An American service member was fatally shot during a U.S. Special Forces raid to rescue 70 hostages—some chained to a wall—in an ISIS compound in central Iraq. The death marks the first U.S. combat death since its withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. And it calls into question President Obama’s repeated promises that “American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again.”
Even after the raid, Pentagon officials, who once insisted there were no American boots on the ground, continued to call the U.S. effort a “train, advise and assist” mission, not a combat one. It marked the latest game of military semantics in a war defined as much by its messaging as by its tactical results.
At a briefing with reporters, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said the U.S. military was “not in an active combat mission” in Iraq. Cook repeatedly called the raid “unique” but refused to say whether the U.S. military had conducted similar mission before this one or whether anyone in the Iraqi government had asked for similar help in the past.
Rather he said Secretary of Defense Ash Carter approved putting U.S. troops in harm’s way because the Kurdish forces asked for raid and because both Kurdish and U.S. forces believed hostages had recently been killed; more could die within hours, they feared.
The U.S. military was not sure who it was rescuing, Cook said. In a statement, Kurdish officials said there were no Kurds among those rescued; they seem surprised and suggested that Iraqis had been rescued, instead.
To be sure, Special Forces are deployed in combat missions in areas officially considered non-combat areas. But until Thursday, the Obama administration had never suggested that those elite troops were exempt how the U.S. defines it mission in Iraq. But White House spokesman Eric Schultz did just that Thursday, saying there are several unique missions in Iraq: “We have also delineated several types of operations that would be permitted under the President’s directive. That includes the train and advise and assist program. That includes Special Operations forces. That includes humanitarian rescues. And that includes counterterrorism missions.”
The death of a U.S. service member reinforced critics’ fears that the redeployment of American troops to Iraq could lead to an expanded mission—one that involved combat. Special Forces are not the first to come under increasing threat. U.S. trainees stationed at a base in western Iraq’s Anbar province, for example, endure a handful of mortar rounds a day, a defense official told The Daily Beast. There are concerns in the Pentagon that an American service member could be killed by one of those attacks.
According to the Kurds and a senior defense official, the raid occurred at 4 a.m. local time when dozens of troops from the U.S. Army’s elite Delta Force left their base in Irbil, Iraq and flew in five helicopters roughly 87 miles to the town of Hawijah.
The U.S. military planned the raid after it had intelligence of an “imminent mass execution,” Cook said.
Kurdish officials asked for the U.S. military to provide intelligence, airstrikes, and advice for the dozens of Kurdish forces on the raid, said a defense official who briefed reporters on the raid on the condition of anonymity. Before and during the raid, the U.S. conducted airstrikes. But the official insisted that the U.S. forces were there to enable their Kurdish counterparts, not lead the effort. The U.S. forces marched into the compound with the Kurds, helped defend them, move hostages out and detained and killed ISIS fighters, a senior defense official told The Daily Beast.
At the compound, the Kurdish and U.S. forces rescued approximately 70 hostages, including at least 22 Iraqi Security Force members, the official said. Some of the hostages were chained to the wall, a second defense official told The Daily Beast.
There were no Americans among the hostages, another U.S. official said.
At some point during the raid, ISIS members holding the hostages fired weapons, striking a U.S. service member, who was then flown back to Irbil where he died. There is no immediate information that any other service member was injured, the official said.
Cook said he was legally not allowed to release any details of how the service member died or details about him.
In all, the Kurdish and U.S. forces detained five ISIS and killed at least 10 others, the Pentagon said in a statement. Four peshmerga, or Kurdish fighters, were injured. The Kurds, in their statement, said six ISIS fighters were detained, and 20 were killed. The statement also said that three Kurdish fighters were injured, not four.
The U.S. military formally withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011 and throughout the 2012 presidential election, the Obama repeatedly hailed the withdraw as a U.S. success story. Since 2011, there have been nine U.S. non-combat deaths in support of Iraq, many in the form of accidents at the U.S. naval base in Bahrain.
But the rise of ISIS, and its taking of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in June 2014 led the U.S. air campaign. The mission evolved into an effort to re-train Iraqi forces. There are currently 3,000 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq, which U.S. military officials have stressed were there to train and advise, not engage in combat. In the early days of the U.S. intervention, U.S. military officials said there were no boots on the ground. But as the numbers swelled, their language changed a bit; they stressed that there were no “combat boots” on the ground.
And on Thursday, even as it conceded the service member had died in combat, refused to call the U.S. effort a combat mission.
“Last night, Iraqi forces, supported by a U.S. Special Operations team in their advise and assist capacity, conducted a complex and highly-successful operation that resulted in the freeing of approximately 70 hostages held by ISIL in an prison near Hawijah, Iraq,” General Lloyd Austin III, the head of of U.S. Central Command, said in a statement. “We commend and congratulate the brave individuals who participated in this successful operation that saved many lives, and we deeply mourn the loss of one of our own who died while supporting his Iraqi comrades engaged in a tough fight. Our gratitude and heartfelt condolences go out to this young man’s family, his teammates and friends.”
Updated: Oct. 22nd at 3:18 PM to include new information.