‘People Are Going to Get Hurt’: America’s Quiet War in Iraq
U.S. ARMED FORCES, Iraq—The aircraft parked on the ramp at this military base in northern Iraq offer a symbolic counterpoint to the White House narrative that U.S. forces are on the sidelines of the ground war against the Islamic State.
U.S. Army medevac Blackhawk helicopters are based here, including the one that picked up mortally wounded Navy SEAL Charles Keating IV under heavy enemy fire during a May 3 battle north of Mosul.
Also lined up on the tarmac are Army Apache attack helicopters; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft; and a variety of armed special operations aircraft from different military branches.
“We’re in a war zone, and this place is dangerous,” an Army officer told The Daily Signal.
The U.S. base is an operational hub for Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led, 66-nation coalition combating Islamic State, the terrorist army also known as ISIS that holds territory in Iraq and Syria.
From the base in the vicinity of Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, U.S. and coalition personnel coordinate airstrikes to support Kurdish peshmerga forces.U.S. special operations troops also stage operations from here to advise and assist the peshmerga during combat.
To accomplish the advise-and-assist mission, U.S. special operations troops frequently go into areas where combat is happening.
While embedded with the peshmerga on the ground, U.S. special operations troops sometimes call in airstrikes from coalition warplanes against ISIS forces, a U.S. Army officer told The Daily Signal on condition of anonymity due to security concerns and restrictions on speaking with news reporters.
The White House, however, has insisted U.S. ground forces in Iraq are not in combat.
The day of Keating’s death, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters in Washington: “The relatively small number of U.S. service members that are involved in these operations are not in combat but are in a dangerous place.”
The night after Keating was killed, the mood on the base in northern Iraq was somber, yet there was not a feeling of shock or surprise.
For many U.S. military personnel on the ground in Iraq, Keating’s death underscored something they’ve known for a long time—U.S. special operations forces are neck-deep in the daily grind of the ground war against ISIS.
“Most people took it in stride,” the Army officer told The Daily Signal. “We’re in a war zone, and this place is dangerous. We know people are going to get hurt.”
The base in northern Iraq has all the trappings of other U.S. military installations spread across the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia.
It has a tent gym loaded with Crossfit equipment and truck tires stacked out back. Civilian contractors in khaki 5.11 Tactical cargo pants and button-down shirts are here. And inside the chow hall, called a DFAC, an eclectic mix of uniforms from coalition countries and military branches is on parade.
There’s also a subgroup of oft-bearded, elite troops who tend to stick to themselves.
The infrastructure at the base has expanded noticeably since this correspondent last visited in September 2015. More troops, tents, aircraft, and equipment are here than eight months ago.
The installation’s growth reflects the creeping growth in the U.S. presence in Iraq, and the increasingly indispensable role U.S. airpower and special operations support play in the ground war against ISIS.
“We can’t fight without U.S. airstrikes or U.S. support,” a Kurdish official at the Kurdistan Region Security Council told The Daily Signal on condition of anonymity due to security rules. “But the U.S. mission can’t exist without us. It’s a partnership.”
A Dangerous Place:
U.S. special operations forces in Iraq for the advise-and-assist mission are not sequestered inside fortified compounds impervious to attack.
These members of the military, including Navy SEALs and Army Special Forces, deploy to team safe houses behind the front lines to carry out their mission and to forward stage as land-based, quick-reaction forces in case U.S. servicemen and servicewomen come under attack.
The Navy SEAL quick-reaction force in which Keating served was stationed at one such team house outside Mosul.
The SEALs deployed in “nontactical vehicles,” military jargon for civilian SUVs. The ensuing firefight lasted for hours, according to military personnel and news reports.
The U.S. Army DUSTOFF Blackhawk helicopter that picked up Keating came under heavy fire and returned pockmarked with bullet holes.
Keating was the third U.S. service member to die in Iraq from enemy fire since Operation Inherent Resolve began in 2014. And the May 3 battle wasn’t the first time U.S. aircraft took fire from ISIS over Iraq.
In September 2015, Air Force pararescuemen, also known as PJs, and combat rescue officers from the 57th Rescue Squadron, then deployed to this location, told The Daily Signal that ISIS forces frequently fired on the HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters they used to forward position behind enemy lines.
“We take fire every time we go out,” a combat rescue officer said then.
Also in September, U.S. Air Force A-10 attack pilots flying missions over Iraq and Syria from a base in the Persian Gulf region said the volume of surface-to-air fire they faced was much higher than in Afghanistan.
“There’s a real threat here, unlike in Afghanistan,” an A-10 pilot told The Daily Signal at the time. “I’ve had a few close calls. Do we respect the threat? Yes. Are we afraid of it? No.”
Center of Gravity
The Department of Defense said it officially maintains 4,087 troops or less in Iraq and has plans to increase the number of special operations troops and support personnel in Syria from 50 to 300.