Pentagon: 'Of course' US troops are in combat

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Defense Secretary Ash Carter acknowledged Wednesday that U.S. troops are "in combat" in Iraq but argued that U.S. troops do not have a combat mission or combat role in the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  

"There are American troops in combat every day," Carter said when asked if U.S. troops are in combat in Iraq. 

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He also said "of course" Delta Force commando Sgt. Master Joshua Wheeler died in combat last week during a U.S. special operations raid with Kurdish Peshmerga to rescue Iraqi hostages. 

Still, he said the overall mission of U.S. forces in Iraq is to enable by "equipping, training, advising and assisting" capable and motivated local forces. 

"That's the only way to make defeat of ISIL stick, is to have the involvement of local forces, who can take and hold territory — and we're prepared to help them," he said.  

The remarks contrast with those made by President Obama, who said in June 2014, “American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again.

“American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq, but we will help Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists who threaten the Iraqi people, the region and American interests as well,” he said. 

However, over time, White House officials have broadened the interpretation of “combat” to mean “large-scale combat operations.”  

Carter's remarks come a day after he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he expected U.S. troops to conduct more raids against ISIS. 

"We won't hold back from supporting capable partners in opportunistic attacks against ISIL or conducting such missions directly. Whether by strikes from the air or direct action on the ground," he told the committee on Tuesday, using an alternative acronym for ISIS. 

Earlier Wednesday, Army Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, defined those raids as "specific missions" where "there is combat action conducted to achieve a certain objective, and then the forces are then removed." 

He also implied they would take place in both Iraq and Syria. 

"What this is is raids, whether they're partnered as we saw in Hawija or whether they’re unilateral as we saw against Abu Sayyaf. The secretary simply made clear ... that this is something that's been successful and we're going to reinforce success," he said. 

But Warren argued the raids in Iraq did not mean a combat role or combat mission there, echoing the White House's reasoning. 

"This is not embedding, you know, thousands of Americans with thousands or tens of thousands of Iraqis to conduct ... sustained offensive operations," Warren said. 

The U.S. military is, however, currently working on possible options to increase pressure on ISIS, first reported by The Hill, which do include embedding small numbers of U.S. troops with Iraqi forces in combat to call in airstrikes. Warren said those options would fall short of major land combat.

The administration is also reportedly considering embedding some U.S. advisers with rebel forces in Syria, but it's not clear how many advisers are being considered or whether President Obama will ultimately adopt that option. 

However, Warren was unequivocal in saying that U.S. troops were in combat and in harm's way in Iraq and in flying missions over Syria. 

"If anyone thought that our pilots dropping bombs both in Iraq and Syria for the last year are not in harm's way, they're not paying attention," he said. "There's a reason I carry a gun with me everywhere I go. There's a reason — you know, we’re handing out combat patches." 

"Of course this is a combat zone. There's a war going on in Iraq, if folks haven't noticed. And we’re here and it's all around us. It's a dangerous place, you know, we've had a man killed, we've had men — personnel wounded. That’s going to continue to happen, and we continue to give out combat patches, we continue to collect imminent danger pay," he said. 

"I can tell you we're in combat," he said. "When you're a pilot and you strike an enemy target with thousands of pounds of bombs, that's aerial combat. So, yeah, of course — of course we're in combat."