Special Briefing Office of the Spokesperson
Senior State Department Official Washington, DC
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.
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