'll tell you is, you know, the number of trainers we have now could train the amount of combat power that's needed. What we're talking about here is enhancements, right? Accelerants. So we'd like to accelerate our ability to defeat this enemy. So as more trainers come in, what that allows us to do is accelerate the pace of the training, accelerate the pace of the generation of combat power, which will then allow us to, you know, make the final push against this enemy.

So the more trainers we get in from our coalition partners, as we've seen from the Canadians, who tripled their presence -- their training presence here, the more trainers we get, the more we're able to rapidly generate the combat power that's needed to -- to defeat this enemy.

CAPT. DAVIS: Back to Andrew.

Q: Steve, it's Andrew again. Just back to Anbar. Outside of Ramadi, have there been any operations -- significant operations other than just this ongoing clearing in Ramadi? Anything in Hit-Haditha or the -- the -- what you've called the shark's fin? Any -- any other activity?

COL. WARREN: Sure. The -- the shark fin's clear now, which is a (sufia ?). That -- it's part of, you know, (inaudible) -- control Ramadi. So it's not cleared. It's controlled. Cleared of enemy, still remain to clear IEDs.

We are conducting operations of -- (inaudible) -- to Haditha and Barwana in particular. As you know, two weeks ago, maybe at this point three weeks ago, there was a fairly significant fight around Barwana, which resulted in over 200 enemy killed in that area. And that was a great example of a -- of a -- of a combined fight, because we saw Syrian tribal fighters, we saw CTS and we saw Iraqi army members of the Seventh Division all banning together, fighting should by shoulder -- shoulder to shoulder against Daesh -- against ISIL.

So that was a -- that was an impressive example of what “right” looks like to us. We've also seen continued operations in and around Baiji, specifically the Markul Mountains), which are north of Baiji. This -- (inaudible) -- north of the refinery that looks down on Baiji. In fact, the enemy, not long ago, was -- we detected that they were trying to amass a little bit of combat power to make a play against the oil refinery. And in fact, the Iraqis found them, pointed them out to us and we wiped out about 60 ISIL fighters in the Markul Mountains. That was about two or three weeks ago, also.

So we're seeing these continued operations. Most of them are at the lower tactical level, not any major operations like we saw in Sinjar or -- or -- or Ramadi, as the Iraqis now focus on combat power regeneration. They -- you know, we were knocking out cities at the clip of about one a month there for several months, right, Tikrit, Baiji, Sinjar, Ramadi. So that's a lot of offensive operations.

So now, we're in that kind of -- that combat power regeneration phase. while we continue to pressure this enemy through devastating air power and through kind of lower level tactical fights in -- in various spots really across the breadth and the depth of this battlefield, whether it's in Iraq, and then of course --


CAPT. DAVIS: You -- you probably didn't hear it.

COL. WARREN: Well, Jeff, I didn't hear a word you said, but I can hear you now.

CAPT. DAVIS: We just had some dramatic Hollywood-like sound effects superimposed over your narrative. It was -- it was stunning, like we couldn't have planned it any better. I don't know what it was. But anyway, back to you. I think we're actually almost done, unless anyone had any -- anything else?

Steve, any closing comments from you?

COL. WARREN: Well, thanks. I would tell everybody to keep -- keep an eye on both Iraq and Syria as we continue to -- to work through the process of -- of getting coalition partners to contribute more and better. So I'll see everybody next week.

CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. Be safe. We'll see you -- we'll see you soon.