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Department Of Defense Press Briefing By Colonel Dillon Via Teleconference From Baghdad, Iraq

April 24, 2018
Colonel Ryan Dillon, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve Spokesman; Eric J. Pahon, Defense Department Spokesman

ASSISTANT TO THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR PUBLIC AFFAIRS DANA WHITE:  Good morning, all.  I just wanted to come out and say thank you to Colonel Dillon.  Colonel Dillon has a very special place in my heart, because he and I started about the same -- like, within a few weeks of each other.  And Colonel Dillon had volunteered for this position, and he's done over 1,100 media engagements in the year.

And so it with a heavy heart that he leaves us.  But he's done a fantastic job, and all of our spokespeople are so important that Colonel Dillon has -- has talked about the liberation of Mosul, of Raqqa, as well as Iraq.

And so I just wanted to personally say thank you.  He's headed out to be the chief of public affairs at U.S. AFRICOM -- U.S. Army Africa, I'm sorry.  And so he'll be heading to Italy -- a hardship post, I have no doubt.  (Laughter.)

But he's -- also has a lovely family, and he'll -- he'll be able to see them.

So I just wanted to say thank you, Colonel.  Appreciate everything you've done.  You have set the standard.  And just best of luck.  And do stay in touch with all of us and let us know how we can help you, moving forward.

So, with that, I will hand it over to Eric.

(APPLAUSE)

ERIC J. PAHON:  All right.  Well, welcome, everybody, and glad to see you all, and -- Colonel Dillon's last press briefing.  He's been a great source of information and help and a great friend to a lot of us, and he's certainly going to be missed.

Today, we'll turn it over to Colonel Dillon.  He's got a few videos to share with you, as well -- added bonus -- and then we'll take your questions.

Colonel Dillon.

COLONEL RYAN DILLON:  All right.  Thank you very, very much.

So, first of all, I'll get started with Iraq, and then we'll move to Syria.

This week, the Iraqi Air Force conducted a strike on a known ISIS headquarters in Syria that was being used to smuggle ISIS terrorists.  This complex operation was planned and conducted by Iraqi security forces, with support provided by coalition.  This strike demonstrated Iraq's willingness to do what is necessary to secure its citizens, as well as their role as an important partner in the global coalition to defeat ISIS.

In the past four days, polling stations across Iraq prepare for the upcoming election.  The Iraqi security forces, in conjunction with Iraqi government officials, also conducted rehearsals of security operations and security planning.

In the past week, the Iraqi security forces continued to aggressively pursue ISIS remnants throughout the country, destroying four tunnel systems and locating 27 weapons caches and more than 30 improvised explosive devices and mortars throughout Iraq.  During their operations, the ISF also detained nine suspected ISIS terrorists.

While hard work remains, after the defeat of ISIS' tyrannical self-proclaimed caliphate, there are encouraging signs that life is returning to normal.  In the past month, various groups across Iraq and Syria, including Assyrians, Yazidis and Kurds, celebrated Nowruz for the first time in years, free from ISIS.

And, in Mosul, the United Arab Emirates, a valued partner in the coalition, pledged to assist Iraq in reconstructing the al-Nuri Mosque and the Hadba minaret, which were destroyed by ISIS as they withdrew further into the city in June of last year.

Iraqi Security Forces continue to provide security that enables stability necessary for rebuilding and reconstruction to take place.

Moving on to Syria, in the past week the coalition conducted 14 strikes against ISIS terrorist fighters in defensive fighting positions in Syria.

In the following two strike videos, you will see coalition air strikes on an ISIS headquarters building and an ISIS vehicle-borne IED facility.

And, Eric, please let me know once those are complete.

MR. PAHON:  OK, we just saw the first explosion.

Now the second video's beginning.

And that's the second explosion.

COL. DILLON:  All right.  Very good.

The coalition's ability to effectively target and destroy remaining ISIS terrorists is largely due to a constant overhead presence of various intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms that continuously soak up intelligence on ISIS in southeast Syria and along the Syria-Iraq border.

We will continue to conduct operations that limit ISIS freedom of maneuver and also constrain their ability to generate forces and degrade their command and control nodes until the terrorist organization is defeated.

In addition to servicing ISIS targets, the Syrian Democratic Forces recently announced the capture of Mohammed Haydar Zammar, a Syrian-born German national who worked as a recruiter for ISIS.

The Syrian Democratic Forces continue to prove they're a capable force, defeating ISIS throughout most of north and eastern Syria, but also detaining hundreds of foreign terrorist fighters.

Terrorist fighters in the region are attempting to sneak away, to establish new safe havens or return back to their home countries to recruit, plot and execute attacks.  These terrorist tradecraft, passports and relationships represent a global threat to the civilized world.  The SDF are denying ISIS the ability to do this.

Also denying ISIS the ability to come back to liberated areas, the Raqqa Internal Security Forces continue to grow, improve and provide Raqqawis with security.  The coalition has trained many of the RISF on law of armed conflict, weapons familiarization, first aid and counter-IED awareness.

The Raqqa Internal Security Force is subordinate to the Raqqa Civil Council, a local body that is representative of Raqqawis and responsive to their needs.

Just last week, on April 19th, that marked the first anniversary of the formation of the Raqqa Civil Council.  And the RCC has been instrumental in instituting stabilization projects in an effort to bring life back to Raqqa after the defeat of ISIS.

One such initiative is the restoration of the region's canal system, restoring water to tens and thousands of northeast Syrians.  According to the Raqqa Civil Council, water services now flow as far east as the Deir ez-Zor province and supply hundreds of wheat farms throughout the region.

As summer approaches, the Raqqa Civil Council aims to construct more than 20 water distribution points throughout the city, ensuring residents have clean access to clean water.

Finally, I would like to highlight the contributions made by our partners from New Zealand and Australia in remembrance of Anzac Day tomorrow.  Anzac Day is the national day of remembrance that commemorates those who served and died in all wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations.

Tomorrow, Australians, New Zealanders and fellow coalition members remember those who have sacrificed for their nations and to -- those who currently serve.

Aussie and Kiwi service members are committed to the mission to defeat ISIS, from planning strikes, to training thousands of Iraqi Security Forces.  The coalition is stronger and more effective thanks to our brothers and sisters from Australia and New Zealand.

And, today, I proudly wear their patches on my sleeve.  You got the New Zealand patch right there, and there's the -- go look at my guns -- and the Australian patch right there, with the kangaroo -- pretty cool.  So I'm just honored to serve with such great teammates.  And, to our Aussie and Kiwi friends, I say, fair dinkum, you're great mates.

And, with that, I'll happy to take your questions.

MR. PAHON:  So the gun show pretty much ended this brief.

Bob Burns, A.P.

Q:  Thank you.  Colonel Dillon, last week, you mentioned the concern about the possible resurgence, or at least some addition -- some gains possibly being made by ISIS in the Middle Euphrates River Valley while the SDF was distracted.

I'm wondering -- couple of questions.  Is the SDF showing any signs of going back on the offensive after the Afrin?  And, secondly, are your concerns playing out to an extent that the ISIS is making any kind of gains at all in that area?

COL. DILLON:  All right.  Thank you, sir.  So I -- I want to clarify -- last week, when I talked about any, you know, possible resurgence of ISIS, I was referring to the west side of the Euphrates River.  And I was talking about areas where we are not supporting the SDF.

I was talking primarily areas that have been liberated by the pro-regime forces, backed by their Russian counterparts.  There has been absolutely zero land that has been reclaimed by ISIS on the east side of the Euphrates River.

We have put obstacles into place and have constructed, you know, things to contain ISIS in the two areas where we are currently supporting our forces to defeat the remaining locations where they hold territory.

And that is in Dashisha, along the Iraq-Syria border, and in Abu Kamal -- north of Abu Kamal, on the eastern side of the Euphrates River, in a town called Hajin.

So I just want to make it very clear, there's been absolutely no ceding of territory on the east side of the Euphrates River, where we support our partners.  So I'll go ahead and see if you have a follow-up to that.

Q:  Yeah.  The other question I had was whether you were seeing any encouraging signs, from your point of view, of the SDF being -- reorganizing, regrouping to go back on the offensive on that area.

COL. DILLON:  Well, what I'll say is, you know, we continue to, you know, understand, you know, their predicament and where they are.  But we are absolutely committed to the defeat of ISIS.  And, as we've mentioned, the last two weeks, we, as a coalition, have, you know, conducted strikes and upped the number of strikes that we've conducted on the eastern side of the Euphrates River.

That said, we are encouraged by the return of some Syrian Democratic Force partners to the Middle Euphrates River Valley.  I will not go into details on how many and where there will be a raid, but there are some encouraging signs to see that more combat power is returning to the Middle Euphrates River Valley to really turn it on to the ISIS element, those two locations that finally remain.

MR. PAHON:  OK, thank you.

And, next, Idrees Ali, Reuters.

Q:  Sure, (Off mic) --

(Laughter.)

So, Bob's question -- so these are fighters that were in Afrin that are coming back to the MERV?

COL. DILLON:  Well, I'm not going to, you know, say exactly where these fighters are coming from -- I've got a little reverb there.  So all I'll say is that, you know, we are starting to see more fighters starting to return to the Middle Euphrates River Valley, and -- as we look to continue and eradicate and annihilate ISIS in the final two remaining locations where they hold territory.

Q:  A few months or weeks ago, called it an operational pause -- or a pause of sorts because, you know, SDF fighters have been distracted.  So is that potentially over now?

COL. DILLON:  So the way I've clarify -- you know, I've characterized it is that, you know, they -- the SDF has been limited in their ability to conduct offensive operations.  And so that actually did happen around the February timeframe.

So what did we do -- and I explained this a little bit last week -- is, because of that limited ability to conduct offensive operations and continue to put pressure on these ISIS elements, we have been able to use the ISR assets available to the coalition to identify targets.

And we're now starting to strike targets.  I think, over the course of the last two weeks, we've seen an increase of about 100 percent in the number of strikes that we've conducted in Syria.

But, as we start to see more Syrian Democratic Force fighters coming back, then that pressure on ISIS on the ground could very well also help -- it definitely will help in the -- eradicating these final two locations.

MR. PAHON:  OK.

Next, we'll go to Laurie Mylroie, Kurdistan 24, then, after that, Jeff Seldin from VOA.

Q:  Thanks, Colonel Dillon, for doing this, and best of luck in your new position.

I have a question on General Funk's trip to Erbil.  He met with Chancellor Barzani there.  Could you give us a readout on that meeting?

COL. DILLON:  I don't have a readout on that meeting just yet.  I can confirm that General Funk did meet with Chancellor Barzani and other senior leaders.  That is not uncommon.  General Funk has met with Chancellor Barzani several times.  I suspect he will meet with him again in the future.

But I do not have a readout of what was discussed.  But I'm sure it was all focused on security issues and how the coalition can continue to support the Peshmerga and Kurdish security elements as we look towards the elections and into the future.

Q:  Are you encourage -- are you encouraging cooperation between the Iraqi Security Forces and the Peshmerga in the disputed territories to control the violence there?

COL. DILLON:  I will say we are encouraging the government of Iraq, Iraqi security forces, Peshmerga, you know, to work together.  We have seen how that has been successful.  We saw that they worked together in Mosul.  We saw they worked together in Tal Afar.  We saw they worked together in Hawija.  And ISIS -- they will look for seams, both metaphorically and -- and literally, on the ground.

So the government of Iraq -- Prime Minister Abadi knows that all Iraqis require, you know, security, and that includes northern Iraq.  So the -- the coalition is working together with both Peshmerga and government of Iraq with training, with equipment, with support, but also in working together so that they can identify ISIS threats, ISIS remnants, and go after them.

MR. PAHON:  OK, thanks.

Jeff Seldin, Voice of America.

Q:  (Off mic).  You talked a little bit about the two areas where ISIS fighters are now concentrated in Syria.  But can you give us a better sense of how many fighters are there, and whether -- and to what extent ISIS fighters are spread out throughout the areas where there's some fighting, including in the areas that have not been liberated by the coalition?

What -- what type of concentration, what type of -- of threat are they -- are they posing to coalition forces, other -- other areas?  And what type of -- do you have any sense of how they're communicating, how -- if -- if it's just small bands in -- operating independently?  Or is there some larger command and control?

You talked about, a little bit, also, how they're trying to sneak away, and -- and get back to other safe havens.  I mean, is that an organized effort, or is it ad hoc?

What -- what can you tell us about the ISIS presence overall in Syria and the way it's a threat, whether it's a concentrated threat, or a more dilute, but diverse threat?

COL. DILLON:  OK.  If I don't hit all of those questions, you can come back.  But, first off, on the -- the communications and where are they concentrated, those two locations are where they still hold territory, where they are concentrated, where they are attempting to reconsolidate.

You saw one of the strike videos that showed that they are still attempting to build vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices.  So -- so these two areas are -- is what they've got, and that's really it.  Otherwise, you know, they are out in remote, sparse areas, or they are hiding in onesies and twosies amongst -- amongst the population.

The -- as far as their ability to communicate, I -- I just know that we are obviously looking at several different ways on how they communicate, and look to rip apart any type of networks that they -- they still have.

We've been able to do that through many of the different aspects that they have used to run their -- their, you know, so-called caliphate, from -- whether it's recruiting, whether it's financing their operations, whether it's by plotting and planning external attacks in other areas throughout the world.

They have -- and the drone networks -- that's just another example.  You know, those have been ripped apart and are almost nonexistent at the moment.

And that's the intent -- is to -- to continue to drive the SDF and to drive our partner forces to a point where -- where they're -- they no longer hold territory, and then they no longer have the ability to reconsolidate, regroup and conduct attacks, and -- and even in small -- in small types of attacks.

So I'll go ahead and pause there, and, if I missed any of your questions, please follow up.

Q:  Just to follow up, then, with the onesies and twosies, it doesn't sound like -- that bad.  But is there any sense of how many onesies and twosies are out there across the area that ISIS formerly held?

And what type of danger might some of those fighters present?  They've had battlefield experience, perhaps they've been recruiters.  Are they potential sleeper cells, or -- or potentially starting up new points of resistance against the coalition and the SDF?

COL. DILLON:  OK.  Good question.  So you take, for example, the Syrian-born German national who was a recruiter for ISIS.  You know, he was someone that was not in Hajin, was not in Dashisha.

But the Syrian Democratic Forces, as they have with hundreds of other foreign terrorist fighters that are attempting to, you know, flee the area -- they've been able to capture -- capture them.

You've also seen, in places along the border where Iraqi Security Forces, as in -- in the area near Dashisha, along the border, as terrorists attempt to flee those locations, they are being captured, as well.

So the only two places where they actually control or are even a group of more than what we would consider to be, I think, four or five -- that's what -- something that Prime Minister Abadi had mentioned in his weekly address last week -- is that any of the ISIS elements that the Iraqi Security Forces have encountered or found in Iraq, they have not exceeded four people at any one time.

So that goes to show a -- potentially, a snapshot of what ISIS looks like when they don't hold territory.  And, as they attempt to get together and they attempt to conduct attacks, they have been thwarted, largely, throughout Iraq, as an example.

MR. PAHON:  Next, to Wes Morgan with Politico.

Q:  Hi, Colonel Dillon.  If you could tell us a little bit more about the types of coalition support that were provided to the Iraqi air force strike inside Syria -- and what kinds of platforms, what kinds of -- what kinds of steps beforehand?

COL. DILLON:  OK.  So -- so, Wes, thanks for the question.  Number one is the majority of the support that the coalition provided was intelligence support on the target.  And, both before, during and after, the -- we also provided some other assets in the air nearby that were also a part of the support package.

But it really was the Iraqis who planned this all the way through.  It was their committed -- commitment and their coordination, also, with their neighbors in the Syrian government, before they conducted these strikes.

They were successful.  And not only is Iraq a coalition partner to fight ISIS in Iraq, but they are a coalition member.  And, as I have gone about this job and have gone to different places, like London and Berlin, Iraqi senior officials are very prominent in providing the information that is helpful to all of the coalition -- the 71-nation coalition.

So that's just a small insight to, you know, their role as they continue to improve, as they continue to get better.  And their experiences in fighting ISIS, I think, will be -- be worthwhile for the rest of the greater coalition.

Q:  Just a quick follow-up.  Were any troops able to do sensitive site exploitation on the scene of that strike, whether coalition or Iraqi or whoever?

COL. DILLON:  I -- I will not -- I -- number one, I don't know, but, number two, I would say that, you know, based on where that target is -- or was, rather -- I think I can use the past tense now -- is -- is in a place where there's still a -- very high ISIS activity.

So this is still in one of those two areas where ISIS still holds territory.

MR. PAHON:  OK.  Thank you.  And, next, to Jeff Schogol with Task and Purpose.  And, after that, we'll jump to Ryan Browne with CNN.

Jeff?

Q:  Thank you Colonel. One of my great failings in life is that I'm bad at math.  You had mentioned that strikes in Syria are up 100 percent.  And I think you had mentioned earlier that, in the past two weeks, coalition air forces had launched 14 strikes in Syria.

So it is accurate to say that the strikes in Syria have increased from 7 to 14?

COL. DILLON:  So what I'll do is, when I go back, I get a weekly, you know, rollout of -- and I don't have both of those with me.  But I know that, every single day, I get a -- up-to-date, you know, last seven days.  And, yesterday, when I went through that, it was a -- we'd doubled the amount of strikes since the week previously.

So all of that information, all of that data is readily available to all of you through our strike releases.  But I'll be happy to go back, crunch those numbers and -- and send it to you.

But we have, without a doubt, increased the amount of strikes that we have conducted in Syria as a result of soaking up all of this intelligence and targeting information.

Q:  All right, I appreciate that information.

Also, I've heard about another insurgent group in Iraq called the White Banner.  Could you talk about how big this group is and what kind of a challenge they pose?

COL. DILLON:  We've heard of the same group, and I've heard it called White Banner or White Flags.  And they've predominantly been located in and around areas of Kirkuk, Tuz Khurmatu, and the -- the mountain areas in and around there, which I'm familiar with, because that's where I spent most of my time in 2003.

But what I will say is that there are -- they're suspected to be offshoots of ISIS.  And, whether they -- not they call themselves a different name, it's still ISIS elements, and they are still targets for the coalition and for the Iraqi Security Forces.

And I know that the Iraqi Security Forces recognize, you know, this group and have aggressively pursued them in their operations, particularly in that area that I just mentioned.

MR. PAHON:  OK.  Thank you, Jeff.

Ryan Browne, CNN.

Q:  Hello, Colonel.  Thank you for doing this and thank you for the year of -- of putting up with us in these briefings.  Just a couple follow-ups on the -- on Zammar.

You mentioned that he was working as an ISIS recruiter when he was picked up by the SDF.  And you said he wasn't picked up in Hajin or Dashisha.  Can you say where he was captured and has coalition had access to him yet?

COL. DILLON:  OK, Ryan, you know, I -- the SDF captured Zammar about a month ago, and I will leave it to the Syrian Democratic Forces, who have captured him on a unilateral -- you know, it was their own independent operation that resulted in this capture.  They can currently detain him.

And, as far as any type of further intelligence-gathering from the coalition or the United States, I'm not going to address that right now.  The SDF -- they have him.  He is detained.

And I'm certain that we will move forward with trying to exploit some information and -- to be able to use that to illuminate potential other senior ISIS leaders that he was associated with.

Q:  Can you say how many U.S. citizens have been captured by U.S.-backed forces in Iraq or Syria, fighting with ISIS -- what that number is?

And then, on a totally separate note, there was a report in Syrian state media and, I think, the A.P. that the regime had reached a deal with ISIS pockets in the Damascus suburbs -- to evacuate them into other ISIS-held areas.  Are you guys tracking that?  And is it a concern?

COL. DILLON:  OK.  So, first off, I'll have to come back to you.  I do not know the number of U.S. citizens that have been captured by the U.S. and/or SDF, whether it be together or unilaterally.  But we'll come back to you on that.

And, as far as the reports on ISIS and the regime potentially coming up with a deal, I've seen the same thing in open press.  What we're -- what I can do is, again, point to some of the statements that I made last week in reference to the regime's either unwillingness or inability to address ISIS in areas that have once been liberated, and then, you know -- then retaken.

So Damascus was one of those.  We've seen this elsewhere, throughout the areas where the regime have initially defeated ISIS-liberated areas.  So this is a trend that, unfortunately, has continued to play out over the course of the last two years.

Is it a concern?  Yes, it is a concern, because we know, collectively, the evil that ISIS is.  But, right now, the coalition is very, you know, focused on defeating ISIS in the two locations that I've mentioned before, and then preventing the resurgence in areas where we have assisted our SDF partners in liberating.

So that's where our focus remains.  But ISIS anywhere is a threat, as we have seen in the past.

MR. PAHON:  OK.  Next, we'll go to Lucas Tomlinson with Fox.  After that, we'll go to Jack Detsch with Al-Monitor.  He's way in the back.  He may need a microphone.  Lucas, go ahead.

Q:  Colonel, (inaudible) your tour.  What would you say made the biggest difference in the ISIS fight?

COL. DILLON:  Well, I think the -- I would say -- so, number one, you've got two different -- obviously, two different theaters.  You have Iraq, and you have Syria.

But I would say that the -- there is a tipping point somewhere in each of the countries where the -- where you broke ISIS and the confidence levels in our partner forces, whether that was the Iraqis or whether that was the Syrian Democratic Forces, just started a snowball effect.  And it was either a confidence boost or a blow to ISIS that allowed a -- you know, success to continue to feed off of itself.

And, in Mosul, I think that was clearly the case, and -- because you saw, immediately after Mosul, the willingness of ISIS to fight and stay and die in place, like they did in Mosul, just was not there.

And I think it also has to do with a lot of the confidence and the experience and the commitment from the Iraqi security forces and their ability to really operate in complex operations.

You know, you heard me talk last week about where they were two years ago in Hit, with a lone M1A1, and then they've increased to doing very, very, complex operations and doing it very well.  And they continue to get better every single day.

And then, in the same -- on the other side, in Syria, you saw, in Raqqa, the Syrian Democratic Forces -- they did not stop.  As soon as Raqqa was liberated, they immediately -- as a matter of fact, Raqqa was still continuing, and they had ended up, you know, piercing all the way down to Abu Kamal in the Middle Euphrates River Valley to defeat ISIS where they still held territory.

So I'm very confident -- and we're not going to give timelines on this, but I'm very confident that, you know, ISIS will be completely defeated, militarily defeated, and -- especially in this final about 2 percent of where they hold territory on the eastern side of the Euphrates River.

The SDF were that good.  They've proven themselves again and again and again -- that they are capable of standing up to ISIS and defeating them.  And then, above and beyond that, what they are doing for the world as far as identifying, capturing, detaining foreign terrorist fighters that are from dozens of countries throughout the world, I think, is a -- a mark to how good they really are.

Q:  And, finally, with this Iraqi strike in Syria, the Iraqi military said they consulted with Syria's president, or at least Syria's military.  Was the U.S. part of that consultation that you know of?

COL. DILLON:  No, not that I know of.  But it's not uncommon for Iraq to coordinate with Turkey, Iran, Syria, who they are -- will -- who are their partners, or -- or, rather, neighbors.  So I don't find that to be, you know, you know, strange at all.

MR. PAHON:  OK, thank you very much.

Next, to Jack Detsch, Al-Monitor.

Q:  Colonel, thanks for doing this.  Just seeing some reports on social media that the U.S. is building a new outpost in Hasakah in northern Syria, are you upping construction in that area at all?

COL. DILLON:  I -- we aren't -- we will not discuss, you know, locations and/or personnel and -- and where they're located.  We certainly, you know, will say that, you know, we will make the necessary improvements to locations to support our operations and to support our partners in the fight to defeat ISIS in these last two spots.

Q:  Yeah.  And then, just with the French president in town, can you talk a little bit about what French troops are doing to support coalition operations and if more of them will be arriving soon?

COL. DILLON:  I certainly won't talk on behalf of the -- the French government or the -- the French military.  They are a vital and -- and unbelievable contributor to the coalition.

I mentioned last week that -- that they have their anniversary -- three years to the coalition.  That includes, you know, strike aircraft.  That includes ground artillery forces.  That includes trainers.

So they are very much represented throughout the coalition.  But, as far as what they are going to be doing in the future, I will leave that to the French government to address.

MR. PAHON:  OK.  Thank you very much.

And I'm sorry -- I'm drawing a blank on name and outlet.

Q:  Yeah, yeah.  Thank you.

MR. PAHON:  (Inaudible)

(CROSSTALK)

MR. PAHON:  -- and we haven't heard most of your last answer, if you could repeat.  I apologize.

COL. DILLON:  That's OK.  I waited to the last minute.  I was smiling because we have my French counterpart here.  And, inasmuch as I'd love to bring him up here and have him provide the answer to you, I -- I won't do that.

MR. PAHON:  OK.

Q:  Yeah.  Colonel, I'm sure you're aware of the reports about potential deployment of Arab forces in -- in Syria as an idea.  Has there been any discussions about that -- about that option inside the coalition?

And another question is, I'm just wondering, why did the Iraqis conduct that air strike in Syria?  Why wasn't -- you guys?  Was there, like, any operational -- I don't know -- issues related to that -- to that operation?  Or was it just to showcase how good the Iraqis are?

COL. DILLON:  OK.  So, the -- the first question, clearly, we've seen in the news and some of the statements about potential Arab contributions from Arab countries.

First off, I would say that, you know, there are several Arab countries that already provide support to the coalition, both militarily, and then through other -- other means, whether they're monetary contributions to stabilization efforts, or -- also sit on some of the boards and the working groups that are focused on either counter-finance, foreign terrorist fighters or stabilization.

But, as far as -- I won't get ahead of any kind of diplomatic discussions about what, you know, could be.  So I will not speculate on that.  As far as why the Iraqis conducted these strikes, Prime Minister Abadi has said multiple times over the course of the last month that -- that the -- that he will protect Iraqi citizens -- that threaten -- that threaten Iraqi citizens.

And you have one of the locations where ISIS still holds territory, and it abuts right next to the border between Syria and Iraq.  And he said that he will conduct strikes outside of Iraq and in the region, in -- in areas that -- where ISIS can threaten Iraqi citizens.

And so I think you have -- you know, number one, you have a necessity and a need to conduct strikes, and then, number two, to show that they are capable of this.

And it's not just in Syria.  That was -- that made news because of it being in Syria.  But the Iraqi Air Force conducts strikes daily, throughout Iraq, in support of their forces and in support of their operations.

MR. PAHON:  OK.  Thank you very much.  Next goes to Luis Martinez, ABC.  He's way in the back -- I hope -- speak up, Luis.

Q:  Thanks, Eric.  Colonel Dillon, thank you again for all of your help this past year.  I really appreciate it.

A question about the rebuilding and the threat -- the terrorist threat in both Iraq and Syria:  How is the rebuilding effort going inside Syria?  I mean, obviously, the -- the government is -- doesn't seem to be creating any initiative there for the rebuilding effort in Raqqa and other places.

How is that going?  And how is it going inside Mosul, where the -- I think the Iraqis are the ones footing the bill?  And there seems to be a terrorist threat developing inside Iraq.

What -- how do you describe ISIS -- the ISIS threat right now inside Syria?  Is there also a terrorist threat in those liberated cities?  Or is it still more of a battlefield effort?

COL. DILLON:  OK.  So, as far as rebuilding efforts, I just want to make it very clear that, you know, the coalition and the military efforts are for securing areas that enable the stabilization to happen.  And, you know, there are several contributors from the global coalition that are providing monetary contributions to these efforts.

But a lot of it is being done in a whole-of-government approach.  So, particularly for the United States, you have a Department of State organization called Start Forward that is located in northern Syria, that is assisting through the -- the U.S. -- through the United States to provide their support.

But that also exists, you know, through other countries, and it also exists through non-governmental organizations and, really, largely through these local councils, like the Raqqa Civil Council, identifying what projects are needed, what projects are required and are necessary so that they can prioritize that according to the needs -- what the local Raqqawis need.  So that is a short answer for Syria.

In Iraq, you have the United Nations Development Programme.  And they are using a lot of their efforts and receiving contributions that flow through the government of Iraq to do the same thing.

So I guess I should not be the one providing, you know, too detailed of an answer on this.  But our efforts are really focused on security that allows the stabilization and the rebuilding to happen.

As far as the ISIS threat and where -- where it exists, we know that ISIS, even after they lost the territory -- that they weren't going to just completely fold up and run away.  We know that they want to come back; they want to regroup; they want to become relevant again.

And it's the Iraqi Security Forces identifying these threats and -- and doing something about them before they become an attack -- or a spectacle -- a large attack.

And we point to -- last week, I mentioned it, but you just had, most recently, the Kadhimiya pilgrimage that saw 9 million people come through Baghdad.  During that pilgrimage, there were two attempts of suicide bombers to -- to do something spectacular.  And the Iraqi Security Forces were able to identify them, stop them and you know, stop that threat.

So there's a -- an example of the Iraqi Security Forces putting in layered, you know, security and -- and identifying these threats before they can become a real problem.

MR. PAHON:  OK.  Thank you very much.  I know Laurie Mylroie has a follow-up.  Has -- anybody else who hasn't had a chance to ask a question have anything?

OK.  Laurie.

Q:  Hello, sir.  A question -- ISIS has said that they are going to attack the Iraqi elections.  You know, "You shouldn't vote; you're an infidel if you vote."  Are you seeing stepped-up ISIS preparations for attacks on the Iraqi elections now?

COL. DILLON:  Well, what I -- what I will say that there's been an increase is the amount of operations that the Iraqi security forces are doing throughout Iraq, in all areas -- In Nineveh, Salahuddin, Diyala, Anbar province.  So their continued pressure and continued operations is, you know, really staying ahead of ISIS's ability to plan and even attempt to conduct attacks.

So we know that ISIS is -- has talked about doing this, talked about disrupting elections.  But it's really been the Iraqi security forces that have continued to do a full-court press in this time, leading up to the elections.

And that's where the coalition is also assisting them through various means of intelligence and advising and, when requested, particular strikes.

MR. PAHON:  Jeff Schogol, Task and Purpose?

Q:  Colonel, one last question.  As the situation in Iraq and Syria stabilizes, will that cause any changes for U.S. troops' pay and benefits, such as hostile fire pay, imminent danger pay or the combat zone tax exclusion?

COL. DILLON:  I can't answer that.  I -- I don't see that happening at all in the near future.  You know, we have -- we have to, number one -- you know, there's still fighting that's going on.  There's still threats, and there still are -- there's still work to be done.

So -- and no one here makes that decision anyway, so I'll leave that back up to the Pentagon or whoever it is that makes that decision.

I know that that's not necessarily something that, you know, those of us here are thinking about.  We're thinking about finishing our job, doing our mission and making sure our left and right flanks and our fellow coalition members are taken care of.

MR. PAHON:  All right, Jeff.  Any more?  Any math questions?

OK.  Ryan Browne, CNN, please.

Q:  (Off mic)

Have you received any questions from your Syrian partners about how long the U.S. or the coalition plans on staying in Syria?  There's been a lot of discussion about this lately.  Has that become a distraction or a subject of conversation as you engage with your partners?

COL. DILLON:  I mean, clearly we, you know, spend a lot of time with our partners, and we've seen plenty of, you know, things being mentioned in open source.  But I will keep those discussions that happen between our commanders on the ground between those commanders.

MR. PAHON:  Anyone else?

Colonel Dillon, do you have any closing words for us?

COL. DILLON:  Well, you guys have heard me say several times that I don't discuss future operations.  And I will say also that this is a very dynamic environment and who knows what happens next week.

So I am not going to be the one to say this is my last PPC.  But if it is, it's been an honor to really represent the -- all of the men and women who represent the coalition.  And I hope that I have been able to do them justice by standing up here and briefing you and talking to you on the phone.

Because they are really getting after it.  And I know that this is a true coalition and I've got two partners in here from other countries; proudly wearing, as you guys know, the New Zealand and the Australian patch on my shoulders here.  And I've definitely talked to my Italian counterparts to practice my Italiano before I head back there.

But it's been an honor, and all I'll say is our -- our folks in this coalition and then also at OSD, between Eric and Rob Manning and Adrian Rankine-Galloway and the guys at CENTCOM, they're rock solid and it's been an honor.

And I know I've got probably another two weeks left, so I'm sprinting to the finish.  I'm not done.  My phone's always next to me, so feel free to call and ask questions until it's time for me to actually leave.

So thank you very much.

MR. PAHON:  We'll certainly miss you and I'm sure you're going to miss us.  And hope your replacement is spooled up.  I'm sure you're going to get him ready to go and ready to face the crowd here.

I believe this will be my last press briefing as well as I switch over to a different account.

And thank you very much for joining us today.  Appreciate it and goodbye, Colonel Dillon.

COL. DILLON:  All right, ciao.