A top military commander in Iraq pushed back Friday on the idea that U.S. troops are in combat in Iraq the day after a U.S. soldier was fatally wounded during a hostage rescue operation.
"U.S. forces are not in Iraq on a combat mission and do not have boots on the ground," said Lt. Gen. Sean B. MacFarland, commander of the Combined Joint Task Force — Operation Inherent Resolve.
Officials say the hostage rescue was not part of the 3,500-troop U.S. mission in Iraq to train and advise Iraqi forces in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Rather, they say the operation was part of a separate overarching counterterrorism mission throughout the region.
"It is important to realize that U.S. military support to this Iraqi rescue operation is part of our overarching counter-terrorism efforts throughout the region and does not represent a change in our policy," MacFarland added.
The Obama administration has ordered raids to capture or kill high-value targets and has carried out other hostage rescue missions, ostensibly under the 2001 authorization of the use of military force, which allows the U.S. to go after al Qaeda and associated forces.
However, in those missions, there were either high-value terrorist targets or U.S. lives at stake. During the hostage rescue mission this week, there were about 70 hostages rescued, but none were U.S. citizens.
Pentagon officials say, however, the mission was deemed worth the risk of U.S. lives since it was at the request by the Kurdistan Regional Government, a close U.S. partner in the fight against ISIS.
Officials said all the hostages — a mixture of civilians and Iraqi security forces — were rescued, with four Kurdish Peshmerga wounded but "a number" of ISIS fighters killed.
MacFarland hailed Army Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, 39, as a "brave soldier" and one of America's "finest warriors doing what American troops do best — protecting those who cannot protect themselves."
"We are proud of the combined forces who conducted the mission to rescue these Iraqi hostages. Their courage, skill, and sacrifice narrowly prevented yet another brutal massacre by Daesh murderers," he said, using an alternative name for the extremist group.