By DoD News
By Marine Corps Sgt. David Staten
A U.S.-led coalition task force named Task Force Lion, part of Operation Inherent Resolve, is continuing its efforts to support the Iraqi government in its fight against the remnant forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the task force’s commander told reporters at the Pentagon today via satellite from Iraq.
Task Force Lion’s mission is to advise, assist, and enable the Iraqi security forces and build their capacity through training programs. The task force includes all four U.S. services, as well as coalition partners from seven different nations.
“We are the fifth rotation of this advise-and-assist task force, which began in late 2014, and we have been fortunate during our tour to participate in the ISF assault to liberate the last of the urban centers of the Middle Euphrates River valley that were under ISIS control here in western Anbar province,” Marine Corps Col. Seth W. B. Folsom said.
Leveraging Coalition Assets
The task force has routinely engaged with senior Iraqi unit leaders, assisting them in operational planning and intelligence collection, he said. Task Force Lion also has worked closely with Iraqi forces to leverage coalition intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and the coalition’s fire support capabilities to target and destroy ISIS forces over the last six months, he added.
From September to November, Folsom told reporters, Task Force Lion supported the Iraqi operation to take back the cities of Rayhanah, Anah, Qaim and Rawah. To accomplish the mission and support the Iraqi forces in their advance across more than 3,700 square miles of battle space, he said, the task force built three forward-positioned, expeditionary firebases and command centers with Iraqi partners, and the Marines, soldiers, sailors, and airmen conducted nearly 100 tactical ground movements totaling more than 11,000 miles.
In the three years since ISIS seized much of Iraq, the terrorists had prepared a daunting array of defenses along the main route through the Euphrates River valley, Folsom said, including minefields composed of hundreds of improvised explosive devices.
In those three years, ISIS fighters subjugated the Iraqi citizens across Anbar province and one of the greatest concerns the task force had as they helped the ISF plan and execute their operation was the potential for civilian casualties, he added.
“Our mandate was clear: the Iraqi citizens had already suffered enough under ISIS’ unjust rule, and so it was imperative that we avoid civilian casualties,” Folsom said.
Since the Iraqi forces liberated western Anbar, life for the Iraqis there has slowly begun returning to some semblance of normalcy, the colonel said. The Iraqi forces are working closely with civil authorities to stabilize towns such as Anah and Rawah, restoring essential services, and removing hundreds of pieces of unexploded ordnance left behind by ISIS to kill, maim, and terrorize returning Iraqi citizens, he said.
Internally displaced persons are returning to Anbar in greater and greater numbers, Folsom said, noting that least 20,000 out of 30,000 citizens who were there have returned to Anbar.
“[The Iraqi security forces] are right to be proud of their accomplishments,” the colonel said. “My team and I are likewise proud to have worked with our Iraqi partners during this critical moment in the history of their country.”
ISIS no longer controls any of the population centers in Iraq, Folsom said, but small ISIS elements still seek sanctuary in remote areas in the deserts and mountains, and ISIS elements are attempting to re-establish themselves in populated areas.
The terrorist organization has one goal in Iraq, and that is to survive, Folsom told reporters. The Iraqi general he advises hasn’t changed his posture in the last year, he added, and has continued to make it a priority to secure the urban centers and the major routes throughout the province and to secure and reinforce the border with Syria and o hunt down the small pockets of ISIS fighters in the desert. The Iraqi general is fond of saying, ‘ISIS began in the desert, and we’re going to finish them in the desert,’ Folsom said.
“When I think about ISIS as it is now, these small pockets of fighters who are having problems communicating with each other and building a coherent strategy — I can say with confidence that their days are numbered,” Folsom said. Iraq’s national elections are approaching, he noted, and he said he is advising his Iraqi partners as they develop their plans to safeguard that important milestone.
The task force’s training effort to build and develop the Iraqi border guard forces remains constant, Folsom said, as does its effort to continue the professional development of the Iraqi security forces at all levels.
“Iraq’s future is brighter than it was three years ago, and the men and women of Task Force Lion remain committed to our partnership with the [Iraqi forces] to ensure the people of Iraq never again have to face the horrors of ISIS,” Folsom said.