Department of Defense Press Briefing by Colonel Folsom via teleconference from Al Asad Airbase in Iraq

Colonel Seth W.B. Folsom, commander, Task Force Lion, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve; Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway, Pentagon Spokesman


MAJOR ADRIAN RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  This is Major Rankine-Galloway from OSD, how do you hear me?

COLONEL SETH FOLSOM:  I've got you, how do you have me?

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  We hear you very clearly, sir.  We'll get started.  Good morning ladies and gentlemen.  Joining us today from Al Asad in Iraq is Colonel Seth W.B. Folsom.  Colonel Folsom is the commander of a joint and coalition team named Task Force Lion.

Colonel Folsom will -- we'll turn it over to you.

COL. FOLSOM:  Well, good morning, ladies and gentlemen.  Again, my name is Colonel Folsom, appreciate you taking the time to talk to me this morning.

As he just said, I'm the commander of the joint coalition team named Task Force Lion.  We operate primarily from Al Asad Airbase here in al Anbar province, Iraq.  Task Force Lion's mission is to advise, assist and enable the Iraqi Security Forces and build their capacity through training programs to support the government of Iraq and their continuing fight to defeat the remnants of ISIS.

My team is specifically built for this mission, and it includes members of all four U.S. Department of Defense uniformed services, as well as coalition partners from seven different nations.  We are the fifth rotation of this advise-and-assist force, which began in May 2014.

And we've been fortunate during our tour to participate in the ISF assault to liberate the last of the urban centers of the Middle Euphrates River Valley that were under ISIS control here in Western Anbar province.  Our role supporting the ISF in the last six months has been multi-faceted.

We conduct routine key leader engagements with senior unit leaders.  We assist them in operational planning and intelligence collection, and we work closely together to leverage coalition intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and fire support capabilities to target and destroy ISIS forces.

Between September and November 2017, Task Force Lion supported the ISF operation to take back the cities of Rayhanah, Anah, Al-Qa'im and Rawa.  Our support during this operation included more than 400 precision surface and aviation delivered strikes in support of the ISF.

To accomplish our mission and support the ISF in their advance across more than 3,700 square miles of battle space, Task Force Lion constructed three forward positions, expeditionary fire bases and command centers together with our Iraqi partners.

And our Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen conducted nearly 100 tactical ground movements totaling a distance of more than 11,000 miles.  In the 30 years since they seized much of Iraq, ISIS had prepared a daunting array of defenses along the main route through the Euphrates River Valley, including minefields composed of hundreds of improvised explosive devices.  Throughout their brutal occupation, ISIS fighters subjugated the Iraqi citizens across Anbar province.  And one of our greatest concerns as we help the ISF plan and execute their operations was the potential for civilian casualties.

Our mandate was clear.  The Iraqi citizens had already suffered enough under ISIS' unjust rule, and so it was imperative that we avoid civilian casualties.  In the months since the ISF fought their way to the international border of Al-Qa'im and liberated Western Anbar, the lives of the Iraqis here has slowly begun turning to some semblance of normalcy.

The ISF are working closely with civil authorities to stabilize towns like Anah and Rawa, restoring essential services and removing hundreds of pieces of unexploded ordinance left behind by ISIS to kill, maim and terrorize returning Iraqi civilians.

Internally displaced persons are returning to Iraq and to al Anbar in greater and greater numbers; more specifically in Western Anbar we've seen the return of more than 18,000 IDPs, and four hospitals and 49 schools have reopened, as well.

In short, the iron grip the ISIS once held on the vast Anbar province has dissolved.  And the ISF are right to be proud of their accomplishments.  My team and I are likewise proud to have worked with our Iraqi partners during this critical moment in the history of their country.

There's still much work to be done, though.  Although ISIS no longer controls any of the population centers in Iraq, there are small ISIS elements still seeking sanctuary in some of the more remote areas in the deserts and in the mountains.

And there are ISIS elements attempting to re-establish themselves in populated areas.  The stabilization of Iraqi's border towns continues, as does the reinforcement of its international border with Syria.  Fighting between the Syrian Democratic Forces and remaining ISIS holdouts continues across the border from Al-Qa'im.

And the situation there is precarious.  Iraq's national elections are approaching, and we're advising our ISF partners as they develop their plans to safeguard that important milestone.  Throughout all of this, our training effort to build and develop the Iraqi border guard forces remains constant.

As does our effort to continue the professional development of the ISF at all levels.  Iraq's future is brighter than it was three years ago, and the men and women of Task Force Lion remain committed to our partnership with ISF, to ensure the people of Iraq never again have to face the horrors of ISIS.  I want to thank you for taking the time to speak with me today, and with that, I'm happy to field your questions.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Thank you, sir.  We'll start with Bob Burns from AP.

Q:  Good morning.  Question for you.  If you could offer a little more detail about the situation in Al-Qa'im.  For example whether -- to what degree are there still Islamic State remnants operating near there or in there.

And could you describe the situation there with the return of displaced people there and so forth?

COL. FOLSOM:  Well that -- that's a great question Bob, thanks.  The situation in Al-Qa'im is vastly different than what it was when -- when the ISF rolled in there at the beginning of November.  Since November, the ISF, in particular the Eighth Division, has established itself as a hold force in the district there.

And is also working hand in hand with the Iraqi border guard force along the border.  Their first priority is to continue to reinforce that border with Syria, as well as helping the -- the Iraqi citizens who remained in Al-Qa'im and those who are returning, now that the fighting's complete, helping them get back to normal.

And by get back to normal, I mean -- you know I'm talking about things like restoring essential services, removing the leftover unexploded ordinance that I mentioned and -- and engaging and -- beginning and engaging the dialogue with the local government leaders in Al-Qa'im.

Q:  So on the question about remnants of Islamic State, are there still pockets of resistance or -- or infiltration or efforts by the Islamic State to re-establish themselves in or near Al-Qa'im?

COL. FOLSOM:  Yeah, that's a -- that's such a good question.  So as far as infiltration, that's -- that's one of the priorities of the Iraqi general who -- who I advise. He is very concerned about ISIS forces infiltrating across the border.

And so that's -- that's why he's continued to harden that -- that series of positions.  The -- the ISF maintains a robust patrolling effort and a robust operational tempo in the district of Al-Qa'im, both north and south of the Euphrates River there.

And to date they have not uncovered any significant evidence of -- of IS factions there in the area around Al-Qa'im.

Q:  Thank you.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Next to Kasim Ileri with Anadolu.

Q:  I will have two questions, Colonel.  One on Kirkuk, we began to hear ISIS resurgence in Kirkuk and, interestingly, it came just after the referendum spat between Baghdad and Erbil.

Can you just tell us or update us about what the situation in Kirkuk, and why ISIS re-emerged in this city?

COL. FOLSOM:  Well, you know, I -- I really -- really don't want to speculate on -- on what ISIS' activities are near Kirkuk.  That's -- that's so far away from the area of operations that I cover, down on -- with -- with my ISF partner.

And, you know, what -- what I can tell you is that -- is that anything that happens throughout Iraq that is related to ISIS, it -- did directly impacts what we're doing here in -- in Western Anbar.

You know, ISIS, as I've said, is -- is continuing to, in small pockets, try to reestablish itself.  And so the -- the efforts that the ISF were making to keep their boot on those -- the -- the neck of those -- those fighters that are trying to reestablish themselves.

It's been a critical effort, and it's been a -- a nonstop effort.  Even though the ISF officially liberated Western Anbar back in November and December, they have not eased up the pressure one bit.

And so any time that there is news or information of ISIS elements attempting infiltrate elsewhere in the country, that only stiffens the resolve of -- of our ISF partners out here.

Q:  So as -- as northern Iraq is too far away from your area of responsibility, I will defer my second question to others.

(Laughter)

COL. FOLSOM:  Okay.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Thank you, Kasim.

Next to Laurie Mylroie from Kurdistan 24.

Q:  Thank you, sir, for doing this.  And I have a question that, in fact, I had in my mind addressed to your position in Anbar, close -- you know, close to the fighting, that you may see issues with a greater degree of granularity than we do 10,000 miles away.

And my question concerns ISIS.  And from your experience in Anbar, how do you understand the leadership and core expertise of ISIS?

There was a Der Spiegel article about two years ago that suggested the core expertise of ISIS, and the -- the leadership was really the former Iraqi regime.  Is that something that you also see?

COL. FOLSOM:  Yes.  That -- well, thank you for your question.  I note -- I would say I -- I've never looked at it from that perspective.

The perspective that I've looked at it with ISIS, and the leaders of that organization, is they -- they've been really, you know, the architects of -- of a disaster here in Iraq.

I -- I don't believe that the leaders are -- are former regime -- former Iraqi regime leaders.  I believe that, really, what the -- the leaders of ISIS, the -- the few key leaders that are actually left, I -- I believe what they are is -- I believe they're twisted.  Twisted by some kind of ideology that very few of us can understand.

But the simple fact is, it's -- is what they -- what they did here, over the course of the last three and four years, has -- has been an absolute tragedy.  And the -- the upside to all of it is that the -- the United States, with the -- the literally -- the world writ large, was able to see ISIS for what it was.

Which is a -- a fraud and pure evil.  And -- and the fact that 75 different organizations here, including 71 different countries, could come together as a coalition with the sole purpose of helping Iraq fight ISIS, I think that says something about good versus evil in this world.

Q:  Some people would use those adjectives to describe, like, tragedy, to describe the former Iraqi regime.  But let me ask you a -- a related question.

Who are the leaders of ISIS?  Who are they as individuals?  Where do they come from, are they Iraqi or from some other country?  Where does their expertise come from, say, with the minefield?  What did they do before they became part of ISIS?

COL. FOLSOM:  Well, you know, the interesting thing about the minefields that we encountered out here, and -- and the role that ISIS played in -- in putting those together and placing them.

That's -- that's actually information that you can find on the internet.  And that's -- that -- that played a large role in -- in what -- how they were able to turn this place into such a -- a dangerous stretch of land.

You know, who they were in their civilian lives, before they became ISIS' leaders?  I don't really know.  I don't -- I don't spend a lot of time thinking about it.

But when) I think about people like al-Baghdadi, you know, the -- the leader of -- of ISIS and their self-proclaimed caliphate, you know, what I think of is, it doesn't really matter who he is.  Because he -- he's not having an effect out here.  And at no time was that more apparent than last fall during the -- the operation the ISF conducted in Western Anbar.

When -- when Iraqi soldiers were blowing through the Middle Euphrates River Valley on the way to Al-Qa'im and -- and the international border, you know, the so-called hardened ISIS fighters were -- were running like cowards.  And their leader, al-Baghdadi, he was nowhere to be seen.  So, so much for -- so much for loyalty to that.

And I'll also tell you this.  With -- you know, as far as al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, and his -- his henchmen, you know, his senior commanders to facilitate what's going on, I look at it out here like a game of chess.  All right?

And so if -- if al-Baghdadi is the -- the king of his so-called caliphate, and, you know, then we don't need to go directly after him.  All we need to do is systematically pick off his knights, and his -- his rooks and bishops.  His mid-level and senior commanders, until none of them are left to protect him.  And -- and then eventually we'll bring him to justice.

Q:  Thank you very much, sir.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Next we'll go to Tara Copp from Military Times.

Q:  Thank you.  For the remaining ISIS presence, you said that they may be trying to reestablish themselves in Al-Qa'im.  What is their goal?  Are they trying to reconnect to ISIS fighters in the MERV?  What -- what are you trying to prevent them from accomplishing in that area?

COL. FOLSOM:  Yeah.  Thanks for the question.  I -- I think that ISIS has one goal.  ISIS here in Iraq has one goal right now, and that's merely to survive.

You know, their organization has been fractured.  They are, essentially, leaderless out here.  And they are doing anything they can to -- to just hold on with the hopes that, I don't know, maybe we'll forget about them.

And so -- and -- and my Iraqi partners, they -- they understand that.  And I'll tell you that the Iraqi general I advise, his -- the way he has envisioned security in Iraq and the fight against ISIS, it has not fundamentally changed in over a year.

You know, he has -- he has made it a priority to secure the urban centers and the -- the major routes through Anbar Province.  He has made it a priority to secure and reinforce the border with Syria, and he's made it a priority to continue to hunt down these small pockets of ISIS in the desert.  And he's fond of saying that "ISIS began in the desert, and we're going to finish them in the desert."  

And so, when I think about ISIS as it is now, these small pockets of fighters who are having problems communicating with each other and building a coherent strategy, I can say with confidence that their days are numbered.

Q:  And then just two follow-ups.  When you say small pockets, can you give us a rough estimate of how many total ISIS fighters remain in -- (inaudible)?

COL. FOLSOM:  Well, that's a good question and if I knew I would probably be celebrating right now in the Al Asad dining facility with an alcohol-free beer.

But I'll tell you that the small pockets -- these remnants that we focus on, they're easily addressed.  And so, as we work together with our Iraqi partners, one of the greatest enabling capabilities that we have is providing and sharing intelligence with them.  

So, each time we're able to uncover what we think is a remnant of ISIS -- whether they're storing things in caves or operating somewhere out in the desert, we pass that information freely to our Iraqi partners and they then go take care of it.  And that has been one of the most important impressive things out here is the energy with which the Iraqi army takes what we give them, processes it, plans and then goes after the bad guys.

Q:  And then just one the last question, if I could ask you to get reflective for a moment since it's the 15-year anniversary of the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, from your point of view and from your engagements with Iraqi leaders, why are U.S. forces still needed in Iraq?

COL. FOLSOM:  Well, thanks for that question.  Today is an important day -- like you said, it's the 15th anniversary of the United States being here.  And I remember it well because I was in one of the first Marine Corps units to cross the border 15 years ago and this is my third time here in Iraq.

You know, there's a historian named (inaudible) Manchester.  He talked about one of the pitfalls of studying history and he said that there often seems a sense of inevitability about events and it's difficult to truly put yourself in others' shoes who were dealing with events bigger than themselves at the time.

I'll tell you that my Marines and I came to Iraq in 2003 because we thought it was the right thing to do -- and we served honorably.  So, unlike I think a lot of people out there right now, I'm not really interested in engaging in the same sort of self-loathing that a lot of people are doing today on the anniversary.

But the simple fact is this -- you know, the war has changed out here.  It's not even the same war anymore.  The United States came here in 2014 because the Government of Iraq asked for our help.  And I remember watching the videos of ISIS fighters beheading James Foley and Steven Sotloff.  I remember watching ISIS burn that Jordanian pilot alive and crush him with a trailer of rocks.  That's the kind of evil that the Iraqis have been fighting for the last four years.

If I could, I would just close it by telling you this quick story.  Last September my unit was supporting the Iraqi Army as they were clearing a town along the Euphrates called Ana.  And after a three-day fight in which the Iraqis lost a good number of soldiers fighting against ISIS, we went into the city with our partners and one of the Iraqi officers, a colonel that I advised.  He came up to me and I could tell that he'd been crying.  

And what he told me was that his parents -- his elderly parents and his handicapped brother had been living in Ana for three years -- that's where he'd grown up and he had not seen his family in three years.  And he actually said to me, it's because of the United States that I can see my family today after three years.  So, that's why my team and I are here and we're here to give the Iraqis another chance to define their destiny.  That's something that ISIS was trying to deny them.

Q:  And in your view U.S. forces are still needed at this time even though there's very few pockets left?

COL. FOLSOM:  You know, I do believe that U.S. forces are needed here.  What we're trying to do right now with the ISF -- even though Western Anbar and the entire country has been liberated, what we're trying to do with the ISF is help them consolidate their gains.  

We are at a critical juncture right now where if we don't continue our work and support for the ISF, if we don't continue our work to professionalize them as a military, to give them the tools they need and set the conditions for security and stability in this country then we risk a return to the conditions like they were in 2014.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Over to Jeff Schogol from Task and Purpose.

Q:  Thank you.  Colonel, recently as you know, there was a tragic helicopter crash in Al-Qa'im.  I'm wondering if you could talk about what those airmen were doing -- what their mission was at the time of the crash?

COL. FOLSOM:  Thanks for that question, Jeff.  That crash which happened out here in our area of operations -- that was nothing more than a routine transfer and positioning of aircrew out to that base that we have out on the border.  That episode I'll tell you is an absolute tragedy and my heart goes out to the families of those airmen who were killed in that crash.

And I can tell you this also -- that that episode represented a high point of coordination and cooperation between the Iraqi security forces and the coalition forces.

I'll tell you that when that episode happened immediately after the crash the local ISF unit was the first to respond on the ground.  They were there within minutes of the crash and they remain there as we speak.  They're continuing to help the coalition out there secure that site.  

And I would also add that that night when that event happened among close Iraqi forces that were on the ground was the Iraqi division commander.  He was there right up front with his soldiers.  He stayed there the entire night as our coalition soldiers went there to recover the site.  It was an event that was both touching and humbling at the same time -- that they were just as committed to recovering that aircrew of U.S. airmen as we were.

Q:  Thank you.  And can you elaborate just a little?  When you said it was a routine transfer of aircrew to a base you had on the border, can you describe what do you mean by that?

COL. FOLSOM:  Well, I'll tell you -- like I say, we have a combined -- small combined outposts out in Al-Qa'im.  It is composed of coalition and ISF personnel and we have routine aircraft transfers that go on nearly every day out there.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Next to Ryan Browne, CNN.

Q:  Colonel, thank you for doing this.  You spoke about working with the Iraqis to secure the border with Syria.  Do the Iraqis you advise engage with Syrian Democratic Forces in the area, and coordinate to secure that border?

COL. FOLSOM:  Yeah, thanks for that question.  You know, the -- what's
going on across the border in Syria, that is -- that's certainly something that we're all watching closely.  And I'll tell you, it -- it's as much of a concern for our Iraqi partners as it is for us.  My -- the Iraqi general that I advise, he has been in touch with SDF leaders across the border.

And -- and at the same time, you know, as I said earlier, my partner’s made border security one of its top priorities, and for good reason.  You know, he's -- he's responsible for literally hundreds of miles of the Iraq and Syrian border.  And to -- to a certain degree, he is -- he's -- he's playing the role of the neighbor in the Robert Frost poem.  You know, he -- he's like the man who believes that good fences make good neighbors.

And I think that if you ask him, you know, like -- like it says in the poem, who is he walling in, or -- or -- or who's he walling out, he's tell you that he's -- he's walling out crazies.  He's walling out the remaining ISIS fighters that have retreated in Syria after the ISF pushed them to Al-Qa'im.  And if, you know, if you asked him who he's walling in, I think he'd tell you that he's walling in the -- these small, disorganized, fractured groups of ISIS fighters that we've talked about here in al Anbar, and these are the -- the groups that he's committed to hunting down, one by one.  And that's my job, is to support him in that effort.

Q:  And if -- if I could just follow up real quickly, are -- you said you were -- they were concerned about what was going on on the other side of the border.  Is there increased concern that Syrian Democratic Forces who have been securing that area have been pulled away to go to places like Afrin?  Is that making securing the border more difficult?  And have the forces in that area been interfered with in any way by some of the pro-regime elements that are also in that area on the Syrian side of the border?

COL. FOLSOM:  Yeah, thanks.  The, you know, the -- as I was saying, the, really, the most important thing that the ISF and border guard forces can do out there is the continued reinforcement of their positions out there.  That's -- that's why we've expended so much effort here -- here at Al Asad, training border guard forces.  It's -- it's having them develop both the capacity and the capability to -- to monitor that long stretch of the border, and protect themselves, if necessary.

There are -- we do still believe that there are remnants or elements of ISIS fighters across the border that we -- we watch, and we also coordinate very closely.  We have coalition forces that are across the border.  And then it's, you know, simply put, it's really the definition of a complex problem.  There are many different people and many different organizations here between Iraq and Syria, and it makes coordination a challenge.  But that's the most important thing that we can be doing right now, is everybody talking to -- to everybody else.  Not stop -- you know, always keep talking, and always keep listening.

Q:  Thank you.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Next to Wes Morgan from Politico.

Q:  Hi, Colonel Folsom.  You -- you mentioned that ISIS is mostly just trying to survive at this point.  But when the ISF and U.S. advisers went into Al-Qa'im back in November and started turning over rocks, and looking in safe houses and stuff like that, did they glean any insights into, you know, what ISIS had been doing in Al-Qa'im, what they had been using the place for earlier, like whether there was external attack plotting, or senior leaders had been holed up there, or anything like that?

COL. FOLSOM:  Yeah, thanks, Wes.  It's good to talk to you again.

You know, yeah, it was -- it was interesting.  As -- as we rolled in to -- to Al-Qa'im, and the ISF in the lead, you know, we were -- we were anticipating upwards of 2,000 ISIS fighters there, and we didn't find them.  But what we did find were the large stockpiles of IEDs and weapons, and locations that -- that we assess to be command-and-control locations.  But not -- even -- even with that, we -- we did not discover the number of those kinds of facilities that we did in some of the previous towns that the ISF retook, there in the last fall, and the last summer. 

It -- it was -- it was my assessment that the operation that the ISF conducted in September against -- to retake the cities of Rayhanah and Anah, that -- that that particular engagement really broke the back of ISIS here in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.  I think that that was -- that was the turning point here in Western Anbar, where ISIS realized that the ISF was not going to stop until they'd made it all the way to the border.  And so from that point on, from September until the end of November, ISIS was fighting a losing battle.  They were fighting a rearguard action, and by the time they got to Al-Qa'im, rather than make their last stand, as -- as most of us thought that they would, they either dropped their weapons and ran like the -- like the cowards that they all are, or they said, "I'll -- I'll try to live to fight another day," and -- and either hoofed it across the border, or -- or went elsewhere. 

Q:  Thanks.  If I could ask you a quick follow up, if I'm remembering right, I think this was your second time around in Al-Qa'im.  Is that -- if I'm remembering right, is there -- what kind of lessons have you learned from the last time you were an adviser in Al-Qa'im to this time, and what's going to make -- what's going to make this stuff stick, and the ISF actually be more successful this time around, than, you know, the last time you were there?

COL. FOLSOM:  That's -- that's a great question.  You know, yes, it is -- it is my second time here as an adviser.  I was here before in 2008, advising the same Iraqi division that I advise now, and I'll tell you what -- what the difference is this time around.

The ISF, in 2008, did not necessarily have a compelling reason to get better.  There was a lot of -- there was a lot of political infighting within the ISF.  There was a certain degree of -- of turf war between the ISF and the Iraqi police.  And then -- and there was also -- there was -- there was no enemy to give the -- the ISF a -- a unifying purpose.

Now, what we have here in -- in Western Anbar is we have a -- a more professionalized core of Iraqi officers and leaders, and they have a -- they have a compelling reason to -- to continue that professionalization, to continue to -- to maintain the momentum, to continue the training of their personnel, and -- and to continue -- to continue that pressure on these remnants of ISIS.  

That wasn't necessarily there in 2008.  ISIS, you know, for all intents and purposes here in -- in Western Anbar, and elsewhere in the country, ISIS was an existential threat, and the ISF, in its -- its rebuilding over the last several years, has been given another chance.  And I think that the -- the leaders of ISF, they recognize that they have another chance, and -- and they don't want to squander it this time.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Now to Jeff Seldin from Voice of America.

Q:  Colonel, thank you very much for doing this.

You mentioned earlier about the IDPs who are returning to Western Anbar Province.  Wondering if -- what efforts have been underway to determine whether or not there are any ISIS fighters or foreign fighters who are trying to sneak in with that population, and what's been doing it, and just general concerns about the population that had been there under ISIS control for so long, and perhaps some of the -- the kids who may have been indoctrinated, what's going on to deal with perhaps the sleeper cells or long-term threats like that?

COL. FOLSOM:  Yeah, that's a great question, thanks.  You know we've had this discussion with our Iraqi partners, in particular the -- the ISF division, which is out in the Al-Qa'im area.  The return of IDPs is a -- it is a concern for them, and for several reasons.

First and foremost is what you talked about, which is the potential for, you know, ISIS fighters to infiltrate back into the urban center.  The way the ISF has been addressing that is they have -- they have essentially what amounts to return screening stations.

And that -- that is a process that returning IDPs go through to be screened and evaluated by the ISF before they are allowed to return to their homes there in Al-Qa'im.  It's also a concern for an -- an item of interest to the ISF.

Because those increasing numbers of IDPs means there is more of a demand signal for the restoration of essential services there in Al-Qa'im.  Much of the -- much of the infrastructure here in Western Anbar was smashed over the last three years.

And there's a lot of work that has to be done out here to restore essential services, to resume employment and economic opportunity for the local Anbaris.  And so what that does is that creates an -- an opportunity for the local -- the district governments here, the provisional government and the government of Iraq itself in Baghdad to engage with the local leaders in places like Al-Qa'im and Anah and Rawa, to determine what the needs are of the people there and address those needs, so that again we don't -- we don't revert to the conditions they were in 2014 in the sense of disenfranchisement here in Western Anbar.

Q:  Colonel, I want to follow up, if I may.  You mentioned the screening stations.  Is there any technology, biometrics that are being used there to help track people that may be of suspicion or may be a concern, and so that you can follow them down the line?

So if somebody is indeed not who they say they are, that you have a way of going back and figuring that out?  And is that information being shared with any of the coalition partners or other countries from where you had foreign fighters come to Iraq?

COL. FOLSOM:  Yeah, that -- that's a -- that's a great question, and that's one of those things that, you know -- I wish we had the ability to do that.  I -- to my knowledge that the ISF are not using any technology like that, as they screen.

You know, the thing about -- the interesting -- here's the interesting thing about -- about al Anbar, especially Western Anbar.  It's kind of like -- it's kind of like the bar at Cheers, if anybody remembers that television show.

And that's a place where everybody knows your name.  And in a place like Al-Qa'im, it's very easy for someone to -- or difficult, rather, for somebody to try to enter that city who is not from there.  The -- the -- the fabric of Western Anbar is composed of many different tribes.

And within those tribes, everybody knows everybody.  And so if you're somebody -- if you are a malign actor who is trying to infiltrate his way into the urban center, there's a good chance that somebody's going to figure you out.

They're -- you know, believe it or not, they're -- the Iraqis are actually a lot smarter than us in doing that kind of thing.  And so we've been -- we've been monitoring how they've been screening people, we've been recording those numbers.

And so far, we have not had a problem with it.  And it's actually been a pretty impressive process.  And the numbers that are coming in every day, you know, it -- it gives us hope that a place like Al-Qa'im, which really was the last bastion of ISIS fighters.

It gives us hope that it's going to return to something like normal soon.

Q:  Colonel, one last question, if I may.  You talked about the situation across the border in Syria and the concerns for the Iraqi forces.  While it's not your primary mission, how are the activities of the Iranian-backed militias or Iran's operatives in Syria making it difficult for you and your Iraqi partners to stabilize the area and get done what you need to get done?

COL. FOLSOM:  Yeah, that's -- that's a great question.  You know, simply put, we're -- we're not here to engage Iran.  We're here to -- we're here to assist the ISF, to make them better, to help them defeat ISIS.  Anything that's going on from my perspective and my end of the battle space, anything that is going on with Iran across the border, someone else is -- is dealing with that.

I only become concerned if it begins to affect the forces that I advise, or if it becomes a threat to the forces that I command.  And so you know, we have a saying out here, is only get concerned about the things that -- that you can do something about, that you can influence.

And so that's what my Iraqi partner and I do, is we -- we worry about the things that we can influence.  And that -- that begins and ends with the Syrian border and moves east all the way to the Euphrates River, down here to Al Asad.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Next to Carlo Munoz with Washington Times.

Q:  Hey Colonel, thanks for doing this.  Actually to follow up on -- on Jeff's point regarding Iran, and some of the sectarian splits in -- in Iraq.  Looking at the preparations you're making for the upcoming elections, without going into operational details.

Are you more focused on the potential threat posed by IS sleeper cells, or is there a concern that there could be some -- some outbreak of violence during the election between Sunni and Shia factions?  And also I have a follow up, sir, afterwards.

COL. FOLSOM:  Yeah, I -- you know, that's a great question.  And I think the answer is, you know, D, all of the above.  What we're concerned about here -- I'll tell you what I'm concerned about is what my Iraqi partner is concerned about.

And that is safe, secure, free and fair elections.  And so what our roll in that is -- is -- it is 100 percent advising.  I've had -- I've had many sessions with my partner over many, many glasses of tea, where we've discussed his security plan.

And how he plans to secure the election centers here in Western Anbar, to guarantee that free, fair election.  And so there are -- you know there are different elements, there are different aspects out here that could -- that could upset that.

And I think the bigger concern that my partner has, is over any remnants of ISIS who -- who would be seeking to disrupt that process.  We've seen it in the past.  You know, elections are always a -- a magnet for anybody with a -- a -- you know a suicide vest and a dream.

And so that -- that's really what the goal is, is to ensure a -- the ISF have developed a plan that includes a layered defense of their polling stations in their districts, to ensure that the Anbaris that are going to the polls on May 12th feel safe and secure enough to do it.

Q:  Sir, thanks for that.  And the quick follow up, as part of that layered defense, are your Iraqi counterparts working any of the popular mobilization units, or any of their affiliates?

COL. FOLSOM:  Yeah, you know, the -- that -- that's a good question.  Here's the interesting thing about the PMF.  I -- I get a lot of questions about them.  I'll tell you that, you know, the -- the PMF, it's -- it's not a monolithic boogeyman.  You know, it's -- it's a -- it's a collection of -- of a lot of different groups.  Most of them played a critical role in -- in Iraq's liberation over the last couple of years.  We cannot deny that fact.

But you know, PMF, it -- it's also -- it's a matter for the -- the Iraqi government to address.  The PMF, it's, you know, they're -- they're constitutionally bound to operate at the prime minister's direction.  You know, and -- and, you know, probably more important, it's clear at this point that -- that the PMF is -- they're part of the enduring fabric of Iraq's national security apparatus.  So the most important thing that -- that my ISF partners can do is keep those lines of communication open, and remember that -- that they have a mutual goal, together with the PMF.  That's eliminating ISIS, and setting the conditions for a secure and stable Iraq in the future.

Q:  Thanks.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Last two.  Kristina Wong from Brietbart.

Q:  Thank you so much for doing this, Colonel.

In terms of what you've seen in rebuilding Anbar, and, you know, as far as electricity, infrastructure, basic services, demining, is it going fast enough?  Is it, you know, is -- is it going at a sufficient pace?  Are there funds to do this that you've seen?

COL. FOLSOM:  Yeah, thanks -- thanks for that.  You know, I don't think that it will ever go as fast as anybody would want it to.  I think in an ideal world, as soon as the guns go silent, everybody would sweep in.  The non-governmental organizations would sweep in, and USAID, and -- and there would be a massive, immediate rebuilding.  And it -- it just doesn't happen that way.  There's -- there's the way it ought to be, and there's the way it is. 

What I can tell you, though, is that -- is that stabilization, that rebuilding that we're talking about, that is -- that is one of the top concerns and the priorities for -- for not only my Iraqi partner and -- and his commanders, but also for the provincial leadership here in -- in Western Anbar. 

And so what we've done is we've begun to -- to formulate what we're calling the Regional Security Council here in this part of -- of al Anbar, and it's a -- it's a nascent council that -- that will begin meeting soon that's going to include senior leaders from the ISF who are responsible for this area, from -- senior leaders from the ministered interior, such as local police commanders.  It will also include local tribal leaders, and, you know, just as important is senior leaders of both the local government and the provincial government.

And the purpose of this Regional Security Council that we at the coalition, we're doing our work to help facilitate it, but we're not running it.  And so when there's this collection of leaders that are meeting here in Anbar, you know, the coalition, the advisers will be off to the side, doing what we think we do best, which is what we call "leading from behind." 

Meanwhile, the focus of that -- that Regional Security Council is for all those senior leaders in Anbar to identify the problems, identify the challenges, begin the open, honest and frank dialogue, and find a way to -- to solve -- find solutions to those problems and challenges.  So that -- that continued dialogue and that continued engagement, it's -- it's my assessment that that's -- that's the best way forward for al Anbar, which has seen so much death and destruction in the last three or four years, the best way for forward for our al Anbar to have a new future.

Q:   Thank you.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:   And, last question will go to Laurie Mylroie.

Q:   This is a follow up to that question.  Could you have an estimate of what percentage of the IDPs have returned to Anbar?

COL. FOLSOM:   You know, I don't have an exact percentage, but what I'll tell you is that they are returning more and more every day.  And, what we're seeing, in many instances, is we're seeing up to between 100 and 200 families a day that are returning.

So, what our assessment is, right now, is that there will be a sufficient number of returnees to Western Anbar before the elections and we are cautiously optimistic, if I can use that phrase, that those returnees -- those returning IDPs, will have the opportunity to participate in the May elections.

Q:   So, if people don't return home -- two parts to this question, one, can you give us any sense -- just rough, ballpark numbers, how many people have returned home and how many people remain displaced?  That's one part of it.

The second question for clarification, if you don't return to your home, you won't be able to vote in the elections?

COL. FOLSOM:   Yes, now that's an interesting challenge you're talking about.  You know, we believe right now that there are inherent challenges with census taking out here, clearly.  We believe, right now, that the numbers are close to about 20,000 who've returned, and that is from a pre-ISIS population of about 30,000, out in the very western part of al Anbar.

That's the area that we're tracking the closest right now for people that still need to return, out to the Al-Qa'im district.

The challenge that I just spoke about is where all the IDPs are who have not returned, and what we're seeing in some of the IDP camps throughout the country, is in many cases there has been unwillingness for a lot of these Iraqi residents to return to their hometowns and it's not difficult to understand why.

In a lot of cases, they don't have homes to return to, or they don't have families to return to, that's very hard for them to deal with.  Especially if they've been relocated to somewhere where they've been taken care of for the last couple of years.

So, it is certainly an effort by the government of Iraq to convince the IDPs in the camps to return to their home of record, and it's something that we're tracking closely.

Q:   If IDPs don't return to their home of record, will they be allowed to vote?

COL. FOLSOM:   You know, that's a good question, and I tell you, I'd have to defer that question to the government of Iraq.  I'm not entirely certain about what they're you know restrictions, or permissions, are on the voting.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:   Thank you, sir.  I think we're out of time at this point.  Sir, do you have any closing words for the group?

COL. FOLSOM:   I would simply say, first of all, I really appreciate everybody's time this morning.  You know, as I was talking about earlier, the men and women on my team have found this to be an incredibly gratifying mission.

What happened with ISIS here in Iraq, in the last years, has been terrible and there's been just an ungodly amount of suffering, and what's happening right now is an opportunity.  It's the opportunity for the ISF to rebuild itself, for the government of Iraq to continue forward, and for the people of Iraq to begin living in some semblance of safety and security, and normalcy.

So, it's been very gratifying for my team to play a small role in this, but really the most important thing is that, like I said, we are leading from behind here.  And, the ISF, you know, they are moving out and they're taking care of business every day, and our role was simply to help them fight and help them professionalize themselves, we're not here to do the fighting for them.

And, my sense, that with each passing week, the ISP is growing more confident in their abilities and they are indeed growing closer to eliminating the remnants of ISIS in Iraq.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:   Sir, thank you very much.  From all of us at the Pentagon, we wish you safety and success in your mission.