Officials parsing words over 'combat' in Iraq

Officials parsing words over 'combat' in Iraq
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The raid to free captives held by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is bringing up uncomfortable questions for the Obama administration. 

U.S. special operations forces not only engaged in combat with ISIS fighters last week for the first time, but they also called in airstrikes from the ground, according to defense officials. 

After a U.S. and Kurdish Peshmerga team conducted a raid to rescue 70 Iraqi hostages from an ISIS prison compound in northern Iraq, U.S. forces then called in airstrikes from F-15 fighter jets that leveled the compound.  

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“After the hostages were safe, American F-15s flattened the Daesh prison,” said Army Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, on Saturday.

The White House, however, has repeatedly suggested U.S. troops would not face combat in Iraq. 

"The current situation is that there are about 3,500 U.S. military personnel in Iraq not in a combat role," White House spokesman Josh Earnest had said on June 11, after an additional 450 troops were authorized. 

U.S. officials have repeated that assertion in recent days, even as they confirmed the death of Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler, a U.S. soldier who was fatally injured in a firefight with ISIS fighters during the raid. 

The Obama administration has also repeatedly pushed back against calls for U.S. troops to embed with Iraqi forces and call in airstrikes, while leaving open the possibility upon recommendation of military commanders and for complex operations such as retaking Mosul. 

An administration official on Saturday told The Hill that that decision has not yet been made.  

Since the raid, which involved 30 U.S. special operations forces, officials have given confusing and sometimes contradictory explanations as to why Wheeler, a Delta Force member, was not engaged in combat. 

Officials have disagreed on whether the raid was part of the U.S. mission in Iraq to "train, advise and assist" Iraqi forces, or part of an overarching counterterrorism campaign against ISIS. 

Top Pentagon and military officials said on Thursday it was part of the "train, advise and assist" mission in Iraq — although the rules of engagement for U.S. troops there restrict them from participating in combat except for in self-defense, or putting themselves in situations where contact with the enemy was expected. 

But the next day, the top U.S. commander in charge of the war in Iraq and Syria, Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, said the raid was part of an "overarching counter-terrorism efforts throughout the region" — which would have allowed troops to come into contact with enemy forces, as with previously conducted raids in Syria. 

Some officials compared the operation to a U.S. raid in May, when U.S. troops swooped into Syria and killed ISIS leader Abu Sayyaf and captured his wife, Umm Sayyaf. 

But later that day, Defense Secretary Ash Carter reiterated that the raid was part of the "train, advise and assist" mission, and said that the rules of engagement also allowed for the defense of partners. 

At the same time, he said combat was not anticipated and that Wheeler and another soldier acted on their own to assist the Peshmerga. 

"The plan was not for the U.S. advise and assist and accompanying forces to enter the compound or be involved in the fire fight,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Friday. 

“When a fire fight ensued, this American did what I'm very proud that Americans do in that situation. He ran to the sound of the guns,” he added. 

Officials at first stressed that the rescue operation was a "unique" circumstance in which the Kurdistan Regional Government — a close ally in the fight against ISIS — had requested U.S. help in the operation, adding that there has been no change in tactics. 

"I wouldn't suggest you should look at this as some change in tactics on our part. This was a unique circumstance in which very close partners of the United States made a specific request for our assistance,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook told reporters on Thursday. 

Yet, a day later, Carter said he expected to do more such raids.  

"We'll do more raids…It doesn't represent us assuming a combat role. It represents a continuation of our advise and assist mission,” he said 

The question now is whether the “advise and assist” role will put more U.S. troops to into similar operations in which they may not anticipate combat but could find themselves in it, such as Wheeler did. 

And while officials in recent days have repeatedly denied that the U.S. troops authorized for the Iraq mission are conducting "combat operations" or have a "combat role" in Iraq, they have also confirmed Wheeler's death as the "first combat death in Iraq since 2011."  

Officials have been careful to say that the troops do not have a combat "mission" or combat "role" in the country, and U.S. officials have ruled out "large-scale ground combat." 

But with the Defense secretary expecting more raids, it is not clear how the administration intends to explain how the "train, advise and assist" mission will not turn into a "combat" mission or that there is not any mission creep. 

The White House continued to parse words on Friday. 

“I do think the president has made clear, and all of us who speak for the administration will continue to make clear that he does have no intention to authorize long-term, large-scale ground combat operation like our nation has conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz. 

Immediately afterwards, at the Pentagon, Carter spoke more bluntly, telling reporters when asked to describe what he knew of the raid, “This is combat — things are complicated.”