A Navy SEAL adviser was killed in combat action Tuesday morning north of Mosul in northwestern Iraq reportedly when he came to the rescue of Kurdish Peshmerga and Christian fighters whose front lines were breached by a major ISIS counter-attack.
"It is a combat death, of course, and a very sad loss," Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in Germany, where he was seeking more help from allies for the "accelerated" campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
The name and rank of the SEAL were being withheld until his family could be notified. His death would be the third in combat for U.S. forces in Iraq officially announced by the Pentagon, and the second to occur while accompanying Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.
Although the role of U.S. forces was to train, advise and assist local forces while avoiding "boots on the ground" combat themselves, Carter has frequently acknowledged that U.S. troops will occasionally engage in combat action.
The SEAL reportedly was killed by "direct fire," suggesting the fatality occurred in close contact with the enemy, U.S. defense officials said.
The Washington Post quoted Brig. Gen. Bahnam Aboush, a fighter with a Christian militia allied with the Kurds, as saying that he witnessed the attack that killed the SEAL as his men tried to hold their ground but were overwhelmed by ISIS fighters with better equipment and superior numbers.
"We tried to fight them, but we couldn't due our limited capabilities," he said. "We have only some old rifles we bought from our own money."
Aboush said he saw the SEAL suffer mortal wounds, The Washington Post reported. "American special forces came to rescue us in four vehicles," he said. "They opened the way for us to retreat, then one of their vehicles was hit" with a rocket-propelled grenade.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said President Barack Obama had been briefed on the SEAL's death. "Everyone extends condolences to the service member killed," Earnest said, adding that it's a reminder of the risks Americans continue to face even in advisory roles.
Carter initially said that the U.S. fatality was "in the neighborhood of Irbil," the capital of the Kurdish Regional Government and the site of a U.S. Joint Operations Center, but the Pentagon later clarified that the action was "north of Mosul," the ISIS stronghold about 50-60 miles to the west.
"The casualty occurred during an ISIL attack on a Peshmerga position approximately three to five kilometers (about two to three miles) behind the forward line of troops," Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook, using another acronym for ISIS, said in a statement.
"This sad news is a reminder of the dangers our men and women in uniform face every day in the ongoing fight to destroy ISIL and end the threat the group poses to the United States and the rest of the world," said Cook, who was traveling with Carter. "Our coalition will honor this sacrifice by dealing ISIL a lasting defeat," Cook said.
U.S. defense officials, including Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, in recent weeks have said that momentum was building to retake Mosul and Raqqa, the self-proclaimed ISIS capital in northeastern Syria, from fighters whose ranks and sources of funding have been weakened by U.S. and coalition airstrikes.
However, the death of the SEAL came during an ISIS offensive that appeared to show the terror group was still capable of mounting major counter-attacks.
The Kurdish news agency Rudaw, which had a reporter north of Mosul, said that the attack was mounted by about 400 ISIS fighters who used suicide bombers to breach front lines and swarmed through to overrun the town of Tel Skuf briefly. The attackers were then beaten back by at least 23 airstrikes by U.S. manned and unmanned aircraft, U.S. defense officials said.
Rudaw reported that "fierce fighting raged between the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Islamic State militants on the northern Iraqi town of Tel Skuf Tuesday afternoon, where 400 ISIS fighters were reportedly fighting and a US serviceman was reported killed."
"Islamic State militants staged three suicide attacks on Peshmerga defense lines and the Kurds fought back, military officials told a Rudaw correspondent on the Nawaran frontline," Rudaw said.
The first U.S. combat death was that of Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler, of Sequoyah County, Oklahoma, who was killed last October while coming to the aid of Kurdish forces in a raid on an ISIS prison in northern Iraq that freed about 70 hostages.
In March, Staff Sgt. Louis F. Cardin, 27, of Temecula, California, and the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, was killed by ISIS rocket fire at a Marine fire base near Makhmour that was set up to support a staging area for Iraqi Security Forces gathering for a Mosul offensive.
The plan by the ISF to move north of Makhmour toward Mosul has stalled against heavy ISIS resistance amid a political crisis in Baghdad, where supporters of radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr this week swarmed into the "Green Zone" and briefly took over parliament to protest corruption.
Kurdish efforts to block off Mosul from the North have also been hampered by the financial crisis in Irbil, resulting in the failure to pay the Peshmerga fighters for several months. Carter recently announced that the U.S. would send $415 million to the Kurdish Regional government.
Carter has also said that he would not hesitate to send additional U.S. troops if needed, on top of the 217 mostly Special Forces troops slated to deploy to Iraq and another 250 to bolster the 50 Special forces advisers in Syria.
The official count for U.S. forces in Iraq now stands at about 4,200, although the number can reach 5,000 due to overlaps in troop rotations and temporary assignments.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.