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U.S. General leading coalition sees momentum in fight against Islamic State

American warplanes are staying out of Iraq’s offensive against Tikrit, instead targeting Islamic State militants elsewhere. Judy Woodruff talks to retired Gen. John Allen, special presidential envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, about how the U.S. is supporting the Iraqi-led effort, concern about sectarian retribution, the of role Iran and stemming the flow of foreign fighters.

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    And General Allen joins me now.

    Welcome to the NewsHour.


    It's good to be with you, Judy.


    So, the Pentagon is saying that the momentum of ISIS has been blunted. Does that mean ISIS is on the defensive or does that means there's a standoff, that neither side is advancing?


    Well, I think it's on the defensive.

    We are advancing. There are advances. There has been progress in many areas. There's been progress from the air in arresting its forward momentum and putting it on the defensive, as you have described it. There has been progress in the training process that we have undertaken.

    There are four camps that have been established in conjunction with our Iraqi partners to do training of the Iraqi security forces and tribal elements, a heavy coalition presence in all of those camps. There has been an advising that's occurred for the Iraqi security forces and some of the tribal elements, as they seek to recover the ground and to liberate populations.

    And so it's not Da'esh on the defensive, ISIL on the defensive. We're beginning to see real momentum beginning to develop on the part of the Iraqis.


    Now, this critical operation to try to retake Tikrit, we described it a minute ago, involving some Iraqi troops, large numbers of Shia militiamen, some Sunni tribal fighters, Iranian military advisers, it doesn't appear the U.S. is directly involved. Is that the case?

    And then, separately, are you concerned about the heavy role of these Shia fighters?


    Well, I don't want to get involved or I don't want to comment specifically on the role that the United States may have in this operation either today or as this operation continues to unfold.

    We are in close contact with our Iraqi partners right now, as we have been, and we will watch all of this unfold. But we will be in close contact with them. And the fact that it's not — it doesn't appear that we're involved at this moment doesn't mean we won't be later.

    We have been very clear that, with the presence of Shia elements, the militia elements in the military activities associated with liberating populations, that we expect that, as they conduct these operations and as they would liberate these populations, that they will not affect retribution, they will not take revenge out on these populations.

    Prime Minister Abadi has been very clear in that regard. The grand ayatollah, Ali al-Sistani, has been very clear in that regard. In this operation, as it has unfolded, the provincial governor has supported the operation, as has the chair of the provincial council. Key Sunni sheiks of various tribes have been supportive of the operation.

    So, as it has unfolded to this particular moment, the actions of the forces involved here have been about clearing Da'esh. And we would condemn instantly any retribution or any revenge being taken out on the population.


    But just by your making that point, it sounds like you're concerned about that. And I know Vice President Biden just today spoke with President Abadi and made a point of speaking about the — and making sure that the populations who are liberated are reintegrated back into society.


    Well, this is an important outcome. In each one of the occasions where populations will be liberated, embracing that population and reincorporating the population from being under the heel of Da'esh, or ISIL, back into the mainstream of Iraqi society, binding it back into the broader of concept of Iraq, that is really important.

    And it's important also to make the point that this is not just about the clearing force. We see clearing forces at work right now. What will be equally or perhaps even more important will be the role of the police, which will probably emerge from the local populations. So there we will see the role of Sunni security elements in securing that liberated population.

    It will be the governance element, which reconnects that population back to the central government, and, very importantly, perhaps most importantly, how we provide humanitarian assistance and relief and immediate care for the liberated population. All of those together constitute the effect that we seek to have.


    But in the meantime, it's not only these Iranian military advisers who it's reported are part of this effort to retake Tikrit.

    There are multiple reports that it's an Iranian general who oversees the elite Revolutionary Guard, Quds Force who is overseeing, who is directing this military effort. Is that accurate and is the U.S. coordinating with him?


    We don't coordinate with Iranians. We don't coordinate with Suleimani.


    He's the general, yes.


    Yes, the Quds Force commander.

    We don't coordinate with him. And we have seen those reports. We have no specific information that his presence is a presence that is leading the process. This is an Iraqi process. And the Iraqis have been very clear that taking back these population centers are going to be an Iraqi effort.

    Now, again, we shouldn't be surprised that there's going to be an Iranian element from time to time that will be involved here. But this is an Iraqi-led and an Iraqi-executed evolution.


    But is Iran playing a helpful role, in that it is part of the fight against ISIS?


    Well, we have said from the very beginning that we welcome the constructive role of all participants in this battle.

    And Iran perceives Da'esh, or ISIL, to be just as great a threat to its own security as Iraq does. And Prime Minister Abadi has been very clear that he desires a good relationship with the United States, a good relationship with all of his neighbors, and he seeks to balance that. And we should give him that opportunity.


    Two other quick questions. You said a big part of your goal is to stop or reduce the flow of foreign fighters into the area. Have you had success in doing that?


    At this point, the foreign fighters are still flowing into the battle space into Syria and Iraq.

    The activities that we are undertaking in our partnership with our coalition partners is seeking to do everything from broader community outreach to potentially at-risk populations that could generate these foreign fighters, these recruits, to increasing our cooperation with the sharing of intelligence and tightening border controls.

    So we're taking concerted action across the coalition to staunch the flow of foreign fighters. It hasn't occurred yet. More work needs to be done. But we're in — I think, in a good position to start to build momentum towards that end.


    Syria. Right now, the U.S. focus against ISIS is clearly mainly in Iraq.

    In Syria, you yourself have said it's more complicated. We know that the coalition is divided in Syria, divided among itself. Some of the coalition partners want the focus to be more on President Assad. The U.S. wants the focus to be on ISIS. Doesn't this make progress in Syria almost impossible?


    I think we're all of one mind on dealing with Da'esh as an entity.

    We don't see Da'esh solely as a Syrian entity or as an Iraqi entity. We see Da'esh, or ISIL, as a regional threat. And so while we will take concerted action right now in Iraq because we have a strong partner in Iraq, we will have to build that partnership over time to deal with ISIL in Syria.

    The solution to Syria will never be solved by military means. It has to require a political, diplomatic track. And we're seeking that diplomatic track. But, at the end of that process, at the end of the process of transition, of the political transition in Syria, Bashar al-Assad will not be part of that.

    And I think the coalition members are of one mind on that issue. It's the modalities of how to get there that — where we would have additional discussion.


    General John Allen, special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, we thank you very much for talking with us.


    It's good to see you again. And thank you for letting me be on tonight.

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