U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter talks to U.S. troops from the 82nd Airborne Division at the Baghdad International Airport in Baghdad, Iraq, July 23, 2015.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter talks to U.S. troops from the 82nd Airborne Division at the Baghdad International Airport in Baghdad, Iraq, July 23, 2015.

WASHINGTON - After months of skirting the issue of whether American forces are in combat in Iraq, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren was clear on Wednesday: “Of course it’s combat.”

Asked about a joint Kurdish Peshmerga-U.S. force raid freeing a number of prisoners from an Islamic State jail in Hawija on October 22, Warren acknowledged it was a “combat action.”

“This is a combat zone,” he told journalists via a web link from Baghdad, pointing out that U.S. pilots have been conducting combat air patrols for months.

Delta Force Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler died in the Hawija operation. Wheeler is the first American to die fighting in Iraq in almost four years, and he has been praised as a hero for his actions.

FILE - This image made from video taken on Oct. 22
FILE - This image made from video taken on Oct. 22, 2015, from a helmet camera, shows U.S. and Iraqi special forces during a raid inside a makeshift prison in the town of Huwija, 15 kilometers (9 miles) west of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk.

Not a 'combat mission'

U.S. administration officials have so far described U.S. ground action in Iraq as an “advise, train and assist” mission.

President Barack Obama had said in February that a resolution submitted to Congress "does not call for the deployment of U.S. ground combat forces to Iraq or Syria."

Obama’s statement echoed his previous comment in September 2014 that "American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission."

FILE - Screengrab of a video shot through night-vi
FILE - Screengrab of a video shot through night-vision lens shows U.S. servicemen conducting a mission in Iraq.

The word “combat” is an anathema to the American public because it implies the potential for U.S. casualties, and is also is sensitive politically because Obama came to office promising an end to US combat forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Warren said Wednesday the Pentagon’s job was “to advise, assist, and on occasion, accompany” local forces in their fight against Islamic State extremists. He denied, though, there had been a major shift in policy.

“You are not going to see what we saw in 2006,” with “divisions thunder-running across Iraq,” Warren insisted.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Tuesday said the U.S. would take “direct action on the ground” in its fight against Islamic State extremists, but on Wednesday appeared to evade concerns over the word combat.

"It's a strategic point. It's not a linguistic point,” he said.

Boots on the ground

Ramadi, Iraq
Ramadi, Iraq

To some the point is moot.

“We still have American politicians saying they don’t want boots on the ground in Iraq or Syria, but we already have 3,500 Americans on the ground in Iraq, very much boots on the ground, very much involved in the broader war effort,” Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution told VOA.

And the recent raid pointed to a potential mission escalation, he said. “I think Obama is realizing that the current strategy is not adequate to the task, and hopefully he is rethinking it fairly comprehensively.”

But Daniel Serwer, Senior Research Professor of Conflict Management at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies, said what Obama was trying to do was"keep a light footprint."

“It’s now forgotten, but George W. Bush had to deploy several hundred thousand American soldiers before invading Iraq. That was a massive, visible operation and President Obama isn’t doing that. It wouldn’t’ be possible to keep it secret. It’s quite clear he isn’t going to do that," Serwer told VOA.

Since August 2014, the U.S. and its coalition partners have conducted 7,712 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria in an attempt to degrade and ultimately destroy the Islamic State militants.

But after 14 months, O’Hanlon said, not only was there a stalemate — with IS militants still holding a number of cities in northwest Iraq and eastern Syria — the battlefield had become increasingly murky with the introduction of Russian and Iranian trainers in Syria.

“You could have some geographic division of the battlefield, at least initially,” he said.

O’Hanlon warned, though, that there's a danger those lines would get blurred.

"People will wind up tagging along with units that they trained that are now engaging in firefights, that you’ll wind up in these inadvertent confrontations, at least in localized limited settings, that you did not intend and don’t want, so, it’s a more dangerous setting than it was before, no doubt about it,” he said.