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American Forces Press Service

Centcom Commander Visits Iraq and Syria

By Cheryl Pellerin DoD News, Defense Media Activity

SYRIA, May 22, 2016 – Over the past two days, during Army Gen. Joseph L. Votel's latest trip to the Middle East, the U.S. Central Command chief met in Iraq and Syria with coalition members, other partners, senior commanders and military leaders to discuss operations and continued collaboration there.

Votel's first stop was in Kuwait on Wednesday to meet with Kuwaiti Defense Minister Khaled Al Jarrah Al Sabah and other military leaders before traveling to Baghdad Thursday.

There, Votel met with the U.S. embassy country team and senior commanders on Friday, and later visited Iraq's Defense Ministry to meet with the Iraqi army's chief of defense and staff, "and talk about … upcoming operations."

Votel told reporters traveling with him that he and the Iraqis also discussed "a few things that they are looking for assistance on and that we are … working with them on as they continue to maintain momentum" in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Building Partner Capacity

During a stop in Taji, about 27 miles north of Baghdad, the general said the rural district is one of six locations in Iraq where coalition trainers are building partner capacity -- a critical need for the coalition, he noted.

"Taji [is] the main sector where we bring organizations … to get them ready to do operations the Iraqis need to do to get control of their country from [ISIL]," Votel said.

"Our strategy … is focused on building partner capacity and executing our operations on a by, with and through manner, so this aspect … is an extraordinarily important part of what we're doing," he said.

Coalition trainers from Australia and New Zealand working at Taji are key to the effort, Votel added, noting that "they're doing some great work in very challenging conditions here to help the Iraqis get ready for the operations that are upcoming."

Improved Iraqi Readiness

Readiness is improving for the Iraqis, the general said, adding that the improvements are apparent as he talks to their leaders and to the fighters themselves.

"I think they're getting a better handle on the challenges they face from both a training and an operating sustaining standpoint," he said.

But there's a lot left to do, Votel said, including making sure the coalition understands their status, making sure they understand it, and "making sure that as we advise them, as we assist them, that they understand where their limitations are and we take that into consideration as we continue to do operations."

"In terms of their ability to be successful and defeat ISIL, I would point out to you that they have been, we've seen that," he said. "We're seeing that out at Anbar where we're actually moving more and more into stabilization operations. … [and] while there are operations underway here, they are achieving objectives that they set out to attain here."

The general added that the ability of the Iraqis to sustain those advances depends on institution building and the institutional sustainment that must be in place for a professional military to provide long-term security.

"I think that's an area we'll have to continue to focus on," he said.

Generating Forces

One of the big challenges the Iraqi forces face and the coalition faces with them is generating forces, Votel said.

"There's a lot going on. We've got operations at Anbar [and] … in the Tigris River Valley. We've got things going on right around Baghdad, so … they're having to make decisions in terms of where their force is going, where their priorities are, how they sustain those things [and] how they move forces around and get them ready to continue their offensive operations so they can maintain momentum," the general added.

"That's a difficult challenge for any military," he said, "but I think it's one that they are working through and we are seeing some success with it."

Votel's assessment is that Iraqi forces want coalition assistance and are now in a much better place to accept and utilize that assistance to achieve lasting effects from their operations.

"I think their planning is maturing, their forces are maturing [and] they're getting better," he said. "There is certainly a way to go, but I think they're in a much better position today than they might have been a couple of years ago to actually leverage the capabilities we're assisting with."

Increasing Cooperation

Speaking with reporters after a day of meetings in Northern Syria, Votel said he had a chance to meet with some of the Syrian Democratic Force leaders and coalition members who are in the area on advise-and-assist missions.

'We had the opportunity to get around and see a number of things, talk about a wide variety of topics, talk about how things are going [and] talk about things that we could do to continue to increase our cooperation, collaboration and effectiveness," he said.

The general said he learned a lot during his visit, and that "there's nothing like being able to see it up front and talk to the people who are actually doing it. So it was a good day for me."

The coalition knew going in that the partners it is working with in Syria are competent and capable, Votel said, noting, "I'm certainly not surprised by this but I'm just incredibly proud of how our coalition members here who are working with our partners are doing in very challenging environment, but they are definitely rising to the occasion."

Votel added, "They're exhibiting their initiative, their innovativeness, their skills [and] their expertise to really make a difference here."

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