Department of Defense Press Briefing by Col. Dorrian via teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq
CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS: All right. We run the trains on time around here. It is 11 o’clock sharp. Good morning.
J.D., I want to make sure you can hear us and we can hear you.
COLONEL JOHN DORRIAN: I’ve got you loud and clear, Jeff. Thank you.
CAPT. DAVIS: Ladies and gentlemen, we’re pleased to be joined today by Colonel John Dorrian, coming to us live from Baghdad, the spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve.
J.D., we’ll turn it over to you for your opening comments.
COL.DORRIAN: Great. Thanks, Jeff.
Good morning, all. We’ll start in Syria and move on to Iraq.
The Syrian Democratic Forces continue their advance along two axes north and east of Raqqa. Our SDF partners on the ground have liberated more than 800 square kilometers and more than 100 villages since they began reclaiming and clearing the land to the east of Raqqa on February 4th.
We’re now seeing signs that ISIS fighters, its leaders in Raqqa, are beginning to feel the pressure. Specifically, they’re becoming increasingly paranoid. They’ve increased population control measures in Raqqa by seeking to remove or destroy televisions, searching houses for mobile phones and satellite dishes in order to maintain control of news and access to information about their losses.
These are not the actions of an enemy who feel they’re winning, and that’s because they’re not. We’re seeing reflections of pessimism among mid-level commanders and this world view is spreading to the rank-and-file fighters.
We’re also commonly seeing reports of ISIS arresting and executing their fighters who try to abandon the fight or are suspected of collaborating with forces trying to liberate areas that ISIS controls. We’re hearing typical reports that ISIS leaders understand their fate in Raqqa and they’re moving their own families out of Raqqa and into towns and villages in the countryside, even as they detain civilians who attempt to do the same.
Moving to Iraq, the Iraqi security forces have begun their advance into west Mosul with the Iraqi federal police advancing from the south and the Iraqi army advancing to their west, further isolating the enemy inside the city. Along the way, the ISF have encountered moderate resistance, which we expect to stiffen as they approach the more densely populated areas.
The ISF is moving through ISIS disruption zones, where they encounter indirect fire from ISIS mortars and artillery pieces, and small-arms fire from ISIS fighting positions. As of close of business yesterday, the coalition had destroyed 23 mortar and artillery pieces that the enemy would have used to complicate the ISF advance in the first three days of operations.
We used air and artillery strikes, including HIMARS, to take these enemy weapons off the battlefield. This sets conditions for the ISF to retake Mosul airport and then begin moving toward a more dense urban terrain. We do expect a very tough fight in west Mosul, but the area that ISIS controls around the city is shrinking steadily with each passing day.
Conditions have been set for ISIS’s defeat through their significant effort to reduce their command and control, their weapons, and their financial resources. As always, we take every opportunity that we can to remove ISIS leadership figures from the battlefield. I’m going to give you a quick update on some of the more recent ones around Mosul.
In Iraq, Haqqi Ismail Hamid al-Mmri, a Daesh terrorist leader, was killed by a coalition precision airstrike February 13th in Mosul. He’s a legacy al-Qaida Iraq member and had a leadership role in ISIS security networks in Mosul, further loosening the grip of ISIS on the population of the city. Al-Mmri’s death is the most recent of the coalition’s steady pressure on Daesh leaders in Mosul.
Since the beginning of 2017, our precision airstrikes have also remove Abu Abbas al-Quaryshi, a Daesh terrorist leader who coordinated the movement of VBIEDs and suicide bombers in Iraq, and Abdullah Sulaymani al-Jaburi, another Daesh leader responsible for anti-aircraft defense assets within Mosul.
Abu Abbas al-Quaryshi, a Daesh terrorist leader and nearly a dozen of his associates, were killed in the same coalition precision airstrike on January 12th in Mosul. The legacy al-Qaida Iraq operative coordinated and facilitated the movement of VBIEDs and suicide bombers around Iraq. He was involved in multiple high-profile and mass-casualty attacks, including attacks in Baghdad Province killing innocent civilians. The death of al-Quaryshi will degrade Daesh’s operations in Baghdad Province and disrupt the facilitation of VBIEDs and suicide bombers inside Iraq. Because of his extensive connections, it will be difficult for the terrorist group to replace him in their command structure.
And finally, Abdullah Sulaymani al-Jaburi, a Daesh terrorist leader responsible for the group’s anti-aircraft defense assets within Mosul, was killed by a coalition precision airstrike January 4th in Mosul. His death will degrade Daesh’s ability to defend the extremist control of Mosul from the coalition’s persistent airstrikes on their leaders and their — and the advancing Iraqi security force’s liberation of the city.
With that, I’ll be delighted to take your questions.
CAPT. DAVIS: I know everyone’s going to want to know how to spell those. Adrian, we’ll put the — we’ll pin the rose on you for that, you’ll have the spellings for everybody after this.
We’ll start with Bob Burns from the Associated Press.
Q: Thank you.
Colonel Dorrian, could you give us a description of what’s happening out west of Mosul in the Tal Afar area where Shiite militias are operating? And could you say to what extent, if any extent, they are coordinating their operations, the Shiite militias, with the Iraqi government or U.S. support for the operations in Mosul?
COL. DORRIAN: Yeah, Bob, the militia groups, the Popular Mobilization Forces that are operating on the west side of the city, they continue to hold the territory that is in that part of the western area there. And what that does is it blocks the enemy from being able to egress the city of Mosul and move into places like Tal Afar and toward the Syrian border.
So we are not coordinating directly with them, we’re coordinating with the government of Iraq. The government of Iraq, however, does provide direction to the Popular Mobilization Forces that are operating in that area. We don’t coordinate directly with them, the government of Iraq does.
Q: Follow-up question on that. Is — could you talk a little bit more about the Tal Afar area, what’s going on there? I mean, that city is held by Daesh, right? And how is that developing in terms of the advancement on — on Tal Afar?
COL. DORRIAN: Yeah, Bob, the — you are correct that Tal Afar is largely Daesh-held. That territory will be cleared as a — you know, later. Right now, the priority is to liberate Mosul. So the Popular Mobilization Forces that are operating in the vicinity of Tal Afar have not entered the city and where we are right now is — the main effort is to isolate the remaining enemy remnants in the west part of Mosul and then they’ll be in a position where they either surrender or they’re going to be killed there.
Q: Thank you.
CAPT. DAVIS: Phil Stewart from Reuters
Q: Hey there, colonel. Good to see you. So two things, have you seen any evidence of Iranian commanders on the battlefield in recent days? And if so, what detail could you provide?
And secondly, I wanted to ask you a bit about the — the issue of having more troops. I know that General Votel had mentioned that as an option. What are the pros and cons of — I know that General Townsend — I think General Townsend had mentioned by, with and through during the visit by Secretary Mattis. What are the pros and cons of having U.S. forces substitute roles for local ground forces in Iraq or Syria?
COL. DORRIAN: Phil, we’ve — we’ve not seen a significant number of Iranian military personnel. Again, our cooperation, our advice and assistance when we’re present with forces in the field that is with Iraqi forces. So, I’m not aware of any significant Iranian presence, although, I do know that, you know, some of the groups that are operating in the west do have ties with Iran.
COL. DORRIAN: All these things are the purview of the government of Iraq, and, you know, our position is that every entity that’s fighting Daesh in Iraq should be doing so in cooperation with and with the permission of the government of Iraq. So, I’m not aware of any significant presence there, but that fundamental principle we do all of our operations in cooperation with the government of Iraq and our expectation is that others would as well.
With regard to more troops, one of the things that General Townsend’s been very clear on is that we’re working by, with and through the Iraqi Security Forces in Iraq and then our partners in Syria. And that fundamental principle isn’t going to change. So, at different times when more forces are required in order to execute various tasks, for example, additional troops were brought in for some of the high level tasks that would be required to liberate Mosul, then General Townsend goes through the chain of command to ask for them.
Those are considered by General Votel and then the request goes to the secretary of defense and ultimately the president for approval. We have — we’ve done that a number of times. General Townsend’s been very clear that if he needs additional capabilities, requirements or authorities that he will request those through the chain of command. And he expects that we’ll continue to be supported.
Q: Will it be for high-end capabilities end then that — that — that he would seek more U.S. forces?
COL. DORRIAN: You broke up just a little bit. You’re asking high-end capabilities — I — I only caught a part of the question.
Q: If I understood you correctly, you had said that it would only be for high-end capabilities then that — that — that you would seek additional U.S. forces. Is that correct?
COL.DORRIAN: No, let me — let me clarify that point. We’ll ask for anything that we need.
And we’ll do so through the chain of command. But what — what I would say, though, is that as we — we take on some of the tasks that need to be done here, if we need something else, we’re going to ask for it.
You know, leading up to the — the — the Mosul campaign, we brought in additional advisers, we brought in additional security and we brought in additional forward air controllers. So, all those types of capabilities we’ll ask for anything that we think we need and that will be done through the chain of command.
I don’t want to speculate as to what we’re going to ask for or what the status is on any ongoing asks because I don’t get deep inside into that until decisions are made and it comes back out the other end and then there’s an announcement made. So, to be clear, where we are now is the things that we’ve — that we need, we’ve asked for them and received them.
And we do have with the president a — a executive order to go back and take about 30 days and deliver to him options to accelerate the campaign. We’ve provided our input to General Votel. And General Votel, my understanding, has provided those to the chain of command. So at this point, where we are with that is we’re awaiting decisions and then I’m sure there will be a Washington-based announcement when those decisions are made.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. Next we’ll go Tara Copp with Stars and Stripes.
Q: Hi, Colonel Dorrian.
Just to follow on Phil’s question, General Votel seemed to indicate in the piece in The New York Times that the U.S. is considering additional forces, specifically for Syria to advance the Raqqa fight. If I hear you correctly on Mosul, pushing towards Mosul is what precipitated needing additional forces in Iraq. So is it, I guess, accurate to understand that the same request would be made for Syria?
COL. DORRIAN: Yeah, as far as what the content of any request would be, I’ve seen the reports of General Votel’s comments. I don’t have anything to add to them, I think you probably should follow those up with CENTCOM or with the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Q: Okay. And then separately, could you give us a breakdown of the 450 U.S. forces that are currently with ISF? We understand that that’s a separate number than the number of special forces that are with CTS. So could you breakdown what the 450 is, their roles? Are there special forces there? What does that include?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, with regard to the 450, those are advisers at every level of command all over Iraq. We don’t do a breakdown to each localized region or within each specialty, so I’m afraid I’m not able to give you more fidelity on that.
What I would say is that our adviser teams have a variety of capabilities and that depends where they are. They have experts in infantry, they have security people, they have intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, they have forward air controllers. All of those capabilities reside with our advisers. And then certainly, we have experts in infantry and tactics and that sort of thing.
So all those types of capabilities reside with our advisory teams and those are distributed throughout Iraq.
Q: Just one quick follow. Would it be accurate to say that the lion’s share of the 450 are still made of special forces or is it more conventional forces?
COL. DORRIAN: No, it’s 450 conventional.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next, we’ll go to Ryan Browne from CNN.
(Inaudible) — audio there. Can you just try to say that again for us, J.D.?
COL. DORRIAN: Yup. I was just saying with regard to what our special operations forces are doing, we don’t do a deep dive on that, what their specific locations are and exactly what they’re doing at any given time. That’s just a longstanding policy. We’re not gonna get into that.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. We’ll go to Ryan Browne from CNN.
Q: Hello, colonel. Thank you for doing this.
Just a quick follow-up on that last exchange. You said that 450 advisers at every level in Iraq of conventional forces. So of the 5,000-odd U.S. forces in Iraq, only 450 are performing advisory function? Is that correct?
COL. DORRIAN: Yeah, that’s correct.
Q: Thank you. And on the idea of high-level tasks that we were talking about earlier, my understanding with the SDF’s move on Raqqa, the goal is to actually have local forces kind of — entering the city, breaking the city’s defenses.
So can you talk a little bit about what capability gaps that local force might have compared to the ISF, which, you know, we’ve equipped with artillery and has their own aircraft, and you know, can do combined arms operations? I mean is this a really relatively fresh, locally generated force expecting to achieve a similar tactical objective in Raqqa compared to Mosul? So could you kind of talk a little bit about what capability gaps might exist there?
COL. DORRIAN: You know what? As far as capability gaps, I don’t think I want to get too deeply into that. I’ve seen General Votel’s comments on that and I think I don’t have anything to add. I would say that to date what we’re doing is we’re providing small arms, ammunition, supplies, and equipment to the Syrian Arab Coalition. This is the Arab element of the SDF. And that’s the extent of what capabilities that they have from us.
And so that’s really about all I can give you right now.
Q: And on the Iraq side, we’re providing a full spectrum of capabilities, correct? I mean, can you just — that small arms compared to what we’re providing the Iraqis I guess would be artillery and things of that nature?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, we have capabilities that we provide the Iraqis. And they also have capabilities that they purchase for themselves, you know, through foreign military sales. So the Iraqi Security Forces have a burgeoning air force. They have 14 F-16s and they’re going to have several more. So that’s about the highest-end capability that you can get in this area. And I think it’s, you know, certainly something they’ve brought to bear to great effect in the operations over Mosul.
You know, last month I believe they dropped 95 munitions in Mosul. And they’ve, you know, gotten increasingly capable. They also have artillery. They have armor. They have armored vehicles. And they have heavy equipment. These are all the types of things that they’ve brought to bear in the earlier liberation battles, and continue to use as they go into Mosul.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next, Courtney Kube from NBC News.
Q: Hey, J.D., one quick clarification from your opening statement. One of the leaders that you mentioned, I think it was the last guy — I didn’t write any of their names down, sorry — you said was involved in anti-aircraft in Mosul. What kind of anti-aircraft weapons does ISIS have in Mosul?
COL. DORRIAN: You know, they have small aircraft anti-aircraft artillery pieces. As far as the breakdown of what those are, I don’t have that. But they do have the capability to threaten aircraft that are low to the ground; not a tremendous number of them. But when they’re found, certainly we’re going to eliminate a threat like that because that’s a significant threat. We’re not going to allow something like that to exist anywhere on the battlefield where a capability like that’s found.
Q: And then, you also mentioned some HIMARS that were used, I think, for Southwest Mosul. Does the U.S. have HIMARS inside of Mosul that are operating inside of Mosul right now?
COL. DORRIAN: No, we don’t. Our HIMARS are operating at various locations around Iraq and certainly well within distance of being able to fire into Mosul with a tremendous amount of precision. This is a capability with GPS-aided munitions that they’re really able to strike targets with a tremendous amount of accuracy and very little collateral damage.
So, it’s a — a key capability, something that is one of the accelerants that over the past several months has been brought in to Iraq in order to get the campaign with a capability that’s for precision strike as we got ready to go into Mosul, so. It’s — it’s a really good capability for us to have.
Q: And then, my real question is about some media reports yesterday about a guy who blew himself up allegedly in Mosul named Abu Zakariya al-Britani. He was apparently a detainee at Guantanamo until about 15 years ago or 12 years ago when he was released. Do you — do you have any confirmation that he was in fact — that he killed himself in a suicide bomb in Southwest Mosul?
Do you know anything about it? Do you know if it was in fact the same guy who was a detainee at Gitmo?
COL. DORRIAN: You know what, Courtney? I’m afraid I don’t. We received the same reports that you did, saw those in open press and we asked those questions, but we — we’re unable to confirm at this point. We don’t have any information indicating that individual was a Gitmo detainee. So, you know, if we get anything new, new information, by all means, we’ll share it but I don’t have anything for that.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay, and next to Laurie Mylroie with Kurdistan 24.
Q: Hi, Colonel Dorrian. I got two questions. One is that, U.S. authorities have begun to talk about a longer term presence in Iraq to keep this Islamic radicalism at bay, defeat it after, you know, so it doesn’t come back after ISIS is defeated. Moqtada al-Sadr has said this will be a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and he will oppose it. Does that concern you?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, any presence that the United States or any coalition nation has in Iraq right now is — we’re going to work these through the coalition and we’ve been invited here to help them defeat Daesh. So, the presence of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq is something that the government of Iraq is well aware of, approved, supports. And right now the — they are quite pleased to have us involved in helping them liberate Mosul.
What the — their decision will be in the future is a matter for the government of Iraq and certainly, you know, we’ll examine that with them and — and figure out what the best way forward is. Speaking as a U.S. officer, I would say we do have a strategic partnership agreement between our two countries and the security element of that is something that will exist for as long as the Iraqis want it to exist. There was a recent announcement on that by the vice president. He confirmed that we have a strategic partnership agreement and we’ll just have to let that play out.
In the meantime right now, we’re focused on defeating an enemy that’s an existential threat to Iraq and Syria and threatens every peace loving nation in the world. I think we’ll work on that task first and then worry about what the long term presence will be once that task is done.
Q: Thank you. And my second question involves the casualties and medical issues that are coming out of the Mosul offensive. And last week the Erbil Health Directorate reported that this was putting tremendous strains on — on local facilities that most of the wounded by the Mosul offensive get treated in their bill. There’s a shortage of — of medicines, as a result.
Is that an issue that you’re addressing?
COL. DORRIAN: Yeah, these are — these are matters for the government of Iraq to address. There is a tremendous outpouring of international support to help them deal with the — the challenges of liberating Daesh, liberating the country from Daesh and all of the medical problems that are created by this dangerous enemy.
The coalition — many of the coalition nations do provide capabilities, but that’s not something that works through the military end of it, really. That’s more of an international aid effort.
So I think probably, the U.N. and many of the non-government organizations that are operating in Iraq would have more information and insight on all that. I know that there are a number of them here, they’re doing an incredibly good job of taking care of people but its something that the capacity of the international community is gonna be challenged because the fight to liberate Mosul and all the rest of Iraq from this enemy is certainly something that’s taking its toll.
Q: The Erbil Health Directorate report said that Iraq is not coming through, in providing the aid and — and medicine and medical supplies that Erbil needs. And is it these international organizations that should be addressing the problem, then, rather than you?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, as I said, any nation on Earth that had an enemy like ISIL setting up shop in their country is gonna struggle with capacity issues to keep up with all the people that they’re murdering, raping, killing, injuring, harming. So the government of Iraq is working this very hard, as is the international community. And they’ll continue to do so.
CAPT. DAVIS: Kasim Ileri with Anadolu News Agency.
Q: Hey, John, hi.
Last week, some reports came out of Turkey saying that in his meeting with General Dunford, Turkey’s general chief of staff, General Akar has offered two options for contribution, about contribution of Turkey to Raqqa operation.
One was, inserting forces through Tel Abiad down to Raqqa, the other was moving over through Manbij to help coalition retaking Raqqa from ISIS. Has anything about this come down to your level, at this time?
COL. DORRIAN: At this — at this point, I don’t have any details to offer with regard to those ongoing discussions. Certainly for many weeks now, we’ve been saying that there were ongoing discussions at a military-to-military and at political levels between the United States, many of the — the coalition nations and — and Turkey.
They have been a key partner in Syria, they’re a long time NATO ally and have done an incredible job of reducing the enemy’s capabilities and their ability to threaten the world by moving up through Syria and into Turkey and then onward into Europe. They’ve done an incredible job of mitigating that threat. And this is something that we’re — we’re very thankful to have.
As far as details on the way ahead with regard to their involvement, I don’t have any new details to offer. I’m aware of the reports that you’ve seen there.
Q: And also, you said that you have already submitted your assessment about the 30-day review and then the plan to accelerate the fight against ISIS. Is there — I don’t — I’m not asking about specifics of course, but can you say that there is — you know, you have an assessment about the role of Turkey in Syria, particularly in Raqqa, in your assessment that you have submitted to General Votel?
COL. DORRIAN: No, at — at this point, I do not. No, I don’t.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next up, the gentlemen here.
Q: Ragip Soylu with Daily Sabah.
Colonel, I have a question on al-Bab. What is the coalition’s assessment on the situation al-Bab? For example, what percentage of the city is liberated currently?
COL. DORRIAN: Yeah, we’re aware that Turkish forces — Turkish partner — and their partner forces have entered the city of al-Bab. There’s extraordinarily difficult fighting there. The enemy still has a significant number of fighters and it doesn’t take very many when they’ve had the opportunity to dig the fighting positions and create the capabilities that they have with regard to vehicle-born improvised explosive devices.
And then all the indirect fire and things like that that they’ve been doing for quite some time. So, it’s a very difficult fight there. The coalition has continued conducting strikes to eliminate threats from the battlefield for the Turkish forces and their partners there, but this is something that — it’s just a very difficult ongoing fight.
Q: Second question, would you please tell us whether any U.S. soldier embedded in Turkish-backed forces in northern Syria are providing assistance?
COL. DORRIAN: The — the question was are there any U.S. special forces in northern Turkey? Is that the question?
Q: In northern Syria embedded with Turkish forces.
COL. DORRIAN: Yeah, as far as what forces we have there, we do have about 500 U.S. forces in Turkey. Those are — a good, significant portion of them are special operations forces, but we do have some support forces there to assist them with various tasks. That’s — that’s what we have there.
We don’t really do any further breakdown about what their whereabouts are or anything like that. I hope that answers your question.
CAPT. DAVIS: I want to make — just to clarify here, I think you said 500 troops in Turkey. I think you meant 500 troops in Syria. Is that right?
COL. DORRIAN: I apologize. You have 500 in Syria. I’m sorry.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next, we’ll go with Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News.
Q: Colonel, you mentioned earlier that you had not seen a significant number of Iranian personnel inside Iraq, around Mosul. How many are we talking here?
COL. DORRIAN: Yeah, Lucas, I didn’t say there were a significant number. I am not aware — I’m not aware of any interaction. I have heard anecdotally that there is some Iranian influence with some of the groups that are present in the west of Mosul, but I don’t have any idea how many there are there.
Q: Are you concerned that as ISIS is defeated in Iraq, Iran’s influence inside Iraq grows?
COL. DORRIAN: I think that would be speculative in nature. So I don’t know — I don’t know what their influence will be once Daesh is defeated.
Q: Is there any concern in the coalition that even the potential for more U.S. troops going into Iraq and Syria would bring more foreign fighters to those two countries?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, I think that would be speculative in nature because, first off, as far as the number of fighters that we have here, I can neither confirm nor deny whether we’ve been asked to increase the number, so I don’t really even want to touch that question because it’s just pure speculation.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. Next, Paul Shinkman with U.S. News.
Q: Yeah, hi, colonel. Just to follow up again on the 450 number. Can you tell us what — so is it safe to say that the others of the 5,000 Americans in Iraq are in a support role? They’re doing force protection and that kind of thing?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, we have — we have people here that are artillery. We have security. We have headquarters staff, people like me. You know, all those types of people — we have transportation, explosive ordnance, disposal — just pretty much every type of capability that you need to sustain a force and to provide our advice and assistance is present here.
Q: Do they have the capacity to support more advisers if there were to be more advisers in Iraq? Would there need to be proportionately more of these forces to support them?
COL. DORRIAN: That’s a — it’s a speculative question. If we need capabilities, we’ll ask for them, and we’ll ask for everything that we need to support them. But we don’t — you know, I’m not going to speculate as to whether we could use more and what we would need in order to have more. It’s just pure speculation.
Q: And just a follow-up on the casualties in Mosul, can you give us some sense of what those rates are looking like right now for the Iraqi Security Forces? Are they fairly steady? Have they been increasing as the conflict there has gone on?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, you know, the Iraqi Security Forces don’t release casualty figures. I can tell you now, they’re experiencing light to moderate resistance because they’re outside the city. We would expect that the fighting would be much tougher as they move into the city.
Right now, they’re — they’re moving from south to north and they’ve approached an area that overlooks the Mosul International Airport and that, we would expect, would be one of the things that would go next.
Q: And just lastly, can you — can you say what forces are sustaining the most casualties? Is it still largely the counterterrorism forces or the — are conventional forces also taking a lot of casualties?
COL. DORRIAN: No. I cannot and I will not.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next, TM Gibbons-Neff, with the Washington Post.
Q: Thanks, colonel.
Talking about civilian casualties, there’s been some reports out about coalition strikes in January around Raqqa and Mosul that civilian causality claims have surpassed those of Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria.
Can you comment on that? And then, moving on to west Mosul, the density of the — the urban terrain? And I’m wondering if the coalition, by pushing advisers to lower levels, whether that — those be forward air controllers JTACs, that you’re changing your approach to airstrikes, whether that be a process or a collateral damage assessment?
COL. DORRIAN: Okay. Well, with regard to civilian causalities, our record speaks for itself. We only use precision guided munitions. We coordinate every single strike with the government of Iraq. We put a tremendous amount of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities on targets and we develop them very carefully and do that coordination very deliberately before we strike.
And we’ve done, I think, a pretty remarkable job. It’s probably the most — well, it is without question, the most precise air campaign that’s ever been done. But even with all of that, there are civilians on the battlefield and there are instances where unfortunately, civilians are killed.
So we’ve done a very laudable job with regard to doing everything that we can to reduce civilian casualties and collateral damage and we will continue to do to so. The government of Iraq has made clear that the protection of civilians is a centerpiece and a fundamental principle of their campaign. We agree a thousand percent with that, because the — the manner in which Mosul is liberated is just as important as its liberation. So we’re gonna do everything we can to protect civilians, just like the Iraqi Security Forces have done. And that’s really about all there is to that.
With regard to, the urban terrain and our JTACs, certainly, whenever you’re operating an urban terrain, one of the things that you have to be mindful of is that when you’re conducting airstrikes, that’s going to affect a lot of different things that affect the manner of which those airstrikes are done.
So all the discussion that I had to avoid civilian causalities, all those things we will continue to sustain. But whenever you’re in dense urban terrain, a lot of the time we’ll make adjustments in the types of munitions, the fusing on the munitions, the size of the munitions that we use, in order to make sure that its only Daesh fighters who are being killed.
We’ll do everything that we can to make sure that the enemy is targeted with a tremendous amount of precision. So, we’ll continue to do that throughout the campaign in the western part of Mosul.
One of the things that we do in order to do that is to use joint terminal attack controllers, people on the ground that are a part of the advise and assist teams. And they have the ability to call in airstrikes with a tremendous amount of precision and to do so in a manner that’s very responsive, probably more responsive than by doing that in some of the strike cells.
So, these — these JTACs are empowered when the commander on the ground directs it, and they have the ability to observe targets properly and to target things properly. They have the ability to call in strikes as well. And this is something that maintains a very high level of precision, but it also increases the amount of responsiveness for the — the teams on the ground so they can call in fires a little bit more efficiently.
Q: I’m just going to follow up on that. So to me, that says that you have JTACs at the tactical level as in there — right there next to their Iraqi counterparts who are taking fire, so they can eyes both on the target and the aircraft when it releases munition. Is that correct?
COL. DORRIAN: There are instances where that’s the case. It’s not in all instances, but yes, you are correct. We are doing that.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. Next to Jim Michaels with USA Today.
Q: Colonel, just coming back to Syria for a moment.
COL. DORRIAN: If I could, just a quick second. If I could just go ahead and make sure that I’m clarifying that point properly. The joint terminal attack controllers are forward air controllers. They are not doing direct action where they are on the front — front lines. They are still with those command elements.
And so I wanted to make that piece abundantly clear. We — our forces that are doing those types of tasks are a part of the advisory — advice and assistance teams. And they are not the main effort. They are not doing the fighting for the Iraqis. They’re supporting the Iraqis as they do the fighting.
So, sorry to add that on, but I just wanted to make sure that we’re very clear on that point.
Q: I don’t understand. (inaudible) — he explain how both things are true? How is it — could he just elaborate a little more?
COL. DORRIAN: I didn’t hear any of that.
CAPT. DAVIS: He asked for more elaboration on that and —
Q: He said they were down — at first, he said they were down — (inaudible) — in the very front lines with the troops on the ground. Then he said that they were with — only with the command elements. Is it — how — can you just reconcile those two statements?
COL. DORRIAN: What I’m saying is those forces are a part of the advice and assistance teams, and the advice and assistance teams stay with the — the command elements. And so there are various levels of command. There’s division, brigade, battalion level. That is — they are with the commanders making those calls and the commander — the senior U.S. person on the ground is the one who’s authorized to work with them and make that call.
Q: So are the command elements watching then? Are the command elements forward then? Is that what you’re telling us? Because I think TM, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think he specifically asked whether these JTACs were forward and actually watching the aircraft, and they were — they were watching the aircraft and ammunitions and the targets. So are the command elements forward and that’s who they’re with?
COL. DORRIAN: Okay. I think I might have just lost audio. I’m gonna go ahead and try to answer that in case you can hear me. What I’m telling you is somebody in the U.S. forces that are acting as advisers is in charge, the senior person on the ground. And that is the person that can tell the Iraqi — or the forward air controller can authorize that person to release weapons.
Q: Can you hear us?
CAPT. DAVIS: We can still hear you loud and clear.
COL. DORRIAN: I’ve got nothing.
CAPT. DAVIS: We hear you loud and clear.
COL. DORRIAN: (Off mic)
CAPT. DAVIS: One, two, three, three, two, one.
COL. DORRIAN: Okay. Can somebody talk to me? I think I can hear you now.
CAPT. DAVIS: We can hear you.
Can you hear us? We hear you just fine.
COL. DORRIAN: Okay, we’re back on. Very good. I’ve got you loud and clear. So I answered a question, I’m not sure whether you heard me.
CAPT. DAVIS: Well, let’s make sure this answered to your satisfaction.
Courtney, I think — go ahead.
Q: JD, I think there’s just confusion here because I think TM specifically asked about whether these JTACs are forward and are actually — have eyes on their targets and the aircraft. And I think it was all of our impression that you said that’s the case, but then they’re back with the not on the front lines and they’re with the command element.
So are the command elements actually forward and they’re actually able to see the targeting? I mean, are we — is this just like a language thing here?
COL. DORRIAN: (inaudible) — command elements — I think it is. Command elements are close enough to direct the battle. So I don’t want to give you the impression they’re far removed from the front. They’re not are removed from the front, they’re very close to the front, close enough to observe what’s going on and provide good advice and assistance. So the forward air controllers are with those elements very close to the front, providing that capability to the commanders on the ground.
CAPT. DAVIS: All right. Next to Luis — I’m sorry, were you done, Jim? He’s had a multi-part question he wasn’t done with.
Q: Yeah, just a — (inaudible) — follow on that. Is this new FAC capability that’s resident in the advise and assist mission, is that a new capability?
COL. DORRIAN: No. No, that is a capability that’s existed in advise and assist teams throughout the campaign in Mosul.
Q: And then, onto Syria. Are there any indications that the Syrian regime forces are moving closer to Raqqa? Or are they basically holding in their positions outside the city?
COL. DORRIAN: Yeah, we’ve not seen Syrian regime forces moving toward Raqqa. They are operating in areas around Palmyra. They’re operating in areas near al-Bab. And then other — other areas around Syria.
CAPT. DAVIS: And to Luis Martinez with ABC News.
Q: John, a couple of follow ups.
Are you talking — when you talk about these command elements, are you referring to the special operations advise and assist teams, or more these conventional forces that you were talking about earlier? And does that mean that you now have advisers down below the brigade level, at — at the battalion level? We only heard about one occurrence before that, you say it’s now more common.
COL. DORRIAN: Well, I’m not going to get into the details of where our special operations forces are and what their capabilities are. What I’m talking about there is our conventional forces. And they’re operating at every level including division, brigade and battalion level at times.
It’s more common at the higher levels, but this is a capability and it’s an authority that General Townsend has had. He said from his first Pentagon press brief that when he needed to have them at a lower level that he would do so. And that is something that we routinely do.
Q: And then, if I could go back to the concept of the battle for Mosul being difficult. What’s your estimate of how many ISIS fighters there are still in western Mosul? And what indicators do you see that the fight there is going to be tougher than potentially it was in eastern Mosul?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, you know what, I’ve — I’ve heard estimates as low as a thousand and as high as 3,000 on the west side of Mosul. I think what we have to do is let the Iraqi Security Forces get in there and begin clearing areas. And I think it will become clear relatively quickly.
We do expect it to be a very tough fight because the very narrow areas, the very narrow streets in some parts of the city, the ancient parts of the city, are going to make for a very tough going. That means you probably — the Iraqi Security Forces won’t be able to go in there with vehicles.
But at the same time, the enemy won’t be able to move vehicle-born improvised explosive devices, which was their weapon of choice on the eastern side into those areas. So, we’ll — we’ll let the Iraqis go in there and we’ll assist them and advise them and provide our strikes and intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance as they go.
We do expect it to be an extraordinarily difficult fight. The enemy has not given up. They are, in some cases, demoralized. And we do see situations where they’ve conscripted fighters or that they’ve either executed or punished fighters who don’t want to do what they’ve been told to do by the ISIL leadership.
This is something that we expect to see continue as the enemy continues to lose territory and fighters and resources. But it’s going to take some time. And just like there were 100,000 — or excuse me, yeah, about 100,000 buildings on the eastern side of Mosul, there’s probably well over 100,000 on the western side over a more compressed area.
So this puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the Iraqi security forces as they advance into the city because these buildings have to be cleared from rooftop level through every room, every closet, all the way down to ground level, including the tunnels that get dug between buildings. It’s very, very dangerous and tedious, and the Iraqi security forces have done a really good job of protecting civilians as they’ve conducted those clearing operations and that’s something we expect them to continue.
Q: Thank you.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. A follow-up to Tara Copp.
Q: All right, real quick on the Iraqi F-16s. There are 14 total F-16s in the Iraqi air force at present or is that just 14 that are active in the Mosul campaign?
COL. DORRIAN: That’s 14 that they have so far. They’ll have over 30 by the time they get all the ones that they intend to purchase. That’s just how many they have right now.
Q: And then given the —
COL. DORRIAN: — daily basis, to very good effect.
Q: Could you repeat that last part please? We didn’t catch it.
COL. DORRIAN: I was gonna say and they are flying them everyday to very good effect.
Q: Given the sensitivities for civilian casualties and the tighter fight in western Mosul, are the Iraqi F-16s going to be used in part of the airstrikes there? Are the U.S. forward air controllers actually working with these Iraqi F-16s in the fight for western Mosul?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, the — the Iraqis are increasingly capable. They have the ability to target with precision, just like our — our fighter pilots do.
I was speaking with one of our commanders that works closely with the Iraqi air force and the advisers who help them conduct their operations, and what I’m hearing is that they’re very capable of hitting the targets that they intend to hit. They are targeting with precision inside Mosul and doing a very good job. So they — they will, you know, continue to be very capable.
The Iraqis have their own ability to call in airstrikes, and so, you know, they also have forward air controllers.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay and — I’m sorry, sir, in the back.
Q: Mark Irons, EWTN News Nightly.
Colonel, can you update us on the humanitarian efforts that are taking place in this operation? In particular, what is being done to help persecuted Christians?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, you know what, what I would say is that that task, what we are here to do is to assist the Iraqi security forces in defeating ISIL and ISIL is probably the number one persecutor of anyone that doesn’t follow their ideology, including Christians. So that is probably what the coalition military force role is in that.
We’re helping the Iraqi security forces to defeat this enemy that threatens every single person in Iraq who’s not a part of their movement and a part of their twisted ideology.
So that — that’s — that’s what our role is.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. Barbara?
Q: Colonel Dorrian, going back to the U.S. troops that at times are moving closer to the front lines, can you tell us — and I’m not asking specifics, I only am asking — have any of them come under fire or have any of them been wounded?
COL. DORRIAN: Barb, they have come under fire at different times, our forces that have — that have been in Mosul and other places around Iraq. Yes, they have been under fire at different times. What I would tell you, though, is that they are directed to try and be positioned where that is a rarity and unlikely to occur. Sometimes, it will happen. And believe me, our forces are quite capable of defending themselves and they will do so very, very robustly, but that is not the intent for them to have to do that.
We’re doing the best we can to help them provide their advice and assistance, but not become the main effort or get involved in fighting the enemy for our partners. Our partners are fighting the enemy and we’re supporting them with our advice and assistance. That’s the way this is supposed to work.
Q: If I could ask you to be specific, because you said “Mosul and other places.” At the moment, I’m only really asking about the U.S. troops that have occasionally now gone further forward to the front, closer to the front in Mosul. And this is a very recent event, so — that this has happened.
So, can you tell us, just to make sure I’m absolutely clear on what you’re saying, they have come under fire. They have engaged in returning fire. Can you tell us how many times, again in this effort to get closer in Mosul? And have any of them been wounded?
COL. DORRIAN: Wow, we’re really unpacking — unpacking the questions, Barb.
They have — they have come under fire at different times. They have returned fire at different times in and around Mosul. That has happened at different times. I don’t have a number of times that that has happened. I don’t know that I could provide one if I did know it. And then we — we do not brief wounded in action. So we don’t release information on that. That would give enemy real-time battle damage and we’re just not going to get into that kind of insight.
I understand those figures are later available through the Department of Defense, but that’s not something that we’re going to do and get into the business of from here in real time or near real time.
Q: So they’ve been in combat operations, although that was not the intent. They have been in combat now.
COL. DORRIAN: Barb, absolutely. Yes, I mean, that’s — when someone is shooting at you, that is combat. Yes, that has happened.
Q: (inaudible) — in Mosul as well, right? (inaudible)
Q: Yes, can we get Phil’s clarification?
COL. DORRIAN: It is not the intent. The intent is to stay away from the front.
Q: (inaudible) — Phil’s clarification please?
CAPT. DAVIS: I think they’re asking you, J.D., if there was — if there are U.S. troops in western Mosul?
Q: No, no, if the — if the — what he was saying about people being involved in combat (inaudible) and returning fire.
Q: So they would have to be in western Mosul to be able to fire at western Mosul, right? So I think that’s a pretty easy one.
COL. DORRIAN: You know what, there were several people talking at one time there and I — I didn’t really get exactly what the question is.
CAPT. DAVIS: Have U.S. troops come under fire in western Mosul?
COL. DORRIAN: I would have to — I would have to check that. I don’t have anything from operational reporting on that, at this time.
CAPT. DAVIS: Yeah, I’m sorry, we’re well over an hour folks.
Q: I said one more follow-up. This is to TM’s earlier question about the civilian casualties in Raqqa. I think it was Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Air Wars who put those numbers out. They said it was 91 civilians killed by U.S. and coalition strikes in January and 48 by Russians in the same time frame.
I know you guys, the numbers tend to lag, but given it’s the end of February, can you give us any sense if — if you’re even moving in the direction that that might be correct? And it might look like there was an unusually high number of civilian casualties by U.S. and coalition in January.
COL. DORRIAN: You know what, I — I just can’t get ahead of our — our reporting and our investigations. I think what we’ll have to do is just compile our reports. We’ll keep them and continue to be very transparent about releasing information once it’s available.
One of the things about this is they’re — they’re — the investigations that we conduct sometimes take some time. And so there’s a little bit of latency in the reporting. So I think it would be pure conjecture on my part if I were to opine one way or the other.
I think what we’ll do is, we’ll just owe you that report when its time to do that at the beginning of the month and — and just to do it that way.
Q: (Off mic) if I ask one more question in this briefing, I’m gonna call it an exclusive interview with NBC News, just saying.
Thank you. I’m just kidding.
CAPT. DAVIS: Hey, J.D., we’re sorry we’ve kept you late and I hope you didn’t miss dinner as a result. Thank you for your time and we look forward to seeing you again, soon.
COL. DORRIAN: Thanks very much, Jeff.