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Pentagon: 70 ISIS hostages liberated by U.S. troops
01:52 - Source: CNN

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Joshua Wheeler, a member of the Army's elite Delta Force, was felled by small-arms fire in Iraqi-led operation

Officials say mission is to train, assist Iraqis, rather than engage in combat

Washington CNN  — 

The first death in four years of an American service member under enemy fire in Iraq is raising questions about the nature of the U.S. commitment there and whether the administration is correct to claim that it’s not engaged in a combat role.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter declared Friday, a day after the death of Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler in a hostage rescue mission, that the incident didn’t mean that the United States had returned to combat in Iraq, but rather was part of the training and assistance that a detachment of approximately 3,000 troops are providing Iraqis fighting ISIS.

“It doesn’t represent assuming a combat role. It represents a continuation of our advise-and-assist mission” for Iraqi security forces, Carter told reporters.

Wheeler, a member of the Army’s elite Delta Force, was felled by small-arms fire while accompanying an Iraqi-led operation to free Kurdish hostages from their ISIS captors, according to the Pentagon. After ISIS started firing on the team, Wheeler decided to join the fight and was mortally wounded while protecting other troops, the military said.

In all, 70 hostages were freed, though not the Kurds the mission originally intended to secure.

Despite Carter’s characterization, retired Air Force Col. Cedric Leighton told CNN that “certainly for the Special Operations Forces that were engaged in the raid, that was combat.”

While the administration has sought to play down the concept that the U.S. has returned to having “boots on the ground” in Iraq – after the last combat soldier there was pulled out to much fanfare in 2011 – it is increasingly hard for officials to avoid that description.

“Under the train, equip and assist rubric, they are going in there and assisting,” Leighton said. “But it is boots on the ground, and it does mean that we are engaged in that kind of combat.”

There are constraints in the current policy that prevent conventional U.S. forces from going to the front lines of combat in Iraq as they did during the Iraq War, but U.S. Special Operations Forces – because of the advanced skills they possess – are in a somewhat unique role.

Behind the scenes with the commander of Special Ops

Similar raids in region are likely

And this is not the first instance in which they have encountered a hostile situation on the ground while participating in the anti-ISIS campaign.

Earlier this year, a Special Ops team conducted a raid deep inside Syria to capture a senior ISIS leader known as Abu Sayyaf. While he was killed in the raid, U.S. forces were able to capture his wife and a trove of material about the organization that was analyzed for intelligence about the group.

The mission this week required aircraft and an ability to work in the dark – capabilities that Iraqi and Kurdish forces lack. With intelligence information indicating a mass execution of hostages was imminent, U.S. officials decided that Special Operations Forces were uniquely suited to help.

It almost certainly will not be the last dangerous mission undertaken by U.S. troops in their effort to train, advise and assist Iraqi forces to take the lead in battling and defeating ISIS.

“I suspect that we will have further opportunities in the future” to conduct similar raids, Carter said.

Regardless of whether the raid is considered a combat mission, it illustrates how fluid the advise-and-assist role can be when the situation on the ground turns dangerous. Under the current rules of engagement, U.S. forces are allowed to return fire when either they or their partner forces come under attack.

“The plan was not for the U.S. advise-and-assist and accompanying forces to enter the compound or be involved in the firefight,” Carter said of the mission Wheeler was on. “This is someone who saw the team that he was advising and assisting coming under attack, and he made it possible for them to be effective, and in doing that, lost his own life.”

Becoming part of combat situation

Former military commanders who have served in a train, equip and assist capacity in Iraq say the nature of the mission goes well beyond teaching in a classroom.

“When the people you are training go into combat, you want to go with them to show your support, that’s part of the deal,” said CNN military analyst retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, who once served near Hawija, Iraq, where the raid took place. “It’s hard to separate yourself from that.”

And because of the sophisticated equipment and capabilities needed to successfully execute this mission, Hertling said he understands why Special Ops were approved to go.

“That would have been an easy call because you are talking about large helicopters, a lot of hostages that you had to find, and a very tough mission given the distance and the enemy you were up against,” he said.

The administration contended that despite the death of Wheeler, this mission did not represent an escalation of the operation against ISIS, or so-called mission creep, with Carter having personally signed off on the Thursday’s rescue.

“The fact that it went up to the secretary of defense indicates it was an exceptional circumstance,” CNN military analyst retired Lt. Col. Rick Francona said. “Normally, these decisions would be made at a much lower level.”

And going forward, Carter said, Americans should not be under “any illusions” that U.S. forces in Iraq are not facing danger.

“Americans are flying combat missions, thousands of combat missions over Syria and Iraqi territory,” even though they are not involved in a massive land combat campaign, he noted. “But we do have people who are in harm’s way, and who evidently have shown a willingness to put themselves in harm’s way in order to have mission success.”