WASHINGTON — U.S. troops in Iraq are in combat.
That’s what the Baghdad-based spokesman for the American-led, anti-Islamic State coalition told reporters Wednesday.
Pentagon officials have hesitated to label the role of U.S. forces against the militants in Iraq and Syria as combat in the week since Army Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler was killed in a firefight during a raid on an Islamic State prison compound outside of Hawijah in the Kirkuk province. But Army Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, was more direct Wednesday, speaking with reporters at the Pentagon through video conference.
“We’re in combat,” Warren said of the roughly 3,500 U.S. troops in Iraq. “Of course it is; that’s why we all carry guns, that’s why we all get combat patches when we leave here, that’s why we all received imminent danger pay. So, of course it’s combat.”
In June, as President Barack Obama announced he would send more U.S. troops into Iraq’s heavily contested Anbar province, he emphasized “American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq.”
The raid in which Wheeler was killed Oct. 22 has raised questions of mission creep more than one year into Operation Inherent Resolve. Wheeler was the first U.S. servicemember to die in Iraq since the American withdrawal in 2011.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter has said more such raids could be conducted, but they did not “represent us assuming a combat role.”
Warren said raids with “capable, willing and able” partners should be expected. But a return to full-scale ground combat operations such as the United States conducted in Iraq between 2003 and 2009 would not happen.
“You’re not going to see … a large presence of U.S. forces out there at every level with the entire Iraqi army,” he said. “… We’re talking about raids, a very specific term — a combat action that is conducted to achieve a certain objective and then the forces are immediately removed. That’s a very key doctrinal point that’s important to make.”