The Navy SEAL killed in Iraq Tuesday was part of a “quick reaction force” attempting to extract a team of American combat advisers who came under attack from Islamic State militants in Iraq's Kurdish region.
At 7:50 a.m., U.S. military commanders received a “troops in contact” report, and ordered Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Charlie Keating IV and the quick reaction force to enter the fight and help extract the Americans. Keating and his unit arrived in the village and found a fierce fight with Kurdish and American troops in close-quarters combat. Keating was a safe distance from the town of Tel Askuf at 7:30 a.m. when about 125 ISIS fighters descended on the village, maneuvering in small units with 20 armed vehicles and several truck bombs, a defense official said on Wednesday. They pinned down about a dozen American combat advisers there for a one-day mission to meet with Kurdish peshmerga fighters who maintain several combat outposts near ISIS-controlled territory.
"There were bullets everywhere,” said Army Col. Steve Warren, a Baghdad-based spokesmen for the U.S. Defense Department. “He got hit just in the course of this gun battle. Whether it was a sniper or some fighter with his [AK47] is unclear."
Keating was shot about 9:30 am, and at 10:19 he was medically evacuated by helicopter to a U.S. medical facility in nearby Erbil. He died soon afterward, Warren said. It’s very rare for quick reaction forces to be summoned in Iraq, Warren said. Tuesday’s battle was the first time in months that Americans have required urgent combat support, he said.Keating, 31, is the third American combat death in Iraq. His loss comes at a time when the U.S. is expanding its presence on the ground to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria. In April, President Obama authorized an additional 217 troops for Iraq, putting the total American force there at more than 4,000. Obama also approved an additional 250 special operations troops to deploy to Syria, bringing the total U.S. force there to about 300.
The team of American combat advisers had moved into the village of Tel Askuf around dawn. Their mission was to meet with the Kurdish troops assigned to that sector, which does not normally have American forces based there. The advisers were assessing the Kurdish troops’ supplies, their defensive positions and offering other tactical advice, Warren said.
U.S. commanders knew the mission was dangerous, though. The village is less than five miles from ISIS-held territory. Commanders preemptively assembled the quick reaction force to stand by in case the U.S. advise-and-assist team encountered any danger, Warren said. The ISIS fighters and their fleet of about 20 vehicles infiltrated the area unnoticed by U.S. and Kurdish intelligence teams. “You can't observe every inch of earth every moment in the day,” Warren said.
The line separating the Kurdish-controlled area from ISIS is “not a wall, it’s not even a fence,” Warren said. It's checkpoints along major roads. Some outposts and observation posts. “The enemy was able to very covertly assemble enough force, which included the several truck bombs, some bulldozers, and of course their infantry. And they were available to punch through the Kurdish line there, punch through the [forward line of troops] and really sprint towards Tel Askuf, which was their objective,” Warren said.
ISIS posted photos of the battle on social media showing its fighters operating several American-made Humvees outfitted with makeshift armor, and one "technical," a pickup truck mounted with a crew-serve anti-aircraft gun. There’s no evidence the ISIS fighters knew there were Americans in the village at the time of the attack, Warren said.
Soon after the battle began, the skies were filled with U.S. aircraft, including drones, F-15 fighters, F-16 fighters, some B-52 bombers and A-10 attack aircraft, Warren said. Those aircraft dropped dozens of bombs, destroying all 20 ISIS vehicles, two truck bombs, one bulldozer and three mortar systems.
Warren estimated the air strikes also killed 58 ISIS fighters. The mission for Keating’s quick reaction force was to focus on extracting the American service members caught in the fight; Kurdish peshmerga commanders summoned their own backup unit with several hundred fighter to protect the city. Small arms fire struck Keating's medical-evacuation helicopter as it left the area. Ultimately, the fighting between ISIS and the Kurds lasted more than 12 hours but ISIS was unable to gain any territory. No other Americans were injured.
Tuesday’s attack was one of ISIS’s most ambitious operations in months. It was similar in scale to at attack in December on the town of Tal Aswad, which involved about 100 ISIS fighters maneuvering in small formations with truck bombs and armored bulldozers.
Article and photo from Navy Times.