Delta Force Death Signals Watershed for US Combat Role in Iraq

Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler, 39, of Headquarters, U.S. Army Special Operations Command, Fort Bragg, N.C., was killed in action Oct. 22, while deployed in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. (US Army photo)
Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler, 39, of Headquarters, U.S. Army Special Operations Command, Fort Bragg, N.C., was killed in action Oct. 22, while deployed in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. (US Army photo)

Two versions of what led to the death of Army Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler in a helicopter assault in Iraq have emerged with broad implications for future raids promised by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter against the Islamic State.

At issue was whether U.S. Special Operations units will plan from the outset to take on a direct combat role in raids conducted with local forces, or participate in an advisory role and only engage the enemy to protect themselves or others.

One account from the few details released publicly had it that Wheeler and his Delta Force unit were hanging back as advisers while Kurdish Peshmerga fighters began the assault on the outskirts of the northern town of Hawija to free hostages held by militants affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

Wheeler and the other Americans then rushed forward as the Peshmerga began taking casualties, according to that account.

Another version had it that Wheeler's unit was embedded with the "pesh" fighters and he was fatally wounded in a joint assault on the prison compound.

In supporting the first version of the Hawija raid, Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for combined task force-Operation Inherent Resolve, said, "I know that the pesh forces were bottled up, receiving direct fire" as they attempted to breach the walls of the compound.

"Some members of the pesh were getting wounded, and this is what triggered the (U.S) advisers to then begin to assist," Warren said in a video briefing to the Pentagon on Wednesday from Baghdad. "And (Master) Sgt. Wheeler, in a display of heroism, was in the forefront of that."

Warren said he could not confirm reports that Wheeler was wounded after blowing a hole in the wall of the compound and rushing through the gap. "I don't know about the blowing the hole in the wall piece," he said.

Without providing details, Carter said last week that Wheeler "ran to the sound of the guns." In Senate testimony on Tuesday, Carter said, "Obviously, he was accompanying those forces, but when he saw they were running into trouble, he very heroically acted in a way that all of the reports suggest and spelled the difference between the success and failure of that important mission."

Another version of the assault had it that the Delta Force planned to be part of the raid from the outset, and had been training the pesh fighters in the hostage rescue techniques in which the Delta Force excels.

A trusted U.S. military source told Military.com's Matthew Cox that Wheeler and his Delta Force team had moved to the last covered and concealed position alongside Kurdish forces outside the ISIS compound.

When the assault began, the Delta elements and Kurdish forces simultaneously rushed forward and breached the compound at multiple entry points with explosive charges.

The blasts ripped openings into the compound, and gunfire erupted. Wheeler was shot seconds later and died while receiving medical treatment. Four Kurdish Peshmerga assaulters were wounded and 20 ISIS fighters were killed in the firefight.

Within minutes, assault teams were freeing prisoners as gunfire continued. "In a hostage rescue, it's going really quick," the source said. "Once the breach is made, that's it. It's game on, you don't look back. You are just running to get to the hostages."

The Kurdish news service Rudaw released head-cam video of the Kurdish fighters freeing hostages inside the compound. On Monday, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, confirmed that the video was authentic.

On the video, American voices could occasionally be heard in the background. There has been speculation that Wheeler's voice was among those in the background, but Davis said that Wheeler was wounded before what was shown in the head cam videos.

Critics have charged that the Hawija raid was an example of the "mission creep" surrounding the U.S. campaign against ISIS despite President Obama's repeated statements that U.S. troops would not be involved in "boots on the ground" combat.

In June 2014, Obama said, "We will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq" even as he ordered the first contingents of U.S. troops to return to protect the U.S. Embassy and begin serving as trainers and advisors to the Iraqi Security Forces and the Peshmerga forces of the Kurdish regional government based in Irbil, the Kurdish capital.

Again in September last year, Obama said, "These American forces will not have a combat mission." About 3,500 U.S. troops are now in Iraq at several bases and at Joint Operations Centers in Baghdad and Irbil.

Since the Hawija raid, Carter has attempted to draw fine lines in defining combat to maintain consistency with the White House restrictions while at the same time expanding the U.S. mission to include more raids that could be classified as combat operations.

"Things are complicated," Carter said at a Pentagon news conference last week, while stressing that there would be no return to the house-to-house fighting of the past against insurgents while dodging improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

Commenting on the Hawija raid, Carter acknowledged, "This is combat." He added, "We expect do to do more of this kind of thing."

He rejected charges of mission creep while noting "Americans are flying combat missions, thousands of combat missions, over Syrian and Iraqi territory."

"There are Americans involved in training and advising Iraqi security forces around the country," Carter said, but "we do not have combat formations there the way we had once upon a time in Iraq, or the way we have had in years past in Afghanistan."

The potential for more raids of the type that freed the hostages "doesn't represent a change in our strategy but it does represent a change in our approach to achieving it," Carter said.

"It doesn't represent assuming a combat role," he said, but "when we find opportunities to do things that will effectively prosecute the campaign, we will do that. I'm determined that we continue to adapt to get results."

Carter went further in outlining an expanded U.S. role in testimony on Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee. He unveiled a "three 'Rs" strategy -- meaning "Raqaa, Ramadi and Raids."

U.S. troops would work with local forces to take the ISIS capital of Raqaa in Syria and the flashpoint town of Ramadi in Iraq's Anbar province, Carter said.

"The third and final 'R' is raids, signaling that we won't hold back from supporting capable partners in opportunistic attacks against ISIL (another term for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), or conducting such missions directly, whether by strikes from the air or direct action on the ground," Carter said.

At his video briefing to the Pentagon on Wednesday, Col. Warren insisted "nothing has changed about our policy since the Hawija operation."

"You've heard the secretary speak, I think fairly extensively, about fine tuning and adjustment," he said. "We're going to continue our train-and-advise-and-equip missions. We are going to increase or step up some of our airstrikes against the enemy's industrial base."

"This is not a radical departure from what has happened," Warren said. "We have sent people outside the wire before when the conditions warranted it."

"And what the Secretary has said is we're going to keep doing that and, we'll keep a sharper eye out for more opportunities, but this is not a major shift, this is not anything radically different than what we've seen over the last year," Warren said.

From the sidelines, the Israelis warned that whatever course the U.S. takes will involve a long-term commitment in the Mideast.

At a joint press conference with Carter on Wednesday at the Pentagon, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said that a near-term political settlement of the turmoil in Iraq and Syria was a pipedream.

"It's a long way, unfortunately, which will make the situation unstable" for the foreseeable future Ya'alon said. "Anyhow, it's going to be the characteristic of the Middle East for the years to come -- chronic instability, not just in Syria -- for a very, very long period of time. And I'm not sure for how long," Ya'alon said.

--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.

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