Defense Secretary Ashton Carter vowed Friday to conduct additional ground raids using U.S. forces in Iraq and said it did not mark an escalation of American engagement there.
WASHINGTON — A day after the first death of an American soldier in combat against Islamic State group extremists, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter vowed Friday to conduct additional ground raids using U.S. forces in Iraq and said it did not mark an escalation of American engagement there.
“We’ll do more raids,” Carter said at a Pentagon press briefing, adding the U.S. would also conduct raids in Syria. “It doesn’t represent us assuming a combat role. It represents a continuation of our advise-and-assist mission.”
His comments came as the Army identified the soldier killed during Thursday’s raid in northern Iraq, where U.S. special operations troops and Kurdish peshmerga assaulted a compound in Hawija and freed about 70 prisoners held by the Islamic State group.
The death of Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler — the first American soldier to die in combat in Iraq since the U.S. withdrew from the country in 2011 — drew fresh criticism about the U.S. military’s role in the fight against the extremist group.
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Separately, Carter also announced Friday that the Pentagon’s preliminary report into the deadly U.S. bombing this month of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, is taking longer than expected.
The humanitarian group said Friday the death toll from the Oct. 3 attack rose after another injured victim died, bringing the total number killed to 25.
When President Obama launched the campaign against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, he stressed that U.S. troops would not take a combat role on the ground but instead deliver airstrikes, training and financial support to proxy forces. Thursday’s raid, however, put U.S. forces in the middle of a fierce battle alongside the Kurds.
American soldiers joined the fight after Islamic State group militants opened fire from the prison, a high-walled, multi-building compound in the town of Hawija, Carter said. Wheeler, a 39-year-old native of Roland, Okla., suffered a gunshot wound and was taken back to a northern Iraqi airfield in Irbil, where he died.
“He ran to the sound of the guns, and he stood up, and all the indications are it was his actions and that of one of his teammates that protected those who were involved in breaching the compound and made the mission successful,” Carter said.
Wheeler joined the Army as an infantryman and served in the 75th Ranger Regiment, deploying three times to support combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was later assigned to the Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., and deployed 11 times to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Wheeler’s body is expected to be brought Saturday to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where most U.S. fallen soldiers arrive. Carter said he and his wife will be there, along with Wheeler’s family.
The goal of the raid was to help free captured Kurdish troops known as peshmerga, who have been key allies in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group. The Kurds and U.S. believed there were at least 20 peshmerga in the raided compound, Kurdish and U.S. officials said.
No Kurds were found, but those people who were saved said they were set to be executed Thursday morning and massive graves had been dug for their burial, Carter said. At least five of the captives recovered were former Islamic State group militants being held as traitors, officials said. The Pentagon confirmed that more than 20 of the captives were members of the Iraqi army.
Carter said the two-hour raid netted a cache of intelligence on the Islamic State group, including electronic equipment and captives who have insight into how the militants operate.
Carter said the initial report on the hospital strike in Kunduz is not yet complete.
“We want to get this done, but we want to get it done right,” Carter said at the briefing. “Accountability is part of our obligation to those who died in Kunduz, and it must inform everything we do here at the Department of Defense.”
The Pentagon, NATO and the Afghan government are conducting separate investigations into one of the worst U.S. attacks resulting in civilian casualties since the war began 14 years ago.
Doctors Without Borders said Friday that one more staff member was confirmed to have been killed, with two additional patients presumed dead.