The Pentagon says the U.S. is not in a combat role in Iraq, despite the recent death of a U.S. service member from Islamic State gunfire during a hostage rescue mission.
“U.S. forces are not in an active combat mission in Iraq, and I can say that directly,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook responded Thursday to questions from reporters on “mission creep” and “boots on the ground.”
A joint rescue mission by U.S. and Iraqi Kurdish fighters freed about 70 hostages, including at least 22 Iraqi Security Force members, from an Islamic State prison compound in Hawijah, west of Kirkuk. The hostages were under threat of “imminent mass executions,” according to a Pentagon statement.
One American service member was killed while assisting Peshmerga forces under fire from Islamic State militants. The death marked the first time a U.S. service member was killed in combat as part of the year-long campaign against IS extremists.
A senior U.S. defense official said dozens of Kurdish and American fighters were involved in the rescue mission. U.S. forces were "enabling" the mission in coordination with Iraq's Kurdish regional government, the official noted, and they also recovered "important intelligence" about the Islamic State militant group.
The operation was authorized by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter as part of the U.S. train, advise and assist mission in Iraq, according to Cook.
“This was a unique circumstance - a specific request from the Kurdistan regional government - and we acted,” Cook said. “Thanks to the actions of not only the Iraqi forces involved here, but the U.S. forces, lives were saved.”
White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters Thursday there are several types of U.S. operations permitted in Iraq, including special operations, counterterror and humanitarian rescues that are authorized under Operation Inherent Resolve without crossing the constituting a “combat role.”
The American killed during the raid was not immediately identified. A defense official said he was evacuated to Irbil but died a short time later.
No Kurdish fighters were among those rescued, according to a statement by Kurdish officials.
Iraqi units captured five Islamic State fighters and killed a number of IS activists during the raid. Four Peshmerga fighters were wounded, according to Cook.
Kurdish fighters have had some success in pushing Islamic State fighters out of areas they captured in northern Iraq, with support from airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition over the past year.