White House: Troops in Iraq doing 'dangerous work'

White House: Troops in Iraq doing 'dangerous work'
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The White House on Tuesday said the death of a U.S. Navy SEAL in Iraq shows that U.S. troops are  "doing dangerous work" in advising Iraqi troops against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but reiterated they were not performing combat missions in Iraq.

"I think what is true is that Iraq and Syria are dangerous places and our men and women in uniform, who are engaged in a mission to offer training, advice and assistance to Iraqi forces that are fighting for their own country, are doing dangerous work," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at a press briefing.

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The remarks came in response to a question whether U.S. troops are moving "closer to combat and danger" than they were at the beginning of the U.S. campaign against ISIS.

Earnest added, "Today's incident is a vivid reminder of the risks that our service members are taking, and some of them, three of them now, have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. But the president's been clear time and time again exactly what their mission is. That mission is to support Iraqi forces on the ground who are taking the fight to [ISIS] on the front lines."

The administration has repeatedly said that the 4,087 U.S. troops authorized for Iraq do not have a "combat role” or "combat mission." 

The White House did acknowledge the U.S. Navy SEAL was the third service member "killed in action," and that he was "killed in combat." However, it also insisted he did not have a "combat mission."

"This was an individual who was not in a combat mission, but he was in a dangerous place. And his position came under attack. He was armed, trained, and prepared to defend himself. Unfortunately, he was killed. And he was killed in combat. But that was not part of his mission. His mission was specifically to offer advice and assistance to those Iraqi forces that were fighting for their own country," Earnest said.

Earnest said ISIS fighters had penetrated a checkpoint manned by Iraqi forces, and went on to attack a Kurdish peshmerga position where the SEAL was "advising our partners on the ground." 

"U.S. forces responded right away with air power to stop the attack and our Iraqi partners are engaging the remnants of those forces," he said. 

Defense officials and a military trainer who witnessed the fighting told Fox News that there was an "extremely intense" firefight involving at least 20 Navy SEALs. 

"The Peshmerga were trying to hold the line, but Navy SEALS – at least 20 – came in and pounded the s--- out of ISIS," military trainer Matthew VanDyke told Fox News. He added that "scores" of militants died. 

Earlier in the day, Defense Secretary Ash Carter called the SEAL’s killing a "combat death" and said the U.S. is waging a "serious fight" in Iraq.  

"It is a combat death, of course. And very sad loss," he said, speaking at a press conference in Germany, where he is visiting U.S. military and regional leaders. 

"But it shows you, it's a serious fight that we have to wage in Iraq. There are American service members involved and that's all I know at this time," he told reporters.