WASHINGTON, August 24, 2015 — The Iraq Security Forces are making daily progress in Ramadi during a difficult counterattack against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the chief of staff of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve said Friday.
Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Killea briefed the press here on operations in Iraq and Syria and ongoing discussions with Turkey about their support in the campaign against ISIL.
“The ISF forces remain measured and deliberate in their advances, and they are taking the necessary time to clear ground that is littered with ISIL obstacles and (homemade bombs)," Killea said. "As you can imagine, explosive ordnance disposal teams and equipment are an extremely important resource for the ISF right now.”
The general added, “That device has become ISIL's lead weapon of choice in any kind of probing attacks or even setting up future offenses where they go into new areas.”
Multiple units that the coalition has helped train are participating in the Ramadi fight, he added. The 73rd and 76th brigades, trained by coalition partners Australia and New Zealand, are doing well, as are about 600 Sunni tribal fighters who participated in the advise-and-assist program, the general said.
Also in Iraq, the situation in Beiji remains hotly contested, Killea said.
Beiji city remains mainly in the control of the Iraqi army and popular mobilization forces, he added, and the ISF continue to position forces to gain an advantage in the oil refinery north of the city, he said.
“The oil refinery area is truly an attack-counterattack situation being played out on a daily basis. Coalition airstrikes combined with timely ISF maneuvers have provided positional advantages while denying ISIL momentum during these counterattacks,” the general said.
ISF forces control about a third of the refinery area, and in the south ISF and PMF have secured at least 80 percent of the city, the general said. They’re working to secure the rest of the city and stay in front of ISIL'S attacks and isolation efforts in the city’s south, Killea explained.
“ISIL continues to send reinforcements to this battleground, where coalition airstrikes have been very successful in targeting and eliminating them,” he said.
Killea called Turkey a valued partner in the campaign against ISIL, adding that the country “has been a standing part of the coalition for some time now, and for the last two weeks we have been working on deepening their involvement in the CJTF anti-ISIL operations.”
For coalition efforts against ISIL, the broader use of Incirlik Air Base in Turkey for air operations in Syria is already proving to be a great effects multiplier on the battlefield, he said.
Including Turkey, Killea added, “we have 10 different coalition partners participating in airstrike operations in Iraq and/or Syria. Without this coalition effort, ISF and anti-ISIL advances on the ground would not be what they are today. For this reason, we look forward to getting Turkey's anti-ISIL contributions formalized in the CJTF-OIR process as soon as possible.”
In northern Syria, the general said ISIL fighters are regularly targeted and killed by anti-ISIL forces and coalition airstrikes, leading to a significant loss of physical territory and the denial of key movement corridors.
“Not only has this impacted their ability to conduct offensive operations … but it has reduced their ability to govern and control the populace of once-seized towns and cities,” he said.
The fight is tough day in and day out, he said, but ISF and indigenous ground forces throughout Iraq and Syria are making progress.
On the Syrian train-and-equip program, Killea said the second and third classes of fighters are in training and recruitment efforts for follow-on classes are promising.
This marks an important point for the program, he said, because a big part of the U.S. long-term strategy in Syria is to enable indigenous ground forces to fight ISIL.
Killea also provided an update on the Aug. 11 mortar attack against the Kurdish Peshmerga that, according to press reports, involved a chemical agent. Preliminary field tests show the presence of sulfur mustard, he confirmed, but full testing will take a few more weeks. In the meantime, forces in Iraq and Syria “really don't need another reason to hunt down ISIL and kill them wherever we can and whenever we can,” Killea said.
But, he added, any indication of the use of a warfare agent reinforces the coalition position that ISIL is an abhorrent group that will kill indiscriminately without a moral or legal code or restraint.
A couple of days after the attack, Killea said, “we were able to … take fragments from some of those mortar rounds and do a presumptive field test on those fragments and they showed the presence of HD, or what is known as sulfur mustard. That is a class-one chemical agent.”
Such a presumptive test is not conclusive, he added, and the results indicate only the presence of that chemical.
“It doesn't tell us anything more than that. So it is going to take us a couple of weeks to do the full testing on those fragments to figure out what was contained in or on those mortar rounds before we make a determination on exactly what it was, potentially how much it was and maybe even where it came from,” the general said.