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Iraq conundrum: When is a combat boot a 'boot on the ground'?

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel addresses troops Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014, at Camp Pendleton, Calif. He called the additional 130 troops sent to Iraq 'assessors' and said the deployment was 'not a combat boots-on-the-ground kind of operation.'

WASHINGTON — The U.S. decision to send Marines and Special Operators into northern Iraq to assess whether to evacuate members of a trapped minority sect from a mountain and away from the Islamic State marked an Obama administration abandonment of a pledge of no boots on the ground, some analysts and Pentagon officials said Wednesday.

Unlike the previous group of advisers dispatched to Iraq to work alongside their Iraqi counterparts in joint operation centers in cities the Islamic State has yet to overrun, the latest advisers had to visit the Sinjar mountains. Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst for the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, said the possibility of encountering hostile Islamic State forces is real.

“You have to put guys on the ground to assess the humanitarian crisis. If they are going to assist in building a humanitarian corridor, they are at risk from fire from ISIL,” Harmer said, referring to the Islamic State by an acronym derived from one of its previous names, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

The Obama administration will use the assessment by the newly sent troops to determine whether a rescue of the trapped Yazidis is needed, defense officials told McClatchy. If they determine that a rescue must be mounted, how to do it becomes critical. If there are only a few hundred, an airlift might be the best option. If there are as many as 30,000, the U.N.’s estimate on Tuesday, then an air campaign would demand more flights, increasing the risk.

Either option, however, would require troops on the ground.

Throughout the day, spokesmen around Washington coined a new phrase to defend the expanded U.S. effort, saying there would be no boots on the ground “in a combat role.” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the new phrase repeatedly at a daily briefing with reporters.

The White House continued to insist that the assessment of conditions in the Sinjar mountains was not a combat mission, calling it instead a humanitarian role, one where no U.S. troops have fired upon Islamic State fighters.

“These 130 personnel are not going to be in a combat role in Iraq. They’re there on a temporary basis to make assessments about how to get the population off the mountain,” Benjamin Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, told reporters Tuesday. “This would be a humanitarian effort, again, to get them to a safe space. There are a range of ways for doing that. We haven’t made decisions about how to carry out that mission because we want to get the readout from this assessment team first.”

The Pentagon has been quick to define a “boots-on-the-ground” combat mission as an offensive operation, calling the latest effort a humanitarian one.

“The president made it very clear; there will be no boots on the ground in a combat mission,” Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, told CNN.

But as many in the Pentagon note in a common phrase of their own, which was repeated in recent days, “The enemy gets a vote.” If Islamic State fighters fire on U.S. troops as they are undertaking a humanitarian mission, the rules of engagement allow for them to defend themselves, Harmer said. Indeed, the bulk of the troops in the assessment team — Marines and Special Operators — are there to provide security.

Once there are troops at risk from the Islamic State, they become boots on the ground, Harmer said, regardless whether they fire or are fired upon. Just the potential of an attack makes it a ground combat mission, he said.

Some in the Pentagon quietly agree.

“Of course they are in a combat mission,” one senior Pentagon official said privately, declining to attach his name to the comment because of its sensitive nature.

Although officials used the number 130 to describe the new advisers, they in fact number 129 — 80 Marines and 49 Special Forces. They began arriving in northern Iraq Tuesday as residents heard the loud roar of four tilt-rotor V22 Ospreys moving toward the city of Irbil. Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steven Warren told reporters in a briefing Wednesday that the Osprey represented an “additional rotary flight presence,” a nod to the Osprey’s ability to land and take off vertically in difficult terrain like a helicopter.

He conceded the Islamic State has the weapons to strike those aircraft.

Indeed, in recent days the Islamic State has fired on Iraqi helicopters seeking to rescue trapped Yazidis. It does not appear they have successfully struck any aircraft.

The newest troops would be armed, Warren said, because they are confronting “an active enemy.”

In announcing Thursday the authorization for U.S. military action in Iraq, President Barack Obama vowed that there would be no boots on the ground.

“Even as we support Iraqis as they take the fight to these terrorists, American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq, because there’s no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq,” he said. “The only lasting solution is reconciliation among Iraqi communities and stronger Iraqi security forces.”

With the latest influx of advisers, there now are 964 U.S. troops on the ground, according to Pentagon figures.

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