Department of Defense Press Briefing by Colonel Dillon via teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq
Colonel Ryan Dillon, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve Spokesman; Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway, Pentagon Spokesman October 17, 2017
MAJOR ADRIAN RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Good morning, everyone.
Today we're joined by Colonel Ryan Dillon. Colonel Dillon is the spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, and he comes to us from Baghdad, Iraq.
Before we get started, we'll quickly check our communications.
Colonel Dillon, how do you hear us?
COLONEL RYAN DILLON: Adrian, I hear you very well. How about me?
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Sir, we hear you very well.
If you have any opening words for us, please take it away.
COL. DILLON: Certainly.
OK. Good morning, everyone.
I'll first discuss the overall campaign, and then focus in on Syria and Iraq.
Today marks the third anniversary of the start of our mission, as Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve. In these last three years, our multinational coalition has made great progress against the ISIS terrorist organization and their self-declared caliphate.
Now in ISIS' so-called capital in Raqqa, we see the terrorist group on the verge of a devastating defeat at the hands of our Syrian Democratic Force partners. And more on those details in a moment. But let me first review why this moment on the verge of the liberation of Raqqa is so momentous.
In 2014, ISIS held as much as 104,000 square kilometers, including major cities in Iraq, and forcing their fanatical views on their captive populations.
At the time, they operated with impunity and stunned the civilized world by televising torture, mass executions and other unspeakable crimes against humanity. From the territories they held, ISIS became a global threat, as they planned, funded and inspired terrorist attacks around the world.
The world responded. We organized a global coalition which has grown to 69 nations and four international organizations. And Operation Inherent Resolve was established to defeat ISIS by, with and through our capable partner forces on the ground in Iraq and Syria.
In the ensuing three years of fighting, we halted ISIS' advance and have beaten them back on all fronts. Our partners have removed ISIS from 87 percent of territory they once held, liberating more than 6.5 million people. And this July, with coalition support, our Iraqi Security Force partners achieved a hard-fought victory liberating Mosul, the largest city ISIS has held.
Overall, ISIS is losing in every way. We've devastated their networks, targeted and eliminated their leaders at all levels. We've degraded their ability to finance their operations, cutting oil revenues by 90 percent. Their flow of foreign recruits has gone from about 1,500 fighters a month down to near zero today.
Their story of leading a holy cause was really a cesspool of brutal lies, torture and oppression.
ISIS in Iraq and Syria are all but isolated in their quickly shrinking territory.
Today in Syria, ISIS is losing its grip. After more than four months of operations, Raqqa is more than 90 percent cleared.
We are aware of the reports that ISIS has been defeated in Raqqa. However, clearance operations continue, and we expect our Syrian Democratic Force partners to hit pockets of resistance as the final parts of the city is cleared.
Over the past 96 hours, we have seen about 1,300 civilians assisted to safety by the SDF, and just about 3,000 civilians rescued in the last week.
In the last few days, about 350 fighters surrendered to the SDF in Raqqa, with several confirmed foreign fighters taken into custody after SDF screening.
After ensuring the safety of the civilians, clearance of the remaining portion of the city center has accelerated. The SDF have moved on the national hospital complex and the soccer stadium. The SDF also fully cleared the Al-Naim Traffic Circle, once an ISIS symbol of fear and terror, where they held public executions.
In Raqqa and elsewhere across Syria, our focus remains on reducing risk to civilians, while continuing to pursue and defeat ISIS terrorists at every opportunity as they retreat into the remaining held areas in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.
Meanwhile, in Iraq, coalition forces remain focused on supporting the Iraqi Security Force offensive against ISIS holdouts in Rawa and Al-Qa'im in western Anbar province. In the past week, the coalition has conducted more than 30 strikes against ISIS military targets in the area, including command-and-control facilities, car bomb factories, weapons caches and a training camp.
Back-clearance operations are ongoing in areas already recently freed from ISIS. In the Tal Afar area, since the beginning of this month, the ISF have found and removed large caches of weapons and explosives left behind by ISIS. These caches contain a total of 550 improvised explosive devices, 1,800 mortars, 25 land mines, 101 suicide vests, 16 tunnels and 11 factories for making IEDs.
Regarding the tensions in Kirkuk, aside from the incident from early morning hours on 16 October south of Kirkuk that we assess as a miscommunication between Iraqi Security Forces and a Kurdish checkpoint, there been no further reports of armed conflict or contact between the two groups.
We continue to monitor the situation, and our leaders, talking with counterparts in both the Iraqi Security Forces and the Peshmerga, urged all sides to avoid escalation. These tensions distract from our unified fight against ISIS, which remains a very real threat here in Iraq.
And with that, I will now take your questions.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Bob Burns, A.P.
Q: Thank you.
Colonel Dillon, a couple questions on -- how many ISIS fighters do you estimate are left in both Syria and Iraq? And, with regard to the recent developments in Raqqa -- is he still hearing me? OK. With regard to Raqqa, so you describe ISIS as being on the verge of defeat. What happens next, both in Raqqa and more broadly in Syria, as far as the U.S. military role goes?
COL. DILLON: OK. Thanks, sir.
So, first off, across the board in the combined joint operations area -- so in both Iraq and in Syria, we estimate the number of enemy, you know, forces that still remain to be about 6,500 enemy forces -- ISIS forces. Specifically in Raqqa, with the number of those that have recently surrendered, we estimate there to be perhaps about 100 ISIS fighters that, you know, could remain in Raqqa.
We have not, you know, seen much, or heard of much reports of contact since the SDF resumed their advance into the city after the civilians came out. But we still expect there to be, you know, remnants of ISIS in the city, and we expect there to be pockets of ISIS fighters there.
As far as what happens in Raqqa after ISIS has been cleared and Raqqa is liberated, the Raqqa Civil Council is already established, and they're already eager to begin work to restore essential services.
But also a very important note is that you must -- we must clear the remnants of all the explosives that have been left in Raqqa throughout this battle. One of the SDF commanders earlier in the campaign, maybe a month ago, said that the fight in Raqqa is more about a fight against IEDs and explosives than it is against ISIS, because that's what the nature of the fight normally was.
And just to really highlight that, the Raqqa Internal Security Force commander who is in charge of securing Raqqa after the liberation, unfortunately and sadly was killed yesterday when he was walking through Raqqa and triggered an IED. And he had two of his colleagues that were with him.
So that goes to show, you know, the work that must go into, first off, clearing all of these explosives and booby traps and mines that have been left behind by ISIS.
And the Raqqa Civil Council is also trying to let people know this. In the course of the last month, we know that there have also been about 10 families, while trying to go back to their homes, have also triggered these mines and these explosives.
So that is the very real threat that is what needs to happen first before their -- the civil council comes in and restores essential services: electricity, water, sewage, et cetera.
I hope that answers your question. I was pretty long.
Q: Thanks. Just a quick follow-up.
I was thinking more in terms of what you foresee as the U.S. military's role going forward once Raqqa has been fully liberated. Will -- will the U.S. continue to train and operate with local forces in that area or elsewhere in Syria indefinitely? Or what's the plan?
COL. DILLON: Well, I think, you know -- I'm certainly not going to say indefinitely.
There still is fighting that is left to be done in the Middle Euphrates River Valley. As you know there -- the SDF have made an advance and are on the east side of the Euphrates River, about parallel with the city of Deir ez-Zor. And, you know, once Raqqa is complete, it will be up to -- this is part of the "by, with and through" strategy -- it will be up to the commander, General Mazlum, whether or not he reallocates forces to continue to push down into the Middle Euphrates River Valley where there still is ISIS-held territory.
So there still is fighting left there, but there's also training that continues with the Raqqa Internal Security Force. Some of that training also includes, you know, very, very aptly the counter-IED training, which is allowing them to help remove some of these explosive remnants of war.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Next to Tom Bowman, NPR.
Q: Hey, Colonel, I wanted to get back to Kirkuk. And you said it appears to be a miscommunication, but from all indications, it's more than that. You have some Peshmerga commanders, some political leaders, basically saying they're going to continue to fight. It could lead to a full-scale war.
Could you just talk about that?
COL. DILLON: What I can talk about, Tom, is what we have seen and the reporting that we have received from our counterparts in both the Iraqi Security Force and through the Kurdish security elements.
So, what we have seen is a peaceful handover of areas around Kirkuk and specifically, I can talk about the K-1 Air Field. We did have troops there, and what happened was the Counter-Terrorism Service, you know, showed up and it was a coordinated effort between the Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish Security Forces that were there. And they handed over, you know, the keys, if you will, to that installation. And it was the Iraqi Security Forces who began to take security of that area again.
And throughout other areas of Kirkuk, we saw the same thing.
We've seen a lot of rhetoric. And we've seen a lot of things that have come out of social media and in traditional media that we have not seen through official reporting.
So I can tell you what we have received through our reporting, and through some of the capabilities that we have in the area. And that one incident that I had mentioned was in our press release yesterday, was the only altercation -- armed, you know, conflict and exchange of fire that we know about and that has been reported officially.
Q: But people were killed on both sides, isn't that correct?
COL. DILLON: I do understand that that is correct. As a part of that, you know, one particular engagement that did happen.
Q: Was it a miscommunication?
COL. DILLON: That was -- what we, you know, again, assess as a miscommunication.
It was a coordinated -- it was a supposed to be a coordinated movement through a checkpoint. This happened at about 3 o'clock in the morning, tensions were already high, and -- and that is how we assess that particular incident -- what happened there.
Again -- and that is the only incident that -- that we know about. And you know, things have -- and that was 3 o'clock in the morning. And then, throughout the rest of the morning yesterday, the Iraqi Security Forces moved into areas and peacefully took over, you know, some of the areas in and around Kirkuk.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: (inaudible).
Q: Thanks, Colonel. Appreciate you're doing this, by the way.
Just to switch back to the Raqqa campaign, I'm hoping you can talk a little bit about what it's been like to work with the Syrian Democratic Forces, what they've been able to effectively do in terms of taking back parts of Raqqa, what it's been like to work with them.
And then, just to follow-up then on the earlier question about then what happens in the aftermath of Raqqa, does the SDF essentially act as police then? I mean, you said you have a council in place that would govern, but essentially then the Syrian Democratic Forces stay around for the long-term to -- to police the area?
COL. DILLON: OK.
So to answer your first question, the Syrian Democratic Forces have proven, not just in Raqqa but throughout the campaign to defeat ISIS in Syria, to be a very effective and capable partner. They have proven that by defeating ISIS in other places like Manbij and in Tabqa, and now in Raqqa. And they have done so also further on down in the Deir ez-Zor province.
They have shown, despite not being a military -- that is a traditional military with armor and -- and like the Iraqi Security Forces, the one thing that they have been able to show is -- is very good leadership. And they have also been able to show that they are willing and committed to this fight.
And it has proven that in this Raqqa campaign particularly. They have -- they have sacrificed and have lost several of their fighters, both those who have been killed and those who have been wounded, to be able to reclaim Raqqa and to restore some sort of local governance for the local population there.
One thing I would also like to highlight is that, while the overall makeup of the Syrian Democratic Forces is, you know, about 50/50, but more predominately Kurd, inside of the SDF ranks to defeat ISIS in Raqqa, it is predominantly Arab. And it was those that are from these areas that have not just led, but also participated in the final assault into this victory.
And I think you had another question. Can you please ask that again?
Q: It's a follow-up. You were talking about how the Syrian Democratic Forces are going to be working to clear those booby traps, the IEDs. So then, essentially, do they stay in the city for the long haul in terms of policing the city?
COL. DILLON: They do not. So that is -- that commander that I told you, unfortunately, who was killed yesterday -- he is a leader of, right now -- or was a leader of a force called the Raqqa Internal Security Force.
And that is, right now, made up of about, you know, 1,600 local recruits. And they have been trained by coalition forces and are the ones who are going to remain in the city and provide the security afterwards.
I would also say that the Syrian Democratic Forces, as I alluded to in my previous question -- is that it's up to General Mazloum, who is the commander of the SDF, whether or not he reallocates and takes the forces that participated in the battle in Raqqa and redistributes them and has them in the offensive further on down the Middle Euphrates River Valley right now, in Deir ez-Zor Province.
Q: Thank you, sir.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Next, to Kasim Ileri with Anadolu.
Q: (inaudible) my questions have been asked, Colonel, but I would just make follow-ups.
At the beginning of the Raqqa operation, you said there were 2,500 ISIS fighters in the city, and now remain just about 100. Can you tell us how many of them have been captured by the SDF?
Do you have an idea about the number of those captured fighters? And what happened to the rest of them? And did they flee from the city, or all of them been killed?
COL. DILLON: OK. So, first off, you know, whenever we provide, you know, these -- the numbers that we have, they are estimates. And I try to make sure that I, you know, that I put that out there.
But what I would say is that, you know, particularly in the course of the last week, we saw about 350 SDF fighters that came out of Raqqa and into SDF lines. What we have also seen is, prior to this past week and those that have surrendered, there were obviously fewer than that.
But we saw over the course of the last month, you know, prior to this event, about four ISIS fighters that were either turning themselves in, or those that were being captured or caught by SDF as they tried to escape with IDPs going out of Raqqa.
So the others that -- that came out of that 2,500, you know, many of them have been killed, and have been assessed to have been killed inside of Raqqa during this battle. So what I would come right back at is -- about that 400 number is what we know of recently, of ISIS fighters that have surrendered.
We have seen also that, prior to these battles -- is that, once the area is isolated and before offensive operations begin, many of the leaders will often high-tail and leave and, you know, go elsewhere.
And so we have clearly seen that we have been able to strike and go after high-value targets, particularly those in the Mayadin and Abu Kamal area.
Over the course of the last year, we're sitting at about 150 high-value targets that we've been able to strike. And most recently, since I've been here in the last five months, the majority of those have come from Mayadin.
Q: So, just to make something clear, you have 350 fighters that surrendered last week, and then, during the (month-long ?) course of -- you know, the -- before that, also 400 others. So it means 750 ISIS fighters have surrendered to SDF. Is that correct? Or just -- in total, is it 400?
COL. DILLON: No, no. Yeah, and if -- I'm sorry if I -- if that came out that way. What I what I said was, in the -- the about a month prior to -- leading up to this point, there was about four ISIS fighters that were turning themselves in or being captured -- about four a week for the last month, leading up to this past week when we saw so many.
So I said about 400 is, you know, what we've seen over the course of the last month or so. I don't have numbers for you on other ISIS fighters in Syria that have been captured, or those that have surrendered.
Q: Another follow-up to Kirkuk. You said it's a miscommunication, but there are currently Peshmerga elements captured or arrested by the Iraqi Security Forces. Can you -- do you have anything on -- on the Peshmerga that have been captured by Iraqi Security Forces?
COL. DILLON: Kasim, I do not. I -- that is the first I've heard of that, and, you know, we don't have -- first off, we don't have advisers and people on the ground with the Iraqi Security Force or the Peshmerga elements that are in and around Kirkuk right now.
So most of the stuff that we have received is through reporting and through those dialogues with our leaders from the Peshmerga and the ISF who are either participating, or those commanders of those units, and our leaders.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Sir, if I could get your name and organization?
Q: Sure. (Rabbad Ali ?) from (Goodel ?). Thank you, Colonel.
I have a question about Kirkuk. You said that it was a coordinated movement. What was the level of coordination from the side of the coalition prior to what happened yesterday?
And my second question is, the Peshmerga general command released a statement that there was a huge presence of Iranian IRGC elements in the -- you know, the forces that attacked the Kirkuk area. Are you aware of that? What is your reaction to that?
COL. DILLON: OK. So first off, as far as coalition on -- you know, we are focused on the fight against ISIS. And, after the battle in Hawija, our advisers that were with the Iraqi Security Force elements throughout that part of the battle -- once that battle was over, we started to transition many of the, you know, different outposts and locations that were established to support the operations in Hawija.
Those were closed and consolidated in some of our larger, you know, bases, to transition to move outwards towards Al-Qa'im and Rawa. So we did not have any participation with the Iraqi Security Forces as they moved into the Kirkuk area over the course of last few days.
And, as far as the Iranian or the IGRC (sic) units that you are referring to, again, through our official reporting from those elements that are participating and have reestablished security in and around Kirkuk area, those are Iraqi Security Force elements, like the Counter-Terrorism Service, the federal police.
And we do not have reports of PMF units or the types of units that you had mentioned that we have received. So, we don't have any reporting or any indications that there are units in and around Kirkuk of the elements that you mentioned.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: (off mic)
Q: Colonel, top Kurdish officials have said that about 200 Peshmerga have been killed in the fighting in and around Kirkuk. Can you confirm those numbers and that homes have been looted and families displaced -- Kurdish families inside Kirkuk?
COL. DILLON: I cannot.
You know, we have not received those reporting. Again, the only reports that -- that we have received, you know that have had any kind of credence is the incident that happened south of Kirkuk Lucas.
Q: Who owns Kirkuk ultimately, Colonel?
COL. DILLON: I don't know if that was a question, you came in -- it was only like a couple of words. Can you ask it again, please?
Q: Sure. Who ultimately owns Kirkuk?
COL. DILLON: I'll let someone from the government of Iraq to -- answer that question for you.
We're here to fight ISIS. And, you know, I told you we're not participating in or with any of the units that are in or around Kirkuk right now.
Q: Some say not taking a side in this conflict is, in effect taking a side. What is your reaction to that?
COL. DILLON: I've already, you know, said what we are here for. And that is to, you know, transition and -- and look further west towards ISIS. That is with the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, the coalition, and our mission is -- and that's where we will -- we will focus our efforts -- is to defeat ISIS, just as we have from the beginning.
Q: Finally, there are some photos and video of U.S.-sanctioned terrorists taking part in the flag-raising of the Iraqi flag at the Kirkuk provincial capital. What is your reaction to that? Because some of these -- these men do have ties to Iran and to terrorist groups.
COL. DILLON: Lucas, I don't know -- I have not seen the photos that you are referring to, so I can't comment on that.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: (off mic)
Q: Hello, Colonel.
The operation in Kirkuk showed revival of the Iraqi Army. I wanted to know if -- how you would -- if you consider now the Iraqi Army as a legitimate armed forces with all the -- the -- all the skills required?
And also how many troops do U.S. have trained?
COL. DILLON: OK.
So, first off, I will say that, you know, the Iraqi Security Force and the Iraqi Army. So I'm not just going to say the Iraqi Army, I'm going to include the Counter-Terrorism Service, the federal police, because they ultimately have played a part in the defeat of ISIS, particularly in -- in Mosul.
So what I will say is that, you know -- and we have said this before and, you know, commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve has said this before himself -- is that, first off, Mosul -- the growing nine-month campaign to defeat ISIS there was, you know, going to be difficult for any army.
And it's some of the most difficult combat fighting that we've seen, you know, in decades. So they have come out of that particular battle and that fight, and we have seen them dominate ISIS in places like Tal Afar and Hawija and in western Anbar.
So I will say, and we have said before, that they are a legitimate and very capable fighting force. And some have even said that they are one of the premier security forces now in the region.
As far as your second question about number of Iraqi security forces that have been trained by the coalition, that -- it -- that number sits right now at about 119,000, and it includes Iraqi army, includes Peshmerga, it includes counterterrorism service, federal police, police, tribal mobilization forces and also border guard forces.
I hope that answers your question. If you want to know specifics, I can follow up with you after this as far as numbers of trained by unit.
Q: Yes, because I am interested especially in the army -- Iraqi army. Thank you.
COL. DILLON: OK. All right. So, in the Iraqi army, we have trained just shy of 44,000 Iraqi army forces.
Q: (Thank you ?).
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Ben Kesling, Wall Street Journal.
Q: Hi, Colonel, quick question about some more Kirkuk stuff. Has the U.S. discussed in any way what trigger would cause it to move away from this avowed neutrality and pick a side on things? Has there been any discussion as to what might happen if Iraqi Security Forces move past disputed territories?
COL. DILLON: Yes, Ben, on something like that, I would defer you to the Pentagon and colleagues -- they're standing right there, closer to you -- on what we would do.
What I can tell you, as a coalition, and what we're doing now is, you know, focused on ISIS. We're not, you know, participating in the -- in what's going on in and around Kirkuk right now, besides engaging in dialogue with our counterparts.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: And we'll be happy to take the question for you.
Q: Thank you.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Next, to Nancy Youssef.
Q: Thank you.
First, just a point of clarification. When you refer to -- you referred repeatedly to official reporting as sort of the source for information to dispute some of the reports that we've seen.
What constitutes official reporting? Is that based exclusively on information from the Iraqi Security Forces? Is it based on intelligence? Can you give us a sense of what that -- what that makes up?
COL. DILLON: Sure. So that's all three of what you had just said. So, number one, we do have reporting from Iraqi Security Forces. We do have reporting from, you know, some of our forces that I had mentioned earlier that were -- that was in the area.
We also have reporting that comes from Kurdish security officials that we are in dialog with. And we have other platforms in the area and other ways to gather information to verify those reports.
Q: You said earlier that U.S. forces were not with the Iraqi Security Forces or the Pesh in Kirkuk. So those U.S. forces are not actually witnessing directly the situation in Kirkuk. Is that right?
COL. DILLON: That is correct. You know, we are not -- we do not have elements on the ground -- not U.S., not coalition -- on the ground with -- with -- in or around Kirkuk with any of the units that are nearby.
Q: Sir, we had seen reports that Qassem Solimani was in Sulaymaniyah and there were suggestions that he was directing operations in Kirkuk. Is there any evidence from the U.S. perspective that in fact was happening?
And to clarify earlier, is your position that PMU are not in Kirkuk at all? Are they in the -- are they in the rear? Can you give us a better sense of where PMU positions are vis-a-vis the Iraqi Security Forces?
COL. DILLON: Yes.
So, I -- we have also seen the open-source reporting on that gentleman being in and around Kirkuk, but I don't have -- you know, I can't tell you whether or not that was verified.
Number two, as far as the Popular Mobilization Units in the area, you know, we have not seen in and around Kirkuk any of these units going in to reestablish security and/or inside of Kirkuk itself.
Q: (inaudible) presence at all, or are they in the vicinity?
COL. DILLON: Again, what I will say is that, you know, units, we have not seen. And again, we don't have forces on the ground and what we have received is that information through Iraqi Security Force personnel and also from the other, you know, collection means that I'd already mentioned earlier.
Q: Any indication of leaders from some of the premier PMUs on the ground in Kirkuk?
COL. DILLON: I don't have a -- I don't have a clear answer for you on that. I can't tell you, you know, who and what leaders may be in that area. So I don't have an answer for you on that.
Q: In Sinjar, we've seen reports that Kurdish forces have moved out of there as well. Can you give us the U.S. assessment of what is happening in Sinjar right now?
COL. DILLON: I cannot. I came in with some information about Kirkuk. And again, we do not have forces that are up in or around Sinjar area either. And I -- I don't have an answer for you on presence of any forces in or around Sinjar.
Q: Thank you.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: (off mic)
Q: Thanks, Colonel.
With ISIS on the back foot in Raqqa, has Russia or Syria indicated to the coalition how long they'd be willing to accept the U.S. presence potentially in the country or whether they'd allow U.S. troops to stay in the region indefinitely without offering resistance?
COL. DILLON: We certainly have not received anything from -- from our Russian counterparts through the deconfliction line. And I don't think that that would be a discussion that would happen between the coalition and -- and those elements. It would probably be risen at higher levels.
So I hope that -- I mean, I know that doesn't answer your question, but, you know, that's not something I can -- I can say from the coalition's perspective.
And you said, sort of, the continuance of counter-ISIS operations through the MERV might be dependent on the SDF buy-in? So does that mean the U.S. would be prepared to support operations all the way to the Iraqi border if the SDF desires that?
COL. DILLON: So, I guess what I had said is that, you know, the SDF will -- they have been our partners and I think there is a desire on their part. And there are those fighters and, you know, folks from with inside of the SDF who are from areas further down in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.
So, you know, that is yet to be seen. Again, that's a commander's decision. On the ground, in our strategy of by, with and through, you know, allows that commander on the ground to make those decisions.
So I will say that we must wait and see as things develop. And we'll see how far down into the MERV we'll be able to go to pursue ISIS there.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: (off mic)
Q: Hey, Colonel. After the referendum a couple weeks ago, you had talked about it could be a distraction in the ISIS fight. The -- you know, the tensions in Kirkuk, what kind of distraction might they be? And have they taken anything away militarily from operations in western Anbar?
COL. DILLON: So as I had answered previously, you know clearly at levels that have to, you know, that have to do with the planning and looking forward to the defeat of ISIS, that certainly has been -- been distracted.
The other thing is that as we look forward towards even after the defeat, the military defeat of ISIS in Rawa and Al-Qa'im, there's still going to be work to be done. Yes, ISIS will be defeated militarily, but we know that there still is going to be the ideology and the continued insurgent activity as they devolve into that.
So the transition of the training of kinetic and, you know, forces to fight a military army are already being changed in the training realm to focus on policing activities, and counter-terrorism, and understanding the threat and being able to go after that threat prior to any attacks on either Iraqi forces or civilians throughout Iraq.
So that still has to happen, and the focus still must be there. Still the greatest threat to Iraqis is ISIS, and what comes after their military defeat. So I know that was a long-winded question, but you know the focus is not there on that problem set as it was prior to the referendum.
Q: And then -- do you have the numbers for the -- the amount of Peshmerga forces that -- that the U.S. -- or that the coalition has trained?
COL. DILLON: Yes, that is just shy of -- well it's not U.S.; it's coalition. So coalition forces have trained just shy of 23,000 Peshmerga forces throughout the three years that we have had -- started this campaign.
Q: And then just one last quick one: Has there been any additional face-to-face meetings between Russian and coalition officials on the deconfliction in the Middle Euphrates River valley?
COL. DILLON: I believe that there was -- well not believe -- I know there was a second meeting that did occur at about the same level, again outside of Iraq and Syria. And that happened about a -- I'd say over a week ago.
Q: Hi, Colonel, on the Pesh training, I wonder if you could tell more about what lies for their future. And about a year ago, I was told out there that, you know, it would shift as fights shifted from counter-terrorism assault more towards counter-insurgency, hold forces.
Is that still happening, and can you talk a little bit about, you know, the morale and the mood? I mean your commanders who have been training these guys up to this point, as we're all trying to say here. You know, the Kurds think that they're getting a little bit of the shaft.
And what's it like for you to still -- after training with them, what are -- what are -- what is the message your commanders are sending to them directly about not just Kirkuk, but about the future of the -- of the U.S. sticking with them as a security assistance partner, going forward?
COL. DILLON: OK. Thanks for the question.
And that -- the training, you know crosses a myriad -- and I can try to find and get a more detailed breakdown of what that is for you. But I know that, you know, that training is from all elements of the coalition that provide the training in multiple different locations.
What happened as part of the referendum -- there was no decision that was yet made on whether or not there was going to be any discontinuation of any of that training as a result of the referendum. But, as I know right now, or prior to recent events -- is that training has continued.
So I think, as far as, you know, any kind of feedback of what's been said, I am not privy to any of those. I don't know what kind of discussions have been had at the face-to-face level, particularly in places like Erbil, where we do have forces that are currently with Peshmerga forces there.
So I don't have an answer on, you know, what those discussions have been face to face.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Phil Stewart from Reuters.
Q: All right. Just a few clarifications. Yesterday, we were trying to find out whether or not there were any restrictions on U.S. weapons or arms supplied to the Iraqis and to the Kurds that would prohibit them from using them against each other. Do such restrictions exist?
COL. DILLON: What I -- what I understand is that the weapons that -- and the training -- and the weapons that we provide to Iraqi Security Force elements, to include Peshmerga, you know, forces -- they have to pass -- anyone who will receive them must have -- must be vetted before they are provided these weapons.
And then, secondly, there is a way to track and to continue to identify these weapons. As far as what happens on -- you know, on whether or not they are used, I don't have an answer for you on, you know, what would happen in an event that would have us take any kind of weapons, or take measures to ask for them back.
I don't have an answer for you on that. I can find out, though.
Q: Whether or (not ?) they -- you know, are the ramifications for the -- for the clash -- for those involved with the clash yesterday -- are there -- are there any -- is there any guidance being given to either side that, if they use U.S. arms against each other, that they will -- that U.S. assistance will be cut off?
COL. DILLON: Yes, I don't -- I don't have an answer for you on that as far as overall U.S. arms, if an event happened and what it -- what it would be that would preclude any, you know, further -- divestment.
I'll have to either defer to -- well, not defer, but I can either find out from, you know, Office of Security Cooperation or through our policy to find out an answer on that. I don't have -- I do not know.
Q: So, (then ?), you acknowledged a death toll in yesterday's clash. We were told by the KRG folks yesterday that it was, you know, in the tens, maybe hundred more -- they don't know. They (weren't ?) giving -- they weren't sure on the numbers.
But they were setting quite high numbers. Do you have a number? And would you acknowledge if there's a difference in opinion about the degree of the -- of the bloodshed yesterday, in yesterday's clash?
COL. DILLON: I will say, you know, we don't -- do not have a -- a firm number on them, but I have said -- I have seen differences between the lower three and high to 11 as being the -- the span of reporting on -- on what has come in.
Q: And that's for both sides, from the Iraqi and the Kurdish? OK.
COL. DILLON: That's correct.
Q: The position in where these events are taking place, with the exception of K-1, where I'm not so sure if you're still there or not. You know, how -- how confident are you in the information that you're receiving?
COL. DILLON: Well, like I said, the information we're receiving, you know, we also have other capabilities that allow us to verify those reports. So, granted, it is not, you know someone on the ground that is, you know a coalition member, and we're hearing from them firsthand. I understand that. But there are multiple ways to, you know, look at and receive reports and to verify it. And so that's where -- as the question came in earlier, that's where and how we are receiving our information.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: (off mic)
Q: Hi Colonel, two questions for you. Just to clarify Phil's point about the equipment. Yesterday, the Pentagon had said that there -- they had received agreements that there would be no misuse of military equipment. So can you -- like, you don't know yet what that would -- what is misuse of that equipment?
COL. DILLON: That is correct. I don't know -- I don't know if there's someone that is, you know watching for that. But I can look that up and -- and try to find an answer for you. I don't know.
Q: That would be great. Thank you.
And then my second question is, you talked about how the planning looking forward to defeat of ISIS, that that has been distracted by what's going on in Kirkuk. Can you better parse that out? What does that mean, planning has been distracted by what's going on?
COL. DILLON: So, what I would say is I alluded to it a little bit earlier on today, and you had also -- I would also say that there are elements, you know, whether it be Iraqi army or counter-terrorism service, that -- or any of these units that are also looking at potentials for, you know, what could happen.
Clearly, you know we are trying to dialogue at multiple levels with groups on all sides to keep tensions down and to refocus our efforts on ISIS. But as military planners, you know, we are always looking at the what-ifs. So that is clearly what I would be doing as a planner, is looking at all the different ways that things could play out and prepare for that.
So clearly there is a focus and without a question, with every -- the last two days and all the emphasis and the questions I've received, nary has been on Al-Qa'im and Rawa; it has all been focused on Kirkuk. So I think that shows a very clear picture of where the attention is.
Q: Have you gotten any indication from the Iraqis or the Peshmerga forces that they are less willing to -- or reallocating their resources to not fight ISIS, and to -- to maybe be more concerned about what's going on in Kirkuk?
COL. DILLON: We are -- we are still working with the Iraqi Security Forces, and you know, we are still in the middle of a transition. So we have not seen, you know, all elements that have transitioned out towards western Anbar, and that's where we want to be prepared to go.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: (off mic)
Q: Couple questions, sir.
At some point, will you be able to say definitively that ISIS has been defeated military? Will you be able to declare that at some point?
COL. DILLON: I -- I think -- you know, obviously we're going to have to -- to wait and see, you know, until after.
But I would say that the first thing is that we've taken away, you know, all of their territory is the first step, and we still have to do that. And -- and in Iraq that is about just over, you know, 2 percent or just under 3 percent of territory that is left in Iraq that must be cleared and that's in that pocket in Western Anbar.
So that first must happen before we can say ISIS has been defeated militarily.
Q: A lay person seeing what's going on in Kirkuk, scratching their heads in the United States, and the subtext of a lot of the coverage is this could be foreshadowing a civil war. And is any of the official reporting you've seen to date hinted at or laid out concerns that this could be the start of a civil war between Iraq -- the Iraqi government and Kirkuk -- and the Kurds?
Is that -- are those words being used, "civil war"?
COL. DILLON: We have not -- outside of, you know, press reporting, we have not seen that at the coalition level through the interaction with -- with our leaders.
Q: Final: What is the status of the negotiations or talks with the Iraqi government about an enduring U.S. presence in Iraq after ISIS is militarily defeated?
COL. DILLON: That is -- at levels that would be at the diplomatic levels. But, clearly, we have had discussions both with our commander and the prime minister and with the chief of defense -- minister of defense on, first off, the continuation of training, as I'd mentioned earlier, about the transition to training police-like efforts and to continue the -- the training efforts to build their capacity to keep threats -- counter-insurgent type threat from rebuilding.
So we have, you know, certainly, you know, looked at it from our end. And last week when General -- the same question was asked of Major General White, he said that we will have discussions, we will give recommendations to the government of Iraq, but ultimately it will be the government of Iraq that decides and takes any of those recommendations and implements them for any kind of future presence of U.S. or coalition forces in Iraq.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: (off mic)
Q: Hi, Colonel Dillon.
If I can get you to flesh out a little bit what you mean by the disruption of the Western Anbar operation. Have there been specific instances of Iraq Army or CTS units that you were expecting to already have showed up in Western Anbar that have, instead, gone to Kirkuk?
COL. DILLON: We have not, but we are still not done with the transition and the movement of forces to Western Anbar.
Q: And also, on Kirkuk, could you tell us when the coalition first learned that Iraqi Security Forces would be entering the city of Kirkuk, whether there was any advanced warning or notice and, if so, how long?
COL. DILLON: I don't know that. I know that we certainly knew of it the morning of -- yesterday morning, early of the hours of the morning of the 16th of October.
Q: Thank you and one more.
You mentioned the RISF commander who was killed yesterday in Raqqa. Can you tell us his name or anything else about the circumstances under which he was killed, whether there were any coalition advisers with him at the time, anything like that?
COL. DILLON: I will follow up after with his name. But there were not coalition advisers that were with him. He was walking through a neighborhood in and around Raqqa when he triggered an explosive device that blew up and killed both him and two of his colleagues that were with him.
And I can find out that location and where it is, and the name, following this.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Back to Kevin Baron with a follow-up.
Q: Hi, Colonel. And this is a bit of a phone of a friend-- I'm relaying a question from Voice of America's Carla Babb, who's at a baby doc appointment. But -- so she's actually asking about Iraq from a baby appointment. I think it's worth it.
But it's a follow-on to the last question of, if the U.S. was not involved, why was the U.S. not involved in the handover in Kirkuk? Who coordinated it? Was the U.S. involved in -- at any level of coordinating it ahead of time? And when were these movements decided? I mean, is -- was that were we completely out of it?
COL. DILLON: I don't have an answer on that. I know that the movements by the Iraqi Security Forces -- it was coordinated. As far as U.S. being notified, like, I had already provided that answer that I did not know, or I don't know if we knew prior to yesterday morning.
So I don't have an answer to that.
Q: Did we want to be involved in this, in previous discussions? I mean, it was known that that was on the horizon.
COL. DILLON: Well, the -- so it was already announced by the prime minister. The prime minister had, you know, made some declarations and statements about reasserting Iraqi -presence in and around Kirkuk.
So I know that it was, you know, stated publicly by government officials. I don't know if we, as a coalition, were identified prior to the morning of the 16th.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Then to Liz McLaughlin, ABC.
Q: Hi, Colonel. Sorry, you said there was a second face-to-face meeting with the Russians. Can you talk a little bit more about what triggered that meeting, when that happened?
COL. DILLON: I don't -- and so I know that it happened, and we said that it was likely that there was going to be a second meeting. There's one that did happen. I don't know where it was. I know it was not in Iraq, or it was not in Syria.
And it was at the same level, about the one-star level, from the coalition. And it was the same line of discussions that talked about the deconfliction and where Russian and pro-regime forces and Syrian Democratic Forces would go, further on down the MERV, and what kind of deconfliction measures were going to be put in place.
Q: Would you be able to get back to us about where that meeting took place? And that was a face-to-face meeting?
COL. DILLON: It was a face-to-face meeting, and I don't think we're going to provide a location. What I can do is go back and find a better date to provide you. It was about a week ago. But there may be future, you know, meetings.
And again, this is -- I understand that there have been two meetings: the one that we've discussed the first time I did the Pentagon press conference, and we discussed that, and then the second one that happened about a week ago.
Q: Thank you.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: (off mic)
Q: Colonel, two U.S. senators have expressed concern that U.S. weapons and equipment was used by the Iraqi Security Forces in their movement on Kirkuk. Do you share those concerns?
COL. DILLON: I'll go back and -- a lot of those -- you know, your question looks about the same as some of the other ones, about what is -- what are we the U.S. going to do about use of U.S. weapons and what we would do about it. So I will again defer to the Pentagon for clarification on that.
Q: No, I'm just asking if there's any concern by you or members of the coalition about U.S. equipment or weapons being used?
COL. DILLON: Oh. Well, what we are concerned about is any kind of rise in escalation in Kirkuk. And we want to, you know, have things, you know, go back down to a level where we can refocus our efforts on defeating ISIS.
Q: (off mic) have a right to retake land that they say is theirs?
COL. DILLON: All right. I'm not going to address that one, Lucas. You want to talk about defeating ISIS, you know, I'm ready to field a question about that. So I'm not going to address that one.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: We are at exactly one hour. We're going to go to Kristina Wong, and you'll get the last question.
Q: Great. Thank you for doing this, Colonel.
Some of what's been said today directly conflicts with what Kurdish officials have been saying. The Kurdish regional government representative to the U.S. and the Kirkuk governor have both said that the clash with the Kurdish Peshmerga and the ISF was not in this communication.
They say PMF are riding into Kirkuk in Abram tanks. They described a peaceful handover at the airport as a trick. Do you think that they're misinformed? And is there any concern by the coalition that this will complicate the ISIS fight going forward?
COL. DILLON: So what I will say is that, you know, the -- you know, we -- what I have provided you is the reporting and what we have seen on the ground -- not seen on the ground, but received from multiple sources and also from verifying through other means.
So I can only tell you what we have seen and what we can report.
But as far as how will this conflict any kind of future against ISIS, you know, we clearly want to have the emphasis and the focus back on the largest threat in the area, and a threat to both Iraqis and Kurds.
And they've come so far and they have worked together, unprecedented, especially prior to the liberation and the offensive to move into Mosul. So it was the Peshmerga that allowed Iraqi Security Forces, after several years of contention, to move in and through their lines, to attack ISIS in eastern Mosul.
And we've seen, again, after Mosul, with the Operation Tal-Afar and also in Hawija, how they can work together to defeat a common enemy, which is ISIS. And this has been proven over and over again. And the strength of Iraq has been, you know, shown so many different times when they can all work together.
And it happens in these most recent battles. So, we're so close, again, with about three percent of territory left in defeating ISIS in Iraq. And, you know, that's where we want to continue to focus, and we want to be able to defeat ISIS in Iraq, you know, for all Iraqis.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Sir, thank you very much. Do you have any closing words for the group?
COL. DILLON: No. Thanks, all. And I think next week, you may see someone else up here. And I think you also have possibly a visit coming from CENTCOM, so you will likely not see me, but you know you can always give me a call and I will respond to you. All right. Thanks.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Thank you very much.