BAGHDAD — A U.S. Navy SEAL was killed Tuesday in an attack by Islamic State fighters in northern Iraq, highlighting the evolving nature of the Pentagon’s mission in Iraq and how American troops are serving closer than ever to the front lines.
The SEAL, an enlisted petty officer first class whose identity was withheld until family members were notified, was killed by enemy fire about 9:30 a.m., said U.S. military officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release information publicly.
The death occurred after Islamic State fighters penetrated a front line of Kurdish peshmerga forces by about three miles north of Mosul, said a U.S. military official speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information publicly.
It marks the third time a U.S. service member has been killed in combat since the U.S. military campaign against the Islamic State began June 2014.
The first, Army Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler, 39, was a member of the elite Delta Force who was killed in a daring raid Oct 22. But the more recent two deaths show the kind of threats faced by the bulk of U.S. troops advising Iraqi soldiers near the front lines with the Islamic State.
A Kurdish official said the death occurred after Islamic State fighters began attacking peshmerga lines at dawn near the town of Telskuf, about 20 miles north of Mosul, the Islamic State’s main stronghold in Iraq.
The attack involved “truck bombs supported by infantry,” the official added, an indication that common conventional Islamic State tactics were likely used.
An established front line – called a forward line of troops, or FLOT, by U.S. service members – has separated the Islamic State and Iraqi soldiers for months, and the Islamic State often tries to breach it using armored vehicles carrying explosives with combat troops following behind.
Kurdish and Iraqi Christian militia commanders in the Telskuf area said the latest Islamic State attack began with enemy fighters launching mortar shells and artillery. About 90 minutes later, hundreds of militants attacked from several directions, overrunning the village, the commanders said.
Brig. Gen. Bahnam Aboush, a commander with the largely Christian Nineveh Protection Units in the area, said that his forces could not hold off the attack because of their “limited capabilities” and “old rifles.”
“American special forces came to rescue us with four vehicles,” he said. “They opened the way for us to retreat then one of their vehicles was hit” with a rocket-proppeled grenade.
He said that one U.S. service member was seriously injured and was airlifted out by helicopter.
“This sad news is a reminder of the dangers our men and women in uniform face everyday in the ongoing fight to destroy ISIL and end the threat the group poses to the United States and the rest of the world,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said in a statement, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter first announced the death while traveling in Stuttgart, Germany. He said the service member was killed by enemy fire, but offered few additional details.
A Kurdish official said that the U.S. service member died as he was being transported out of the area, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
The Islamic State used three vehicles packed with explosives during the attack, in which Kurdish soldiers also died, he said. He added that he did not have details on the full number of casualties.
U.S. Army Special Operations troops operate across peshmerga front lines, often spending hours at outposts gathering information about the Islamic State’s activity.
The small detachments, however, are usually stationed a few miles from the front to help coordinate airstrikes between peshmerga fighters and the joint command centers in Baghdad and Irbil, the administrative center of the semiautonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
Some 200 U.S. Marines are also now stationed less than 10 miles from the front line, near the northern town of Makhmour, where Iraqi troops are building up for a future Mosul offensive. Marine Staff Sgt. Louis Cardin was killed there in a March 19 rocket attack.
Lamothe reported from Washington. Gibbons-Neff reported from Stuttgart, Germany.