The Cable

Intense Firefight, Hasty Rescue Effort, and the Death of a Navy SEAL in Iraq

Combat incidents -- and casualties -- pile up for U.S. forces in Iraq

MOSUL, IRAQ - MAY 3:  Peshmerga forces patrol after clashes between Daesh and Peshmergas on Guve side of Peshmerga in Mosul's Mahmur district, Iraq on May 3, 2016.
 (Photo by Hemn Baban/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MOSUL, IRAQ - MAY 3: Peshmerga forces patrol after clashes between Daesh and Peshmergas on Guve side of Peshmerga in Mosul's Mahmur district, Iraq on May 3, 2016. (Photo by Hemn Baban/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The battle started just after dawn with a bulldozer, then a truck bomb. And it ended with a U.S. Navy SEAL dying at a Kurdish Peshmerga outpost on the outskirts of Mosul, Iraq.

About 125 Islamic State fighters surprised a handful of U.S. military advisors meeting with the Peshmerga a few miles outside the Islamic State-held city, touching off a daylong fight that included U.S. helicopters, a commando quick reaction force, and warplanes dropping dozens of bombs to push the insurgents back.

On Wednesday, the Pentagon provided new details of the Tuesday strike that killed Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Charles Keating IV — the third American killed in Iraq since October. It was a sobering reminder of just how close U.S. forces are to the front lines in the upcoming battle for Mosul, which fell to the Islamic State in June 2014.

The fight occurred near the town of Tal Asqaf. Minutes after the truck bomb detonated, the Americans called for help. That’s when the quick reaction force — which included Keating — arrived, fighting their way in, and fighting on their way back out. Keating was killed as the Americans were pulling out, said Army Col. Steve Warren, the U.S. military’s spokesman in Baghdad.

Intense ground fire also damaged two U.S. helicopters. After the U.S. troops left, the Peshmerga and the Islamic State fought it out until late into the evening, with the insurgents eventually pulling back. But 11 U.S. Air Force jets — including a B-52 — pounded the Islamic State fighters with 31 airstrikes, destroying many of the insurgents’ vehicles, Warren said, along with two more truck bombs on their way to battle.

Keating’s death comes just after Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced the deployment of 217 more troops to Iraq — adding to the 5,000 already there — and bringing the U.S. military’s footprint in Syria to 300 ground forces.

The role of U.S. troops in the fight remains somewhat murky, though special operations forces in Iraq have launched a series of kill-or-capture missions against Islamic State leadership during the past several months. When U.S. troops were sent back to Iraq in June 2014 to train and advise local forces, Defense officials insisted they would mostly remain on large bases, well away from the fighting. But new plans call for American advisors to push closer to the front lines while embedding with Iraqi army battalions to help direct the fighting.

The prize — in Iraq at least — is the city of Mosul, which fell to the Islamic State in June 2014. U.S. warplanes have been targeting the Islamic State in and around the city for months as Kurdish and Iraqi forces push forward on the ground in hopes of cutting off key supply routes between Mosul and the Islamic State stronghold in Raqqa, Syria.

Over the past two years, American forces have retrained about 21,000 Iraqi and Kurdish forces after the Iraqi Army all but collapsed in the face of the Islamic State’s assault across the country’s north and west. U.S. officials have estimated that it would take at least 20,000 troops, backed up by U.S. air power, to retake Mosul, but American and Iraqi officials have yet  to launch their campaign. Several thousand Iraqi troops and their U.S. advisors have been massing near the town of Makhmour southeast of the city, and are slowly, if not always successfully, clearing the countryside.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford told FP  this week that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi — who is fighting for his political life in Baghdad — has been holding discussions with Kurdish and Iraqi leaders as well as U.S. officials about planned military operations to take back the city.

“It was moving in the right direction as of Friday, and we’ll have to see what happens this week,” Dunford said. But real questions remain over what political power-sharing arrangements will be possible in Mosul, an ethnically mixed city. “It’s less about the operation going forward and what’s going to happen the day after,” he said.

Photo credit: HEMM BABAN/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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