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TRANSCRIPT | Dec. 11, 2018

Joint Operations Command-Iraq Briefing

STAFF:  Good morning.  We will begin our brief with a quick communication check.

Sir, can you hear me?

COLONEL JONATHAN BYROM:  This is Colonel Byrom.  I can hear you.

STAFF:  This brief should last approximately 45 minutes.

We have Colonel Jonathan Byrom, Task Force Rifles commander and deputy director of Joint Operations Command-Iraq from Baghdad for an update on operations with our Iraqi partners.

Sir, the floor is yours.

COL. BYROM:  Good morning, everyone, and greetings from Baghdad.  Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you this morning about the ongoing efforts of the coalition team spread out across Iraq.

As the commander of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, I have the honor of not only leading the Brave Rifles troopers deployed in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, but also acting as the deputy commander for the Joint Operations Command-Iraq, what we call the JOCI.

The JOCI coordinates the efforts of the regional operations commands across the country, where our troopers work alongside the Iraqi Security Forces in an advise and assist role at their military bases.

For several months, we have worked hard to enable our Iraqi partners in the ongoing effort to defeat the remaining ISIS forces in both Iraq and Syria by providing intelligence support, joint fires, aerial surveillance and training opportunities.

A year ago, in December of 2017, the government of Iraq declared the physical defeat of ISIS in Iraq.  In the months that followed, the Iraqi Security Forces continued to pursue ISIS fighters hiding in small pockets across Iraq, as well as securing their border with Syria to prevent ISIS fighters from fleeing the offensives in Syria as part of Operation Roundup.

The Iraqi Security Forces have grown as a professional military force, increasing their capacity to conduct large-scale, intelligence-driven operations, and providing security to the Iraqi people.  It's been our honor to contribute to this effort.

In May, Iraq's first national election since the rise of ISIS was held peacefully, despite repeated warnings from ISIS of their intent to use violence to discourage Iraqis from voting.  This was thanks to the extensive training and preparations made by the Iraqi Security Forces across the country that ensured all Iraqis were able to exercise their right to vote free from fear of harm.

The 3rd Cavalry Regiment joined this fight in May and in June, one of the regiment's artillery units joined two Iraqi artillery units at Firebase Um Jorais (Oom Joh Ross), working side-by-side to provide cross-border fires in support of the clearance operations in Dashisha.

Brave Rifles troopers worked with Iraqi artillerymen, U.S. Marines, sailors and other coalition partners to conduct fire missions night and day for over a month.

In July, our teams facilitated a major operation that brought both the Iraqi Federal Police and the Kurdish Security Forces together to conduct a joint operation targeting pockets of ISIS hiding in the Qara Chokh Mountains.  Federal Police and Peshmerga fighters worked together in very austere and difficult terrain, sharing resources and medical support while pursuing an elusive and determined foe.

Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Security Forces have continued to build that relationship, working together to re-open joint checkpoints along the Kurdish coordination line.  Citizens can travel more freely to visit their families and friends, reconnecting and celebrating holidays together.  Commercial traffic is moving between cities, bringing economic opportunities back to the region.

In Mosul, where the brutal rule of ISIS denied many the basic right of an education, now thousands of students are returning to recently opened schools.  Businesses are re-opening where rubble once stood and, over 4 million displaced Iraqis have returned to their homes of origin, with less than 2 million remaining in camps across Iraq.

But there is still work to be done and the international community has a role in restoring stability and prosperity to the people of Iraq that suffered under the ISIS rule of terror.

Many displaced persons are unable to return home because of the lack of essential services, livelihood opportunities and slow pace of reconstruction efforts.  These efforts are hampered by the presence of explosive remains of war, like IEDs and ISIS weapon caches, along with concerns over security in their homes because of remaining pockets of ISIS in Iraq.

The threat of ISIS attacks remains, and the Iraqi Security Forces continue to aggressively pursue these remnants where they are hiding.

In September, the Iraqi Security Forces planned and conducted Operation Hero's Resolve, a massive clearance operation coordinated across all of Iraq.  They discovered and destroyed hundreds of IEDs, arrested dozens of ISIS fighters, and destroyed hideouts and tunnels where ISIS fighters plotted attacks against local community leaders.

The international coalition is stronger than ever, as these 74 nations and five international organizations bring the fight to bear on ISIS in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.  Since November, Iraqi M-109 Paladins, French CAESARs, self-propelled howitzers and our own M777s have conducted coordinated artillery strikes from the Iraqi Firebase Saham, supporting our partners in the intense fighting going on just across the border.

Beginning in October, the Iraqi Security Forces initiated Operation Last Warning, a series of efforts throughout the Anbar region targeting the pockets of ISIS hiding in the rough desert terrain.

We're focusing our efforts on dismantling the enemy's command nodes and their financial network that funds terrorist attacks and propaganda.  The Iraqi Security Forces are in the lead as they conduct terrain-focused clearance missions to disrupt ISIS and prevent its resurgence.

Near Kirkuk, the Iraqi Federal Police are conducting large-scale clearance operations throughout the Hawijah area.  Their efforts are targeting ISIS fighters and senior leaders hiding in the mountainous terrain and conducting terror attacks against the local communities and infrastructure.

Even with the continued Iraqi Security Forces operations throughout Iraq, the fight is not over against ISIS.  As the Syrian Defense Forces complete the destruction of the physical caliphate in Syria, the Iraqi Security Forces continue clearance operations focused on ISIS safe havens in various locations throughout Iraq.  Their continued operations will prevent any attempt at ISIS insurgency from gaining momentum, and are pivotal to maintaining stability in Iraq as the new Iraqi government completes its formation.

We are proud to partner with the Iraqi Security Forces as they remove the final safe havens of the so-called ISIS caliphate.  We will continue to support our Iraqi brothers and sisters as they take the fight to ISIS every day.

With that, I'm happy to take your questions.

STAFF:  For all of your questions, please provide your full name and agency prior to asking your question.  And please limit yourself to one follow-up.


Q:  Lori Mylroie, Kurdistan 24.  Thank you, sir, very much for doing this.

The former governor or Kirkuk province, Najmiddin Karim, recently told K-24 that ISIS in Kirkuk province, which he knows very well, consists of local Iraqis, and not foreign jihadis.  Would you agree with that assessment?

COL. BYROM:  In terms of that assessment, ISIS -- it -- it consists of many different types of individuals:  foreign fighters, locals.  And so, it -- what binds ISIS together is their ideology.  So that, I think, is the key aspect to understand about ISIS.

Q:  Thank you, sir.  I think there's a disagreement between you and the governor.  And I will send you his interview.

But then I have another question.  You mentioned -- in your review of the past year that has occurred since the Iraqi announcement of the defeat of ISIS, you mentioned developments along the Kurdish coordination line.  Could you provide more detail about those developments?

COL. BYROM:  Yes.  There's been numerous developments.

First, the Kurdish and Iraqi Security Forces have conducted combined operations together against ISIS, where they hunted down ISIS in -- in mountain hideaways and caves, and worked together to capture and kill ISIS.  So there have been numerous combined operations between the two of them.

They also have been working together to open checkpoints between the two areas that have been closed for quite -- quite a while.  And they have successfully started opening those areas, by working together to ensure that there's security on both sides of that line.  Their number-one concern has been ISIS moving back and forth easily between or over the Kurdish coordination line.

Q:  You're saying that coordination is essential for the defeat of ISIS?

COL. BYROM:  I do think it's essential that the two sides coordinate and work together to defeat ISIS, especially ISIS that is in the vicinity of that Kurdish coordination line.

Q:  (Off mic)

STAFF:  Kasim?

Q:  Thanks Kasim Ileri with Anadolu agency.

You mentioned about the -- the cooperation and the -- the efforts across the border into Syria.  Are there Shia militia along the Syria-Iraqi border?  And are they contributing to the counter-ISIS operations along the Syrian-Iraqi border?

COL. BYROM:  There are -- popular mobilization forces is the name that we use for them.  And there are those forces along the border that are helping to protect the border with Syria against ISIS moving through that area.

Q:  Okay.  As -- as we know, the -- the Iranian-backed militia forces in Syria are trying to undermine the U.S.-led efforts in Syria.  And then one of the goals of the United States presence in Syria is to degrade the Iranian-backed militia's presence or influence in Syria.  And those two, the Shia militias, the PMF and those Iranian-backed militias, are both aligned with Iran.

So how does the U.S.-led coalition, or the U.S. effort, accommodate those Shia militias in their ISIS fight, while at the same time the U.S. is trying to degrade the Iranian influence in the region?

COL. BYROM:  Well, in Iraq, the -- the popular mobilization forces, they fall underneath the Iraqi Security Forces.  It's -- it is written in the constitution, it's law.  So they do take orders from the Iraqi Security Forces, and are working with the Iraqi Security Forces in the defeat of ISIS.

Q:  Thank you.

STAFF:  Lucas?

Q:  Colonel, the battle for Hajin in eastern Syria has taken close to a year longer than the battle of Mosul.  Can you explain why it's taking so long?

COL. BYROM:  For that question, my area of operations is in Iraq, so I will defer that question to the CJTF and they'd be glad to help answer that question for you.

Q:  How about just -- can I get a follow-up?

Can you explain the challenges of ultimately defeating ISIS in Iraq?  What's it going to take?  It just seems like these pockets won't go away.

COL. BYROM:  For the enduring defeat of ISIS, it's going to take the Iraqi Security Forces doing exactly what they are doing, which is they are conducting clearance operations continuously throughout Iraq.  And then how we fit into that is we're advising, assisting and enabling them and providing them intelligence, joint fires, aerial surveillance and training.

But the good news story on this is they are effectively targeting ISIS and conducting regular operations that disrupt ISIS and is preventing their resurgence.

Q:  Thank you.

STAFF:  Carla?

Q:  Hi, Carla Babb with Voice of America.  Thank you so much for doing this.

I wanted to follow up on what Lucas just said about what to do to defeat ISIS, because I know you had mentioned progress, but the Center for Strategic and International Studies has just released information that Islamic State conducted about 75 attacks on average per month this year.

75 attacks is a lot of attacks.  1,500 civilians killed in those attacks.  So if the Iraqi Security Forces keep doing what they're doing, there's still going to be a lot of -- hundreds of civilians killed.

So what instruction are you providing the Iraqis to change this?  And how would you characterize the current security status in Iraq?

COL. BYROM:  So, the Iraqi Security Forces are continuously conducting these operations.  What we're doing to coach them and to help them with this is what I said before, with the intelligence, the joint fires, we provide them aerial surveillance and training, and then also some equipment.  And they -- they are having very good success.

With these 75 attacks that you just discussed, there are many different attacks going on but they are very -- they are not having a significant impact on the security situation.  And most importantly, the Iraqis are continuously and -- responding to those attacks and then conducting these clearance missions.

And -- and ISIS itself really right now is -- is in austere conditions.  They've been forced into these conditions by these Iraqi operations that are going on.  So they're spending most of their time in -- in caves, underground, in -- in tunnels, in austere, tough desert terrain.  And then the Iraqi Security Forces are continuing to move into those areas and hunt them down.

So it really truly is a good news story versus just hearing about the attacks themselves, which are not having much of an impact on the population.

Q:  Thank you.

And -- and your classification of the overall security situation in Iraq, how would you classify it?

COL. BYROM:  I would classify it as stable.

But do realize ISIS would love to have a resurgence and the Iraqis continue to prevent that.  And they're doing so effectively right now.  It's a good partnership that we have with them that is preventing this by ISIS.

STAFF:  Washington Times?

Q:  Thanks, sir.  Carlo Munoz with the Washington Times.

I actually have two follow-up questions to things that my colleagues have asked.

First, on the popular mobilization forces, understanding the coalition has no ties to these -- these paramilitaries whatsoever, are you -- have you tracked or are you picking up any uptick in Iranian, sort of, training, supplying or anything to these militias, as far as the way the ISF works with them?

And I have a follow-up.

COL. BYROM:  Yeah, I don't have any information that leads me to that assessment.

Q:  And following up on the -- the statistic about 75 attacks per month on average, how would you assess the Iraqi Security Forces are dealing with the Islamic State, now that they've, sort of, transitioned to a more, sort of, insurgent role rather than, kind of, a -- a more conventional type fighting force?

Because you mentioned that they are hiding in -- in caves and -- and this sort of thing, but it all seems like the tactics that you are employing are really more focused on a conventional fight.  Can you kind of square that for me?

COL. BYROM:  They -- they are basically using two methods in this fight.

They are using these large clearance operations, where they're hunting ISIS in the various locations where they think they are based on intelligence.  And they're doing this -- these operations to disrupt ISIS.

And then they also have forces that are hunting the leadership of ISIS and then trying to take out the various capabilities of ISIS, whether it be, you know, their -- their media capabilities, their propaganda capabilities, their financial capabilities, which will take away -- you know, lead to the long-term enduring defeat of ISIS.

Q:  Thank you, sir.

STAFF:  Ryan?

Q:  Thank you, Colonel.  Ryan Browne with CNN.

Just to follow up on my colleague's point about what kind of (inaudible), we've seen some inspector general reports that have put numbers out there in terms of the number of fighters in Iraq.  And I know there's been some issues with how they're -- that process assessed those numbers.

What is your assessment as to how many ISIS fighters remain in Iraq?

COL. BYROM:  Yeah, I'll tell you, I don't -- I don't focus on the number.  What we're really focused on is the capability and whether they -- whether they can translate this capability into destabilizing or resurging.

So that is what we focus on.  It goes back to -- to the -- the capabilities such as their financial capabilities, their leadership, their propaganda, their media.  We continue to focus on that and target that and then to help our partners, the Iraqi Security Forces, remove those capabilities of ISIS.

Q:  And if I could just add, sir, you mentioned the M777s and some of the artillery fires cross-border.  Are those -- do -- do you also use HIMARS on those cross-border fires?  And are those fires coordinated with the SDF or just with coalition advisers in Syria?

COL. BYROM:  Right now, we're using primarily 777s in those missions.  And what's -- what's special about that is it also includes Iraqi guns and it also includes coalition partner guns, the -- the CAESARs that are doing that.

And they absolutely coordinate with coalition members on the other side of the border to deconflict those fires.  And those coalition members are definitely in communication with the SDF forces.

Q:  Thank you.

STAFF:  Tom?

Q:  Tom Squitieri with Talk Media  --

Q:  Hi, sir.  Good morning.  Thanks for doing this.  I'm Tom Squitieri with Talk Media News.

In regards to the crossfire from Iraq into Syria, what's the level -- the comparative level of the crossfire support given to the current offensive in Hajin, please?

COL. BYROM:  Yeah, I'm -- I'm not quite sure what you're comparing this to.  What I will do --


Q:  -- what has happened before with crossfire actions, please.

COL. BYROM:  I would -- we basically have had a few different scenarios of where the Iraqis were very interested in conducting cross-border fires in order to protect their border.

The -- the cross-border fires that are going on right now are fairly intense; more intense than others I've seen in the past.  And they -- they are directly contributing to the protection of the border by the Iraqis.

Q:  So you would characterize them as protecting the border and not part of the actual offensive going on in Hajin?

COL. BYROM:  That is their primary focus.  Any time we fire these guns, we have to clear it through the government of Iraq.  The government of Iraq is -- they're very focused on protecting their border right now.

So that is the primary purpose right now.  And it -- I would -- I would argue it's complementary.

Q:  Thank you.

STAFF:  Jeff?

Q:  All right, Colonel.  Jeff Schogol with Task and Purpose.

Regarding the soldiers in Bravo Battery Field Artillery Squadron, 3rd Calvary Regiment, since they've been at the firebase since late October, how many rounds have they fired into Syria?

COL. BYROM:  I don't have an exact count of those number of rounds.  It has been significant.

And they're absolutely achieving the disruption effect that the Iraqi government wants them to achieve.  And that is complementary to the fight.

Q:  Can we give a range?  Could we say "several thousand"?

COL. BYROM:  I -- I would fall back on that there's been a large number of those rounds fired.  I'm not going to put a number to it in this audience right here, just due to various considerations.

Q:  Colonel, Jack Detsch from Al-Monitor.  Thanks for doing this.

One thing you said that the PMF are -- you're seeing are not taking -- sorry, are taking orders from the Iraqi Security Forces.

General McKenzie, in testifying to Congress last week, said that militias under the PMF, such as K.H. and A.H., do not take their commands from the GOI, and publicly maintain relations with Tehran.

So I'm just curious about the difference between those two assessments.  Has something changed in your eyes, in GOI's ability to take command of those forces?

COL. BYROM:  The PMF is a broad umbrella.  There's numerous entities that fall underneath that.  So I -- I definitely am not going to counter one of my senior officers on something they said on that.

I do know that the -- the popular mobilization forces as a whole take their orders from the government of Iraq and the Iraqi Security Forces.

Q:  And then just another question with regards to General McKenzie's testimony.  He said that Iraq's border guards have been decimated by the ISIS fight, and would take two years to achieve capability again on the border.

So I'm curious if you agree with that assessment.  And if the U.S. forces in Iraq have any plan to stopgap that border in the interim.

COL. BYROM:  Our method of -- of dealing with the border guard forces is, we have a very robust training plan for them.  And their -- they -- they're rotating their forces through that -- that training program.  And -- and they're actually doing a -- a fairly decent job.

Is this -- is the border porous?  Most likely so.  We don't -- I don't -- I'm not going to get into the -- the policy decision of, do -- are we stop-gapping the border guard force.

But they are improving their capabilities daily.  And they are having an impact on that border.

A great example, within recent times ISIS was pushing some -- some of its fighters across that border.  The border guard force identified them.  And then, working with coalition forces, hunted them down and killed them.

So they have shown that they are capable in this fight against ISIS.  And -- and there's other examples of that.

But it is a -- when we talk Iraqi Security Forces, there's border guard forces on the border, and there's also regular Iraqi army units.  And so they're all working together.  It is a very high priority for the Iraqi Security Forces to defend this border.

STAFF:  Joe?

Q:  This is Joe Tabet with Al Hurra.

Do you have any more details you could share with us in regards to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense's statement, like a while ago, an hour ago, saying that Iraqi fighter jets have targeted ISIS positions on the Syrian-Iraqi border?  They're mainly exactly on -- in the Susah area.  The statement says that are 30 members of ISIS were killed.

If you have any details about these -- these operations that the Iraqi air force has conducted today?

COL. BYROM:  Yes.  The -- the Iraqi air force did conduct a strike today, and effectively did so.  This was their own target.  Now their -- their methodology is, is they'll usually, you know, make sure and deconflict any of those targets with coalition forces.  But they did strike a target today.

I can't speak on behalf of any of the -- of the BEA of that or -- or what they hit.  But they were effective in that strike.

Q:  Thank you.

STAFF:  Anything from anybody who hasn't -- Luis?

Q:  Hi.  Luis Martinez, with ABC News.  Thank you for doing this briefing, sir.

Overall, how would you categorize the level of the fight against ISIS nationwide inside Iraq territorially?  Where is ISIS the strongest, and where do you think they're the weakest right now?

COL. BYROM:  Well, I would say that -- that ISIS is strongest in those very austere locations where they're trying to hide right now and rebuild, you know, their capabilities.

And then they're weakest, most likely where there's Iraqi Security Forces regularly stationed.

So therefore, what the Iraqi Security Forces are doing to -- to combat that is they plan and -- and it's important to understand, they plan missions themselves.  We coach and mentor, but a lot of the times, they come to us with these -- these planned clearance missions that they're going to do.

And they then use their own intelligence, augmented by ours, and they move to these locations and attempt to hunt down ISIS where those -- where they're strongest, which is in the desert areas, especially where the terrain is the worst and it's hard to get to; in the mountainous areas; in the areas where there's deep wadis (valleys).  And that's where they focus their energy and -- and then we help them in that process through the -- through the enabling effects that we discussed -- intelligence, we help them with aerial surveillance, and then joint fires.

Q:  And if I could follow up, as the level of contacts have diminished in size in Iraq, there have been some adjustments made within the force levels of the U.S. forces.

How -- how have you adjusted forces to the diminished level of contact?  And do you foresee remaining at the 5,000 -- the -- at the around 5,000 level just to maintain that enduring capacity for the Iraqi forces?

COL. BYROM:  Yeah, so the -- the framework we use -- and it -- it all stems back to this Joint Operations Command-Iraq.  A good way to think about it is that is equivalent to a combatant command as we would know it, but it's for Iraq.  And that is arranged -- in the various provinces they have operational commands, and those -- each of those Iraqi operational commands is -- it -- it includes command over all the various Iraqi Security Forces that are in that area, whether it be -- whether it be the army, the Federal Police, the various militia groups, they all funnel -- fall under those operational commands.

So we're focusing our energy on having relationships in those operational commands with those key leaders, and working to support them as best we can.

So in terms of numbers, it's a -- it's a steady number.  I'm not -- we -- we're doing okay with -- with -- with the numbers that we have right now, and I'll leave that up to the -- the policymakers to tell us, you know, what we do with that.

But it's important to understand that we're here at the -- at the invitation of the Iraqis.  And any of those numbers, that goes -- that goes back to the policymakers of the various nations in the coalition.

But I -- I would -- it's an effective method right now that is going.

STAFF:  Jeff?

Q:  Thank you, Colonel.  Jeff Schogol with Task & Purpose again.

A while ago, I asked about an insurgent group called either the White Flags or the White Banners in some of the areas that you had mentioned.  Can you talk about -- are you -- are you and the Iraqis seeing this group expanding?  Are they being taken apart?  What is the current situation?

COL. BYROM:  I'm not seeing -- really, I'm not seeing information on this group, and I haven't seen information on this group for months.  So no, we're -- we're really not -- that is something that I -- I am not following.

Q:  Thank you.

STAFF:  Laurie, for one.

Q:  Laurie Mylroie, Kurdistan 24. (Off mic) resurgence of ISIS?

COL. BYROM:  I'm sorry.  I missed that question.

Q:  Do you see, say, since last year, any resurgence of ISIS, an increase in violence from the optimism that existed last year when the prime minister declared victory?

COL. BYROM:  I think ISIS absolutely would like to resurge, and that has been prevented by the operations that the Iraqi Security Forces have been doing.

So there is a fight that is going on in Iraq, but it doesn't involve a -- a physical caliphate.  It doesn't involve holding terrain.  It's -- it -- the -- ISIS is using insurgent activities, and the Iraqi Security Forces are actively and aggressively hunting them down.

STAFF:  Sir, did you have any final words for those here?

COL. BYROM:  Yeah.

First, thanks for letting me talk to you all.  I appreciate it.

And of note, yesterday the -- the Iraqis, they celebrated throughout Iraq Victory Day, which was a -- the year after they were -- they celebrated the defeat of the physical caliphate of ISIS within Iraq.  So I -- I think it's important for everybody to understand that ISIS lost thousands of individuals, KIA, wounded in action, and I just want to make sure that we remember and -- and honor the fallen from -- from them, and realized that they are very, very focused on preventing ISIS from resurging.

And it's been an honor for the 3rd Cavalry Regiment -- the families, the troopers of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment can be very proud of how their troopers have performed in this fight.  And I'm very proud of them.  They're very well-represented, the -- the 172 years of troopers that have gone before them.

So thank you all for this opportunity.

STAFF:  Sir, thank you very much for your time, and you have a fantastic day.

COL. BYROM:  Thank you.