Office of the Spokesperson
Senior State Department Official
May 20, 2015
MODERATOR: Hello. Good morning, everybody. So just to keep introductions short, this discussion will be on background, so senior – senior State Department official – sorry. Of course, you all know [Senior State Department Official], but from here on out, it’s senior State Department official. And we’ll let [Senior State Department Official] say a few words to start, and we’ve got about 30 minutes so we’ll try to get to questions right away. With that, [Senior State Department Official], I’ll hand it over to you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I thought I’d just go through an opening briefing. I want to talk about Ramadi, what happened in Ramadi. I want to talk about the Iraqi security response, the political response, and what we’re seeing from the coalition and the response.
First on Ramadi, I think it’s important to remember that ISIL first moved in to Ramadi in force on January 1st, 2014, so that was six months before Mosul. The city has been contested for 18 months. Half the city had been under control of ISIL for some time. You might remember Fallujah fell immediately in January of 2014. The Iraqis have been fighting in Ramadi constantly for 18 months, and it was a very vicious, bloody fight. They suffered thousands of casualties over these 18 months.
Our assessment of ISIL all the way back last summer – well, and we’ve said this publicly – is that ISIL as an organization is better in every respect than its predecessor of AQI; it’s better manned, it’s better resourced, they have better fighters, they’re more experienced. And we know what it took for us, the best military in the world, to get a handle on AQI, so I think that also puts things in a little bit of context.
We’ve been working with the Iraqis to hold the center of Ramadi for some time, and I think the last time I spoke with you one of you asked me what keeps you up at night or something. I said look, this is a really formidable enemy; it’s going to have surprises and that’s going to happen over the course of this, what will be a very long, multiyear campaign.
Over the course of 96 hours in Ramadi, and what we’ve been able to collect looking at different things, about 30 suicide VBIDs in Ramadi and the environs of Ramadi. Ten of them, I’ve been told, had the explosive capacity of an Oklahoma City type attack. So just to put that in perspective.
QUESTION: Each of those 10?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Each of those 10. I can’t confirm that, but that’s what I’ve been told. And if you look at the pictures that ISIL has put out of the explosions – I mean, I have some of them – it’s just they took out entire city blocks. And the death toll of the Iraqi Security Forces is not entirely clear, but they lost some leaders, and it was just a really psychological impact of the security remnants that were remaining in Ramadi.
What happened on Sunday is the Iraqis sent – tried to send a reinforcing column into the center of the city, which immediately came under fire; retreated, which then began a broader retreat from where the security forces were holding. And we’re still trying to piece together exactly what happened there.
I think it’s important to note first extremely serious situation. Nobody here from the President on down is saying that this is something that we’ll just overcome immediately. It’s an extremely serious situation, and I’ll talk about the Iraqis’ response as well because they’re seeing it the same way. But it is not the Mosul collapse and disintegration of units. In fact, the units that retreated, retreated, consolidated, and they’re now moved – I won’t say where they are, but they moved to three different points to consolidate, to refit, to regroup, to re-equip. And those units are – the units that retreated remain pretty much intact.
We’ve been working over the last about 96 hours constantly around the clock with our team in Baghdad and our team here to work with the Iraqis to hold – because we all remember the experience from Mosul, where you just had a domino collapse – to hold their lines, consolidate, and just basically hold together, begin to consolidate and think about how to counter-attack. I think the silver lining here is – again, it remains a very serious situation – is that the lines more or less have held. And I’m not going to say exactly where, but you don’t have, again, a Mosul situation of a collapse.
And we’re working with them now to think through consolidation, forces, what to do. And it’s extremely complicated. We were just talking to our team in the field. But there is a consolidation happening, so it’s not a kind of – again, just far different situation than what we saw in Mosul.
Iraqi political response has been encouraging. Prime Minister Abadi, who is an engineer by training, he immediately wants to get to the root of what exactly happened, what went wrong, what do they need to defend against these suicide VBIDs, what do they need to correct some of the deficiencies in the security forces, and whatever happened on – particularly on Sunday. And he’s been looking at it in terms of really fixing it at the root of what exactly happened.
At the same time, he immediately acted to pull together his entire national security cabinet, and the whole cabinet – Sunni, Shia, Kurds – they all met yesterday to develop a national program that they can all rally behind and get behind. The focus now clearly being on Anbar province, and they released a seven-point program yesterday which we very much support. It’s focused on mobilizing tribal fighters in Anbar, with a streamlined delivery mechanism for weapons – that’s something we’ve been working on for some time, but that’s something that is starting to move. And we’re going to use this – this particular challenge to really accelerate it.
Recruiting into the Iraqi Army and specifically in their program they released yesterday, they talk about the 7th Iraqi Army Division. That’s the really depleted Anbar-based division that we’re working with all the way out at Al Asad Air Base in western Anbar province. They talked about recalling the Iraqi police from Anbar. There’s about 24,000 police in Anbar who left their posts some time ago; they’ve issued amnesty for those police and asked to recall them. And anyway, we think this is a pretty good – a good program in terms of thinking about how to claw back what was lost in Anbar.
The Iraqi parliament today completed a second reading of the national guard law, which is also very important. And why this is important is because the model of the new government of how to stabilize Iraq is a much more decentralized model, much more autonomy in the provinces. And Abadi actually in the wake of this crisis called together all the governors and talked about decentralization, the importance of the governors taking responsibility in their areas as powers are devolved to their areas, and the national guard is a provincial-based security force.
The tribal mobilization, which is kind of the bridge to the national guard, is designed to collect the – what will be the foundation of a national guard. So the Iraqis have already allocated resources, and there’s a list of weapons that are approved for about 8,000 of the tribal fighters in Anbar, which will be ultimately the national guard. But that will take some time to get in place. But they’re moving forward with that.
In terms of the coalition, we’ve been in touch with our coalition partners, the core contributors to the coalition, and there’s been a really positive response in terms of stepping up to help, and we’re now working to figure out exactly who can help in what areas, and we’ll defer to coalition capitals for that, but there will be more – much more to follow on that.
In the Iraqi plan that they put – they released yesterday, there’s also – they mentioned the stabilization funding mechanism, and they’ve approved the stabilization fund with the United Nations, which is pretty important, because what we found as we’ve been going forward here is that the Iraqis – the government remains pretty cash poor. It can’t access capital markets. It can’t do things to flood resources into areas that are cleared, and that’s remained a real problem. So this new funding mechanism that they’ve established with the UN is designed specifically to get at that problem, for kind of quick-hit projects as soon as areas are cleared, which is necessary. And also the humanitarian response, which is just massive, and making sure that the UN programs – because the UN teams in Iraq are doing an incredible, heroic job – are funded, and that’s something that the coalition will be helping out with as well.
So I would just say the top lines – I think a very serious situation. Nobody is kidding themselves about what ISIL was able to pull off last week. We’ve been working to consolidate the units that retreated from Ramadi, and we think over the last 96 hours there has been a consolidation which is positive. We’re going to work with the Iraqis to organize, as best as possible, and begin to think about how to counterattack, but this will take some time. This has to be done in a coordinated way. And we had a meeting last night with President Obama to talk about all potential – just different possible responses and how we can help the Iraqis through this.
The politics again responded, we think, fairly well. Prime Minister Abadi is – has had a number of crises now in his first eight or nine months in office – this is another one – and we think he’s responded quite well. And we fully support the program that they put together which has the support of the Sunnis, most specifically in Anbar, but the Sunnis and the Kurds in the government, which is very important. And we’re encouraged by the second reading of the national guard law today, although that’s a longer term project.
But the immediate focus – everybody’s focused on this – consolidating the lines, holding the lines, organizing, and thinking about how to begin a counterattack, and that’s what we’ve been focused on over the last 96 hours.
MODERATOR: Okay. Thanks for those introductory comments. We’ll try to get to as many questions as we can. We’ll start with Arshad in the back and go around.
QUESTION: Is the U.S. Government completely at ease with the deployment of Shia militias with Iranian links will perhaps command to fight ISIL in Sunni areas, given the risks of further sectarianism? And second, to ask kind of a heretical first principles question, why is it vital to U.S. national interests to prevent Sunni majority and more Sunni-majority areas of Iraq from falling under ISIL control?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: On the popular mobilization forces, there was unanimous request from the Anbar provincial council – unanimous – and those guys aren’t always unanimous – to request the entry of Popular Mobilization Forces into Anbar. And the prime minister responded to that and agreed to deploy some into Anbar. How those forces are used, what forces are used, and what makeup and what composition are really the key questions. In the cabinet release last night, which again was unanimous from the Iraqi side, they said all forces, tribes, Popular Mobilization Forces, Iraqi Security Forces, have to be operating under the Iraqi chain of command. That’s the same thing that we support. We think that’s the only way to do this in a coordinated way. They are as sensitive as anyone to the use of certain units in populated areas. So we leave it to the Iraqis to work this out, but we also have worked with them very closely with the lessons learned from Tikrit about the importance of having units under an Iraqi command and control structure, because that’s the way to actually conduct operations that are effective.
In terms of U.S. national security interests, ISIL is a significant threat to all of our partners in the region, a significant threat to the homeland. The suicide bombers in Ramadi, most of them – because this is the pattern – are foreign fighters. Foreign fighters come from all around the world, a hundred countries, around the nation, come into Syria and into Iraq to commit mass murder as suicide bombers, and ISIL can very easily redirect those committed jihadis and suicide bombers into other capitals, and that’s why we have to defeat this organization. However, it’s going to take a long time, and we’ve been very, very clear about that.
And we talk about in terms of years. And years because of our assessment of the strength of ISIL and what it represents, and I’ll just say – I’ve said this before – we’ve never seen something like this. We’ve never seen a terrorist organization with 22,000 foreign fighters from a hundred countries all around the world. To put it in context – again, the numbers are fuzzy – but it’s about double of what went into Afghanistan over 10 years in the war against the Soviet Union. Those jihadi fighters were from a handful of countries. These guys are coming from a hundred different countries. You combine that with social media, their efforts to inspire homegrown attacks, not even to have fighters come and train but do attacks at home, this is a formidable, enormous threat.
And it thrives on the notion of an expanding caliphate. To ISIL, we look at all their – what they say to themselves. They see their entire campaign as a war of flags, expanding the flags, and so that’s why this is very important. And we’ve done a pretty good job at constricting them and defeating them in some significant areas and terrain, but I would never say this is not a very significant setback. It was, and ISIL is using it for full propaganda value, although in Ramadi we have air coverage overhead 24/7. They’re not parading around the streets of Ramadi, and when we see them, we’re going to kill them in Ramadi.
MODERATOR: Okay. Carol, and then we’ll --
QUESTION: Has there been any discussion about sending Special Forces in, as happened in Syria last week? Might we see more of that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The President’s always said and Chairman Dempsey has also said that the chairman will make a recommendation when he thinks the military needs might demand our advisors forward. But that recommendation has not been made, so I really defer to DOD and the chain of command on that.
MODERATOR: Okay. Jo.
QUESTION: Thanks very much, [Senior State Department Official]. You mentioned about streamlining the delivery of weapons to local tribes. Could you talk a little bit more about that? The White House yesterday was telling – (inaudible) was telling us that there was – you were bandying around ideas on how to accelerate training and equipping local tribes, given that also some of the local tribes have complained that the weapons that you’re supplying haven’t been getting from Baghdad out to them.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. So this – obviously, this didn’t just happen after Ramadi. We were working this for some time, and the system that’s in place and was put in place a few weeks ago is – there’s an approved list of small and medium weapons. It’s been approved by the government; it’s been approved by the governor of Anbar Province. The governor has even been delegated authority to procure weapons on his own, and we have a delivery mechanism that’s been approved by all the right parties in the government, in the MOD to get the weapons into the right hands. And we think that’s a pretty good, streamlined process.
So for example, if a coalition partner wants to donate weapons to tribal fighters, we can give a pretty good guarantee of how that distribution’s going to go. And we didn’t really have that before, because, first, we were focused on other issues because it’s a very complicated battlefield and landscape. But we have that in place now and we think that’s pretty good. We’re, of course – our presence is at al-Asad, which is in western Anbar. So the tribes out there have a bit of an advantage because we’re based there, and we’ll be using Asad for that purpose – again, working through the Iraqi minister of defense.
I read this too, and – look, I more than anybody want these guys, particularly the guys in Anbar and the Sunnis, to beat ISIS, which is killing their families and burning down their houses and committing all sorts of horrific atrocities. We’re learning more of them in the wake of the Abu Sayyaf raid, of just how barbaric this organization is. And we have flooded weapons to particularly Ramadi over the last 18 months. You can – there’s a lot of sheikhs. I meet them. I meet them in Amman, in Erbil, in Dubai, all over the place; meet them in Iraq. And we’ve said repeatedly, if you have people on the ground ready to fight Daesh, ready to fight ISIS, tell us where they are. Let’s work together, and we will help you defeat them. I think we have a record now over the last six to eight months of working with groups on the ground. They’re ready to fight Daesh; we will help them. We do it in Iraq in a coordinated way because it has to be coordinated. But anyone on the ground that is ready to fight Daesh, we are prepared to help them together with the Iraqi Government.
MODERATOR: Okay. Saul then Brad.
QUESTION: The Iranian defense minister apparently flew into Baghdad on Monday. Does it look like the Iranians are stepping up their military guidance because of what happened in Ramadi? Do you have concern about that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think – first, that was a – as I understand it, that was a preplanned visit. But – and we know the – Iraq and Iran has had a relationship for some time, and that’s simply something that is realistic and quite natural.
Iran always wants to makes itself seem like the indispensable player in Iraq. So you always see them in a moment of crisis come in and say, “We’re here to help and we can help immediately.” They do that all the time, and they’re probably going to help here in various ways. I think what’s important is that they fully respect Iraq’s sovereignty and sovereign wishes, and as Prime Minister Abadi said when he was here, what is a hostile act to Iraq is operating forces on Iraqi soil outside the command and control system of the Iraqi Government. And so, again, I defer to Iraq in terms of how it wants to manage its relationship with the Iranians, but the principle is respect for Iraqi sovereignty and Iraqi wishes.
QUESTION: But do you expect to be seeing now an increase in the number of advisors from Iran? Isn’t – wouldn’t that be natural for --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We haven’t seen that yet.
MODERATOR: Okay. Brad and then Justin. We’ll come around --
QUESTION: You said that this can’t be immediately overcome. How many months or even years, dare I say, has this – has Ramadi set back the effort? And just wanted to ask – you kind of vaguely said that – consider more things without changing the strategy. Would you – are you guys willing at this point to do things like JTACs on the ground to call in strikes or more advisors into the field to work directly with units, as opposed to brigade level at headquarters?
SENIOR STATE DEPARMENT OFFICIAL: In terms of timing, we’re eight months into a – what was always a three-year campaign, and it’s three years to degrade. So again, we’ve been very realistic about how difficult this is going to be. So I just – I don’t want to put timeframes on it. I think some of the timeframes that might’ve been announced by various folks over the course of this thing might’ve been a little bit unrealistic. It’s three years – three-year campaign, three years to degrade.
In terms of taking back Ramadi, we’re going to help the Iraqis do it as soon as possible, and we have aircraft overhead to try to take out anytime the Daesh is going to try to set up defensive berms or defensive perimeters. But again, it’s difficult, and it’s difficult without people on the ground and eyes on the ground. And I – in terms of that issue, we have Iraqis we work with as observers. But again, in terms of putting U.S. JTACs into the field, that’s a decision entirely for the chain of command that would go through the Secretary of Defense to the President, and right now that’s not something that has been recommended.
MODERATOR: Okay, Justin.
QUESTION: Just a couple of technical questions about the fight in Ramadi. You – do you have an estimate about how many fighters – ISIS fighters were in Ramadi? How many ISF fighters fled? And when they fled, did they lay down these weapons that you said were flooded into Ramadi, did they leave them behind? There’ve been some images of that. And then my second question would be: Is there a clear military strategy to retake Ramadi?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So really good questions. I would be very hesitant to say a number of Daesh fighters in Ramadi and also I’d be hesitant if anyone is telling you a number, because it’s very hard to tell these things. When Mosul fell, I think our estimate was that Daesh as an organization had only about 5- to 10,000. We then adjusted that and said, no, it’s actually 30,000. These are very hard to tell. So we don’t know.
What we do know is that about half of Ramadi has been under Daesh control for about a year, and in their offensive they launched a month ago they took another quarter of it. So they have been controlling significant portions of the city for some time. What happened last weekend was they had this massive suicide wave that at the governing center, which was kind of the center of it, the kind of secured zone. And again, you can see the pictures they put out. It was incredibly devastating, just horrific, gigantic explosions that took out entire city blocks. So they have a force in Ramadi. I don’t know the numbers. And I don’t think – I also don’t think it’s one that can’t be overcome.
I don’t have the numbers of Iraqis that retreated. They did leave some equipment behind. I’m told that when we see Daesh trying to get ahold of that equipment, we’ll take care of that problem. But they also – again, unlike Mosul, in which you had security forces just drop their uniforms and flee these units – I wouldn’t call it organized, but they retreated in a way that they took most of their stuff, and then they stopped at a defensive point and consolidated. And they’re now in the process of – I was just told talking to our guys out there they’re now in the process of refueling, refitting, licking their wounds a bit, and consolidating. So in the wake of Mosul, having lived through that, at this point in Mosul there was just a real disintegration happening , and that’s not at all what we’re seeing here; quite the opposite. However --
MODERATOR: Okay – sorry. Felicia, then Tolga.
QUESTION: So with the renewed focus on Anbar, how does that impact the Mosul timing at all? And does the focus on Anbar mean pushing the Islamic State out of Fallujah as well?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Fallujah is a little isolated pocket, which we always – again, up to the Iraqis, but you can kind of isolate it and do some other things. And I defer to my military colleagues, but you’ve got to do Anbar – you can call it shaping for Mosul, you can call it – but you got to do Anbar to isolate Mosul. So – and that means Baghdad to Ramadi, Ramadi to Haditha. And Haditha is out at Al Asad where we’re based. And I just – look, I think this is going to take some time, so it’s going to be very difficult. Anyone who knows Anbar province from back when we were there, it’s going to be really hard.
But what we were hearing from the Iraqis up and down the board – and I was on the phone with some of the Anbaris today – they are – nobody is panicking. They are – what they are telling us is we’re ready to rise to this challenge. And everybody is focused like a laser on Anbar right now, so there’s some other fights going on which are really important. There’s Baiji, there’s some stuff going on out in Haditha, but – which, of course, is in Anbar. But really everybody’s focused on Anbar.
MODERATOR: Okay. Tolga.
QUESTION: And just to follow on to – oh, sorry. Can I ask one more?
MODERATOR: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Just to follow on to Brad’s question with the timing, does this pushback that – and you said some of the timing was perhaps unrealistic --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Again, I would never put timeframes on anything, so Mosul will happen when it’s ready. So it could be some time from now, but we’re focused on Anbar.
MODERATOR: Tolga, then Pam.
QUESTION: How about the population left in Ramadi after the invasion of Ramadi? How many people are there right now? Because the CENTCOM released the new attacks records for 24 – the last 24 hours that there were nothing in Ramadi. Sixteen strikes in – from Mosul to Fallujah but not in Ramadi. What are the challenge – challenges to retake Ramadi in terms of the population left in there, and could you please make a comparison between Kobani and Ramadi? You made a comparison between Mosul and Ramadi, and you said that there – at least there was a tactical retreat, that there is no (inaudible) disintegration in terms of the Iraq Security Forces, but what went wrong in Ramadi while you succeeded in Kobani? What was the main difference?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m not going to put numbers on who’s left in Ramadi, but right now the streets look pretty barren from what we’re seeing. We have done airstrikes today in Ramadi, I’ve been told. So when we see targets, we’re going to take them out, and we have the area pretty well covered.
There’s been, of course, a large refugee flow, which our humanitarian people are dealing with with the United Nations and we’re dealing with the Iraqi Government about how to manage that in an organized way. And it’s also one reason why we hope our coalition partners will consider helping with the UN response in terms of financial contributions.
Look, Kobani – just a different situation. But Kobani was about to fall as well. There was a little – if you looked on a map, it was just a pencil – I lived through that – in terms of organizing to push back and working with the Turks and the Kurdish Peshmerga to do that in an organized way, which was quite successful. Had Daesh been able to do in Kobani what they did over the weekend in Ramadi with 10 of these massive VBIEDs, Kobani would have fallen too, but they weren’t able to do that.
So the attacks over the weekend in Ramadi were just quite devastating in terms of ISIL attacks. And you can go see them, and I have some pictures in my – there was a armored bulldozer which knocked over the T-wall perimeters, which then was the first explosion. They then had an armored dump truck, an armored Humvee, and you can see what they do. They weld these things so they’re totally impervious to a lot of weapons systems that the Iraqis have to try to take them out. It was one of – I have to say it was one of Abadi’s main demands when he was here. He needed a weapon system to defeat suicide VBIEDs. And we made the decision immediately while he was here to get 1,000 AT4 anti-tank systems to Iraqi Security Forces. And those are going to be arriving fairly soon. And that’s specifically, as I understand it – I’ll defer to experts on this, but that’s specifically a kind of close-in weapon system for a VBIED that is coming in your direction. The Peshmerga have been using them to good effect and we’re getting 1,000 to the Iraqi Security Forces.
QUESTION: Days, weeks? What’s the timeframe?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Weeks. Early June, I’m told.
MODERATOR: Okay. Pam.
QUESTION: A couple of questions. The first one goes back to Iran. Overall, how much influence do you think Iran has over the Iraqi Government in terms of the anti-ISIS coalition at this point? And how is that affecting U.S. operations against the Islamic State?
And then my second question is you referenced the meeting yesterday with the President looking at possible responses. In addition to airstrikes, is there anything else that bubbles to the top that you can talk about in terms of action that the coalition is considering?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: On the second question, I’m just not going to get ahead of the process and what might be considered or not considered. I’m sorry, I just can’t really get into that. The meeting was a very firm affirmation for the leadership of Prime Minister Abadi, who is managing multiple crises, and for – we think the plan they laid out is a pretty good one, and we’re going to help them with that as much as we can. And then anything else that we’re thinking about, I just can’t – I really can’t get into.
MODERATOR: Okay. Very little time left in – I’m sorry, Iran and then --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The issue of Iran – again, Iran and Iraq have a relationship. It’s something that has been with us for some time. It’s something that’s natural and is going to continue. And it becomes problematic if Iran is doing things on Iraqi soil that are contrary to the sovereignty and the wishes of the Iraqi Government. So again, we just have to see.
MODERATOR: Okay. Very short. Barbara?
QUESTION: Just quickly, you’re talking about consolidating the ISF units. How is that working practically with the Popular Mobilization Forces? We’ve been hearing they’ve arrived but they haven’t – that they’re sort of waiting to take positions. Or is how that being coordinated?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. So some of them are – and unclear in numbers or what – but are gathering at Habbaniyah, which is an airbase. And that’s a consolidation point. But you’ve got to remember, the Popular Mobilization Forces, of about 80,000 of them, the majority of them are guys that volunteered in the wake of Sistani’s fatwa last year. They’re volunteer fighters. They can work very closely with Sunnis; these are all Iraqis. There are other units within the Popular Mobilization Forces on the Shia side that are different, that are militias that are organized not by Iraqis, frankly. So those are different types of units. And so you have to look at this fairly diagnostically, and what units go where will be important, and I think the Iraqis understand the sensitivities as well as anybody. And they’re working this out as we speak.
QUESTION: So there are no Shia militias in the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, there are Shia militias within the 80,000 – the usual suspects of KH and AH that we know quite well.
QUESTION: The so the point that you’re making is that some are Shia militias that you wouldn’t want to go to certain areas, and others are Shia fighters who you’d be okay with going --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s just a facility there are more provocative – some units are quite provocative in Sunni areas. And so --
QUESTION: And --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And we want to be very careful before we do airstrikes, because we’re coming from the air, we don’t have people on the ground. We don’t want to have a situation in which we mistakenly strike a Shia militia, because that would cause all sorts of problems. So this has – that’s why we – the importance of Iraqi command and control. Because the way we do operations with the Iraqis, and every time we’ve done one, they’ve been quite successful, all the way from Mosul Dam to – I can go all the way down to Kisik Junction, to Haditha. We take some time to really do the intelligence, to soak the area, to figure out what’s going on, to organize the forces through our joint operations center that we have, which has been up now for a year – is working pretty effectively – to organize the forces, who goes where, so then our airstrikes can work in a very deliberate, coordinated manner.
If there are units on the field that aren’t responsive to that chain of command, we can’t tell from the air who’s who and it can be very chaotic. So that’s why particularly in Tikrit we said, “You got to get a handle on who’s who and who’s where and get control over the units on the field.” Because we’re very careful with our air – it’s been one of the most precise air campaigns in history thus far, and we’re very careful with it. So we want to make sure that Iraqi forces on the ground are as much as possible under Iraqi command.
QUESTION: Even in Tikrit, though, there were fairly well documented reports of Shia militias afterwards rampaging, burning people, clearly not operating under any kind of Iraqi central government command and control. And so the fundamental question that I have is: What gives you – I mean, Tikrit was not that longer ago. What gives you the confidence that these militias, which have the autonomy of their own armaments, are actually going to be taking orders from Baghdad, and are not in fact going to be operating on their own?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Again, this is something we’ve got to work through. So before we do an operation and make sure that it’s a coordinated operation, we have to have as much as possible fidelity over who is on the field. But it is very difficult.
QUESTION: How do you do that without coordinating or working somehow with the Iranians?
QUESTION: Do you think that the coalition strategy is working, especially after the advances made by ISIS in Ramadi and advances made in Syria yesterday and today in Tadmor? And are you planning to do anything in Tadmor to help the regime, for example, to stop ISIS?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right now the immediate focus – at least for me, who’s briefing you – has been Anbar. So that’s what I’ve been focused on for the last 96 hours. And in terms of the overall campaign, as I said in the beginning, you would have to be delusional not to take something like this and say, “What went wrong, how do you fix it, and how do we correct course to go from here?” And that’s exactly what we’re doing, taking an extremely hard look at it. One of the main things is the tactic of these enormous suicide VBIEDs is something that we have to help the Iraqis and our partners in Syria defeat. So that’s something we’re looking at very closely. And in terms of the particular response in Anbar and Ramadi, again, we’re looking at a number of things, but I don’t want to get ahead of the process.
MODERATOR: We got time for just two more. Hannah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay. First of all, on the refugee issue, what are you – what are the discussions with Abadi about letting people in? I mean, you’ve got thousands of people stranded, four days, they can’t go back, they get killed, they won’t let them in even with a sponsor now.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So I understand – again, I’ve been told as of this morning that the bridge has been open for refugees with a sponsor with a place to – what that means is that they need a place to go in Baghdad because you can’t just have a – otherwise, you just have a really chaotic situation which can quickly get out of control. So the bridge has been open to refugees with a sponsor in Baghdad. And the UN, again, who is doing just heroic work, is working to set up facilities for those who are on the other side of the bridge. That’s what’s happening as we speak, so hopefully, I’ll have a little more for you in the next 24 hours or so.
QUESTION: And then just lastly on Habbaniyah, is there no – what is the U.S. presence at Habbaniyah? Are there security contractors involved in the training? If so, how many?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. I’ve seen different reports, a lot of it being ISIS propaganda. I’ve seen that we have taken out our advisors from Habbaniyah and we never had advisors at Habbaniyah.
QUESTION: Whether military or (inaudible)?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right. I’ve seen that we’ve taken out our advisors at al-Asad. That’s absolutely not true. We’re at al-Asad working with the tribes in the 7th IA as we speak. So – but we have not been on the ground at Habbaniyah.
In terms of what we might do in Anbar additionally, again, that’s something that is – I won’t get ahead of any decision processes with the president.
MODERATOR: Okay. Last question there.
QUESTION: Yeah. How many Sunni tribal fighters have actually been trained and equipped in Anbar so far? And how can you better coordinate airstrikes in support of their operations going forward? I know you said they’ve got 24/7 in Ramadi now going forward.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, really good question. So where it works well has been out at al-Asad. We’re working with three tribes – the Jughayfis, the Albu Mahal, Albu Nimr, primarily, the Jughayfis who are out there. And we are able to coordinate them – with them, advise and assist. It’s not perfect. It’s really hard. I’ve been out there twice. It’s like Wild West. I mean, really tough. But we’re able to directly coordinate and provide them very close in support and coordinate their operations. And we’ve had some success of the --
QUESTION: From the area?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes, although ISIS fights back. But we have our special forces there on the ground at Asad. We just don’t – we don’t accompany. We don’t go out with them. So that’s where it works the best. We don’t have that in eastern Anbar, frankly, so it’s just a different – it’s a little more difficult.
What the Iraqis have done is they’ve used Habbaniyah, they’ve set up Habbaniyah to be the same type of facility that we have at al-Asad, where – collect tribal fighters, organize them so they’re on a payroll, give them a weapon. And that started about three weeks ago, and there was going to be a ceremony on Monday on this same thing with about another thousand fighters. But that’s going to continue.
So the Iraqis are using Habbaniyah with the same model that we’ve used at Asad quite effectively, and we want to build on that. And so in terms of this consolidation, making sure that those areas remain controlled is very important. We think they will remain controlled. And it’s a huge facility. I mean, it’s a huge airbase, Habbaniyah and also Taqaddum across the street. It’s enormous. So, I mean, that’s how they’re collecting them.
In terms of numbers, there’s budget and weapons for 8,000 tribal fighters in Anbar province, and there’s also the 24,000 police and there’s the now recruiting into the 7th IA, that I don’t have a figure on yet. So those are the numbers. And we collect them at al-Asad, which has been effective, and the Iraqis are now setting up this hub at Habbaniyah, which started – there was a ceremony 10 days ago or so, which you may have seen in the media, because it was – I know there was some media there.
QUESTION: But of 8,000 and 24,000, how many have actually now returned or are trained?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The 24,000 are – of the total, if you ask the guys who do the police, there were a total of 24,000 Anbari policemen before --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- this crisis started 18 months ago.
QUESTION: They fled (inaudible).
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And they fled.
QUESTION: And how many came back?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And obviously didn’t come back. This is just – the police part has just started and --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- the police part is long term.
QUESTION: And of the 8,000 that you budgeted to train and equip, how many of those are actually now in the field or in the pipeline, at least?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I actually do have a figure that I – but I just don’t want to get into a direct figure. But it’s in the thousands.
QUESTION: Low thousands, mid thousands?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Mid thousands.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So if you look on a map of the Euphrates and the dashes – so it’s Raqqah to Ramadi to Fallujah – there’s a red swatch sweep and then there’s a green circle at Haditha, Baghdadi, which is where we’re present, which is where we’re working with those tribes, and which has been pretty effective. So we have an operational platform there, and they’ve been able to hold and expand their territory.
The Iraqis want to do the same thing at Habbaniyah, where you collect the tribes with the eastern tribes and do the same thing to create this other circle. And that, of course, is not far from Ramadi. So I don’t want to get into the consolidation points that we’re going to use, but Habbaniyah will certainly be one of them.
QUESTION: And it’s 8,000 that the Iraqis have budgeted, it’s not (inaudible)?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, 8,000 tribal fighters in Anbar, and the weapons have been all approved and it’s just – we have to get them to the site and get them to the guys.
QUESTION: As far as actually fighting on the ground and the – to – in – as part of these in the line-holding and consolidation and everything, how many Sunni tribal fighters are involved now?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: In Anbar?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Overall Sunni fighters, according to our count, is above 10,000. It’s now above 10,000. And about 22,000 are on the rolls, but 10,000 are actually in the program. In Anbar, I just don’t have the figure off the top of my head, but I’ve – I’ll get it to you.
QUESTION: So it’s national, that’s – nation – that’s in the program overall, not necessarily fighting?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, Nineveh – right, so Nineveh – Nineveh there’s no presence, but we’re training about 6,000 in the Mosul fighting force and a number of other guys from Atheel Nujaifi’s these guys. And also in Salah ad Din and in – and then in Anbar, mostly at al-Asad but now at Habbaniyah.
MODERATOR: Okay. Thanks very much, [Senior State Department Official]. Again, this is on background, Senior State Department Official. Thanks for coming and thanks (inaudible).