US combat death in Iraq reflects intensifying war

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters observe the front line with Islamic State in Northern Iraq.

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters observe the front line with Islamic State in Northern Iraq.

The combat death of a US Navy SEAL who was advising Kurdish forces in Iraq coincides with a gradually deepening American role in fighting a resilient Islamic State, even as the Iraqis struggle to muster the military and political strength to defeat the militants.

Over the course of the nearly two-year-old campaign, the Pentagon has slowly expanded the American military role. The strategy, criticised by some as incremental and inadequate, aims to ensure that the Iraqis do the ground combat, supported by U.S. airpower, special operations advisers and others.

As the Iraqis have gained competence and confidence and prepared an assault in hopes of retaking Mosul, the Pentagon has announced plans to put more U.S. troops in Iraq and place them closer to the front lines.

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In Defense Secretary Ash Carter's view, that means a greater chance for success. It also means more risk to US troops, as he acknowledged Tuesday in announcing the latest death, the third of an American service member in combat in Iraq since the U.S.-led coalition launched its campaign against the Islamic State in the summer of 2014.

"It shows you it's a serious fight that we have to wage in Iraq,'' Carter said.

The SEAL was identified Tuesday as Charlie Keating IV, 31, who grew up in Phoenix and attended the Naval Academy before becoming a SEAL based out of Coronado, California. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said Keating died in an Islamic State group attack near the city of Irbil.

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Seven months ago, a special operations soldier, 39-year-old Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler, was killed during a Kurdish-led raid on an Islamic State prison in northern Iraq. 

In March, a Marine artilleryman, Staff Sgt. Louis F. Cardin, 27, was killed when the militants launched a rocket attack on a newly established US firebase outside Mosul.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said President Barack Obama had been briefed on the incident and extended condolences to Keating's family. Earnest said the incident was a ``vivid reminder'' of the dangers facing U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria.

"They are taking grave risks to protect our country. We owe them a deep debt of gratitude,'' Earnest said.

Keating's death coincides with diverging trends in Iraq.

On one hand, Iraqi forces trained and advised by Americans have scored significant battlefield gains in recent months, including the recapture of Ramadi and other advances against IS-held towns in Anbar province.

On the other hand, political conflict in Baghdad fed by sectarian rivalry is threatening to derail the entire effort.

Carter said Monday that as the Iraqis gain battlefield momentum the Pentagon will pursue additional ways to support them. Recently that has meant adding more U.S. troops to advise Iraqi brigade and battalion commanders closer to the fight. Inevitably that means the likelihood of more U.S. combat casualties, even though the White House insists there are no US "boots on the ground'' in Iraq or Syria.

The risk can be expected to grow if, as planned, the US sends Apache attack helicopters into battle in support of an Iraqi assault on Mosul in coming months. The U.S. also has committed to sending more mobile artillery as part of that effort and to providing up to $US415 million in support of the Kurds in northern Iraq.

Obama recently authorised an increase in the number of troops that can deploy to Iraq to advise and assist Iraqi forces. The cap was increased last week from 3,870 to 4,087.

The US. also has announced it will increase the number of special operations forces in Syria from 50 to 300.

As described by an Iraqi Kurdish intelligence officer, Lt. Col. Manav Dosky, Tuesday's Islamic State attack was launched on Teleskof, about 14 miles north of Mosul, just after 6 a.m. The Islamic State broke through the Kurds' front-line position with a barrage of armoured Humvees and bulldozers, Dosky said, and clashes killed at least three Kurdish peshmerga fighters. Keating was among Americans advising the peshmerga during that battle.

Maj. Gen. Jaber Yawer, a Kurdish peshmerga spokesman, told The Associated Press that the American was killed by IS sniper fire during an IS attack that also involved a number of car bombs.

A US defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorised to discuss the incident publicly, said the SEAL was killed with small arms fire, suggesting that Islamic State fighters likely came within a few hundred yards of the U.S. forces.

The Americans were 2 to 3 miles behind that front line before the attack was launched, the official added.

American forces will continue to stay behind the front lines, the defence official said, but he acknowledged that the U.S. expects more ground fighting as the Iraqi and Kurdish militaries, backed by the U.S., push farther into Islamic State-controlled territory.

 - AP

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