U.S. warns ISIS capital: Get out now

The Daily Beast reports: The American military is warning residents of ISIS’s Syrian capital to leave the city—suggesting that an offensive on Raqqa was imminent, two Pentagon officials told the Daily Beast.

In the past day, residents of Raqqa have posted photos of the warnings on Twitter, saying they were airdropped on leaflets by the U.S.-led coalition. The defense officials were the first to confirm that the coalition had indeed issued the warnings.

“The time….has arrived. It’s time to leave Raqqa,” one of the ominous leaflets read. Images portray residents fleeing the black and white world of ISIS for the color of freedom, urging citizens to flee toward colors.


There is just one problem: There is no imminent ground or air attack, at least by the U.S.-led coalition. Rather the coalition appears to be the midst of a psychological offensive.

“It’s part of our mess-with-them campaign,” a Pentagon official explained to The Daily Beast.

The leaflets come amid what appears to be something of a panic within ISIS about how long it can maintain its grip on Raqqa. In recent weeks, there were reports that ISIS had declared a state of emergency in Raqqa. And earlier this week, the terror group’s leadership reportedly would not let fighters leave for holiday as ISIS dug trenches around Raqqa, moved headquarters underground, and put coverings over homes in an effort to deflect drone attacks. [Continue reading…]

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Agreement that could lead to U.S. troops in Libya could be reached ‘any day’

The Washington Post reports: The U.S. military’s top general said Thursday that the Libyan government is in a “period of intense dialogue” that could soon lead to an agreement in which U.S. military advisers will be deployed there to assist in the fight against the Islamic State.

“There’s a lot of activity going on underneath the surface,” said Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “We’re just not ready to deploy capabilities yet because there hasn’t been an agreement. And frankly, any day that could happen.”

Dunford spoke to a handful of journalists while returning to the United States from Brussels, where he met with military chiefs this week from numerous NATO nations. There is interest among some NATO nations in participating in the mission, Dunford said, but the specifics of who and what would be involved remain unclear. The operation will likely focus on training and equipping militias that pledge loyalty to Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, the leader of the new Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), which is backed by the United Nations. [Continue reading…]

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Navy chief tells fellow admirals to rethink integrity and behavior in aftermath of string of scandals

The Washington Post reports: the Navy has been dogged by a major corruption scandal involving an Asian defense contractor who has pleaded guilty to bribing Navy officers with cash, sex and luxury goods over a decade.

Three admirals were censured last year for accepting dinners and gifts from the contractor, Leonard Glenn Francis, a Singapore-based businessman widely known in maritime circles as “Fat Leonard.” At least two other admirals in the case remain under criminal investigation by the Justice Department. Four lower-ranking officers have pleaded guilty to corruption charges in federal court and are facing prison time.

While the corruption case has been slowly unfolding for more than two years, the Navy’s senior officer corps has had to endure other embarrassments in recent months.

In December, the Navy reprimanded a two-star admiral for getting drunk and wandering naked around a Florida beachfront hotel while attending a conference with defense contractors. In January, a one-star admiral was reprimanded and relieved of his command after an investigation found that he had spent hours watching pornography on a Navy computer while at sea.

And in March, under pressure from Congress, the Navy reluctantly denied promotion to the admiral in charge of its elite SEAL teams after the Pentagon’s inspector general determined that he had violated the law by retaliating against whistleblowers.

The Navy traditionally has set high standards for its commanding officers and makes a public announcement when they are cashiered for personal or professional lapses in conduct. Those relieved of command, however, are typically officers holding the rank of captain or commander, with admirals rarely getting into trouble. [Continue reading…]

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Struggling to fight ISIS in a fractured Libya

Frederic Wehrey writes from Sabratha, Libya: Ahmed “Amu” Dabbashi, the 28-year-old leader of a militia in this seaside town near the Tunisian border, proudly unfurls a black Islamic State flag, seized during late-February raids on safe houses of ISIS, as the group is also known. He shows me a captured arsenal, too: truck-borne explosives, detonators, crates of ammo, crew-served machine guns, and identification cards of foreign fighters.

Days earlier, American warplanes had bombed an Islamic State training site at a nearby house. Then, Amu tells me, “we decided to cleanse our town.” In the raids that followed, fighters for the so-called caliphate struck back, assaulting a police station and cutting the throats of several officers. Scores of youths perished in gunbattles.

Elsewhere across Libya, disparate factions are trying to hold the line against ISIS, often tenuously. The terrorist group is most entrenched in the central city of Sirte. Refugees fleeting Sirte tell me that ISIS extorts businesses and stops traffic to conduct executions.

In late March, a new presidential council — formed under the auspices of a U.N.-brokered unity agreement — arrived with great fanfare in the capital of Tripoli. Washington and its allies had hoped this would provide a foundation for a military campaign against ISIS. But after an initial burst of public enthusiasm, the council is struggling to exert its authority.

The fight against Islamic State faces daunting challenges. First, there still is no unified military structure through which the U.S. and Western allies can channel assistance. A powerful eastern faction allied with Gen. Khalifa Haftar remains hostile to the unity agreement and has tried to sell oil independently from Tripoli. Other militias, even if nominally supporting the new government, remain beholden to towns, tribes and power brokers.

Thus, Western special forces must work with militia surrogates in any operations against Islamic State. But this is risky: Assisting these armed groups could rekindle old rivalries and further reduce the incentives for national reconciliation.

Militias have figured out that signing up for the campaign against Islamic State is the best way to get legitimacy and attention. Whether or not they intend to use outside support solely against ISIS is another story. Many still regard their local rivals as the pressing concern. In some cases, the West may find them unsavory partners: traffickers, hard-line Salafists, tribal supremacists, military officers with authoritarian and anti-Islamist leanings.

This is evident in Sabratha, where Amu’s extended family has had longtime links with smugglers and jihadists. In the capital of Tripoli, a Salafist militia leader lets me tour his prison’s rehabilitation center, where Islamic State suspects are thrown in with drug addicts for undefined stretches with no due process. In a trip to Benghazi last fall, I saw how neighborhood militias carried out what amounts to personal and tribal vendettas, all under the cover of combating Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. establishes Libyan outposts with eye toward offensive against ISIS

The Washington Post reports: American Special Operations troops have been stationed at two outposts in eastern and western Libya since late 2015, tasked with lining up local partners in advance of a possible offensive against the Islamic State, U.S. officials said.

Two teams totaling fewer than 25 troops are operating from around the cities of Misurata and Benghazi to identify potential ­allies among local armed factions and gather intelligence on threats, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive mission overseas.

The insertion of a tiny group of U.S. personnel into a country rife with militant threats reflects the Obama administration’s worries about the Islamic State’s powerful Libyan branch and the widespread expectations of an expanded campaign against it. For months, the Pentagon has been developing plans for potential action against the group, which has at least several thousand fighters in the coastal city of Sirte and other areas. And the U.S. personnel, whose ongoing presence had not been previously reported, is a sign of the acceleration toward another military campaign in Libya.

The mission is also an illustration of President Obama’s reliance on elite units to advance counterterrorism goals in low-visibility operations. [Continue reading…]

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Lack of plan for ISIS detainees raises human rights concerns

The New York Times reports: The Islamic State calls them “inghimasi” — zealous foot soldiers who intend to fight to their deaths. And as the American-backed coalition has reclaimed territory from the group in Iraq and Syria, that fervor has kept prisoners from being much of a problem: The shooting only stops when almost every Islamic State fighter has been killed.

But that could change as the coalition moves toward the Islamic State’s largest urban strongholds — Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria — raising a potential problem for the United States. If the coalition is successful and thousands of ordinary members of a collapsing Islamic State have nowhere left to retreat, will they start to surrender in greater numbers? And if so, who will be responsible for imprisoning them?

After the experiences of the past decade in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Obama administration is determined not to revive large-scale detention operations. But it is far from clear whether allies on the ground — especially rebels in Syria — are prepared to hold large numbers of prisoners, raising the prospect of an ugly aftermath to any victory.

“If they’re not killed but detained, we are concerned about the standards of care, who would do it and how it would be done,” Peter Maurer, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said in an interview. [Continue reading…]

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Mosul: Suspicion and hostility cloud fight to recapture Iraqi city from ISIS

The Guardian reports: At the bottom of a hill near the frontline with Islamic State fighters, the Iraqi army had been digging in. Their white tents stood near the brown earth gouged by the armoured trucks that had carried them there – the closest point to Mosul they had reached before an assault on Iraq’s second largest city.

For a few days early last month, the offensive looked like it already might be under way. But that soon changed when the Iraqis, trained by US forces, were quickly ousted from al-Nasr, the first town they had seized. There were about 25 more small towns and villages, all occupied by Isis, between them and Mosul. And 60 miles to go.

Behind the Iraqis, the Kurdish peshmerga remained dug into positions near the city of Makhmour that had marked the frontline since not long after Mosul was seized in June 2014. The war had been theirs until the national army arrived. The new partnership is not going well.

On both sides, there is a belief that what happens on the road to Mosul will not only define the course of the war but also shape the future of Iraq. And, despite the high stakes, planning for how to take things from here is increasingly clouded by suspicion and enmity. [Continue reading…]

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A soldier’s challenge to the president

In an editorial, the New York Times says: Capt. Nathan Michael Smith, who is 28, is helping wage war on the Islamic State as an Army intelligence officer deployed in Kuwait. He is no conscientious objector. Yet he sued President Obama last week, making a persuasive case that the military campaign is illegal unless Congress explicitly authorizes it.

“When President Obama ordered airstrikes in Iraq in August 2014 and in Syria in September 2014, I was ready for action,” he wrote in a statement attached to the lawsuit. “In my opinion, the operation is justified both militarily and morally.” But as his suit makes clear, that does not make it legal.

Constitutional experts and some members of Congress have also challenged the Obama administration’s thin legal rationale for using military force in Iraq and Syria. The Federal District Court for the District of Columbia should allow the suit to move forward to force the White House and Congress to confront an important question both have irresponsibly skirted.

The 1973 War Powers Resolution requires that the president obtain “specific statutory authorization” soon after sending troops to war. Mr. Obama’s war against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, was billed as a short-term humanitarian intervention when it began in August 2014. The president and senior administration officials repeatedly asserted that the United States would not be dragged back into a Middle East quagmire. The mission, they vowed, would not involve “troops on the ground.” Yet the Pentagon now has more than 4,000 troops in Iraq and 300 in Syria. Last week’s combat death of a member of the Navy SEALs, Special Warfare Operator First Class Charles Keating IV, underscored that the conflict has escalated, drawing American troops to the front lines.

“We keep saying it’s supposed to be advising that we’re doing, and yet we’re losing one kid at a time,” Phyllis Holmes, Petty Officer Keating’s grandmother, told The Times.

Asked on Thursday about the lawsuit, the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, said it raised “legitimate questions for every American to be asking.” The administration has repeatedly urged Congress to pass a war authorization for the war against the Islamic State. It currently relies on the authorization for the use of military force passed in 2001 for the explicit purpose of targeting the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks, which paved the way for the invasion of Afghanistan.

“One thing is abundantly clear: Our men and women in uniform and our coalition partners are on the front lines of our war against ISIL, while Congress has remained on the sidelines,” the White House spokesman Ned Price said in an email.

Yet, the White House has enabled Congress to shirk its responsibility by arguing that a new war authorization would be ideal but not necessary. Administration officials could have forced Congress to act by declaring that it could not rely indefinitely on the Afghanistan war authorization and giving lawmakers a deadline to pass a new law.

By failing to pass a new one, Congress and the administration are setting a dangerous precedent that the next president may be tempted to abuse. That is particularly worrisome given the bellicose temperament of Donald Trump, the likely Republican nominee.

It is not too late to act before the presidential election in November. The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and House Speaker Paul Ryan have shown little interest in passing an authorization. They should feel compelled to heed the call of a young deployed soldier who is asking them to do their job.

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America is silent as Aleppo is massacred

Roy Gutman writes: The city of Aleppo has been one of the most important symbols of the five-year-long uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. For that reason, it is no surprise the Syrian government has been mounting an air and ground assault on Aleppo for the past two weeks in the hope of winning it back. What’s much harder to understand is why the United States has been sending out ambiguous signals about its view of the offensive on the city.

The United States and Russia agreed to a cease-fire in Aleppo on Wednesday, which was supposed to last for 48 hours. While violence has decreased in the aftermath of the agreement, it seems likely to have only delayed the larger struggle for control of the city.

The Obama administration has chosen not to spotlight what by most definitions are widespread and systematic war crimes. On occasion, it blames the Syrian Air Force for bombing hospitals and other civilian targets but rarely discusses Russian violations. It doesn’t even share with the public the rampant infractions of the cease-fire it is overseeing. That’s all classified.

Instead, U.S. officials have repeatedly focused attention on al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front. In a series of inaccurate or loosely worded statements, officials have implied Nusra Front has a major presence in Aleppo — assertions that the Russian and Syrian governments could interpret, or exploit, as an invitation to carry on with the bombardment.

American policy baffles allies in the Sunni Muslim world. Turkish officials say Russia’s intervention in Syria upended the battlefield by shifting the balance of power in the Assad regime’s favor, and it has to be righted before there can be a political solution.

But the Obama administration views Russian intervention from a more benign perspective.

There was real concern in Russia “about a potential catastrophic success” by rebel forces in mid-2015, “where Assad collapses, but so do all the Syrian state institutions, and you have even more of a failed state,” the senior administration official told FP. “What Russia has done is return it to the stalemate.”

That perspective, coupled with the U.S. refusal to contemplate the use of force, sets the context for a series of wrong or ambiguous U.S. statements about the role of Nusra Front in Syria.

The first to raise a furor was by Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State. Voicing concern that the Assad regime with Russian support was concentrating forces around Aleppo, he added: “That said, it’s primarily al-Nusra who holds Aleppo, and of course, al-Nusra is not part of the cessation of hostilities. So it’s complicated. We’re watching it.”

Asked by FP to double-check his information, Warren replied that his statement was wrong.

“I was incorrect when I said Nusra holds Aleppo,” he said in an email. “Turns out that our current read is that Nusra controls the northwest suburbs” and other groups control the center.

His remarks, however, had already spread around the world, including on the BBC, Fox News, and Iran’s Press TV.

Humanitarian aid officials in Turkey, who have to negotiate with all the armed groups, were stunned.

“I can find no one who thinks that Nusra is in control, aside from the U.S. spokesperson,” said a top official of one international group that sends food and medical supplies to northern Syria. “Totally inaccurate. They’re the faction with the least presence,” said an aid official, who is in touch with the factions on the ground and the aid organizations providing assistance. He added that Nusra Front had recently set up five checkpoints within the city.

In fact, according to Aleppo officials and rebel sources, moderate rebels, many of them recipients of U.S.-approved covert support, control some 80 percent of Aleppo. [Continue reading…]

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While Obama portrays their combat role as over, American forces are increasingly being called on to fight

The New York Times reports: The Taliban attacked the Afghan police compound at first light, coming from all sides at the American Green Berets holed up inside. The insurgents fired assault rifles, heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. They came in what a soldier called “human waves.”

Not even strafing runs by American F-16 fighters stopped the assault. The elite American soldiers — whose mission was only to train and advise Afghan troops — had never seen a firefight as intense.

Holding the compound, another soldier said, took an “Alamo defense.”

On the morning of Oct. 1, about 30 soldiers were in close-quarters combat against Taliban fighters — even though White House and Pentagon officials have repeatedly insisted that American troops no longer play that role.

The Americans were not ambushed while advising local forces behind the front lines or struck by rocket fire while manning a fortified base. Nine months after President Obama declared an end to the American combat mission in Afghanistan, these Green Berets were at the leading edge of an offensive to retake Kunduz, where Afghan forces had melted away as insurgents attacked, leaving an entire city in the Taliban’s grip for the first time since 2001.

The fight for the police compound proved crucial in rallying Afghan forces to retake the city.

It also offered the starkest example to date of a blurry line in Afghanistan and Iraq between the missions that American forces are supposed to be fulfilling — military training and advising — and combat. Mr. Obama has portrayed that combat role as over. But as the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Islamic State in Iraq have threatened the delicate stability he hoped to leave behind, American forces are increasingly being called on to fight. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. troops confused about their mission in Afghanistan

Reuters reports: Amid fierce fighting after the Taliban captured the northern Afghan city of Kunduz last year, U.S. special forces advisers repeatedly asked their commanders how far they were allowed to go to help local troops retake the city.

They got no answer, according to witnesses interviewed in a recently declassified, heavily redacted Pentagon report that lays bare the confusion over rules of engagement governing the mission in Afghanistan.

As the Taliban insurgency gathers strength, avoiding enemy fire has become increasingly difficult for advisers, who have been acting as consultants rather than combatants since NATO forces formally ceased fighting at the end of 2014.

In the heat of the battle, lines can be blurred, and the problem is not exclusive to Afghanistan: questions have arisen over the role of U.S. troops in Iraq after a U.S. Navy SEAL was killed by Islamic State this month.

“‘How far do you want to go?’ is not a proper response to ‘How far do you want us to go?'” one special forces member told investigators in a report into the U.S. air strikes on a hospital in Kunduz that killed 42 medical staff, patients and caretakers. [Continue reading…]

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She spoke up about cooked ISIS intel. They booted her — for cursing

The Daily Beast reports: She worked on and off for five years identifying targets for the U.S. military’s Central Command.

And then, when, some believe, she spoke up about cherry-picked intelligence in the ISIS war, she was drummed out of her job—allegedly for cursing twice in the span of the year.

Those were just some of the surreal allegations thrown around last week in a Tampa law office conference room turned into a quasi-courtroom.

Had the case not involved the third-highest ranking person at the Defense Intelligence Agency, a two-star general, a military judge, and hours of testimony — all at a cost of thousands of dollars — it would have been hard to take seriously. Even with those high-ranking officials, at times it was hard not to do a double-take about what was happening.

After all, if cursing were really a fireable offense in the military, every soldier, sailor, Marine, and Defense Department civilian would have to be sent home. [Continue reading…]

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The war against ISIS hits hurdles just as the U.S. military gears up

The Washington Post reports: After months of un­expectedly swift advances, the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State is running into hurdles on and off the battlefield that call into question whether the pace of recent gains can be sustained.

Chaos in Baghdad, the fraying of the cease-fire in Syria and political turmoil in Turkey are among some of the potential obstacles that have emerged in recent weeks to complicate the prospects for progress. Others include small setbacks for U.S.-allied forces on front lines in northern Iraq and Syria, which have come as a reminder that a strategy heavily reliant on local armed groups of varying proficiency who are often at odds with one another won’t always work.

When President Obama first ordered U.S. warplanes into ­action against the extremists sweeping through Iraq and Syria in 2014, U.S. officials put a three- to five-year timeline on a battle they predicted would be hard. After a rocky start, officials say they are gratified by the progress made, especially over the past six months.

Since the recapture of the northern Iraqi town of Baiji last October, Islamic State defenses have crumbled rapidly across a wide arc of territory. In Syria, the important hub of Shadadi was recaptured with little resistance in February, while in Iraq, Sinjar, Ramadi, Hit and, most recently, the town of Bashir have fallen in quick succession, lending hope that the militants are on the path to defeat.

“So far, in terms of what we had hoped to do, we are pretty much on track,” said a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive subjects. “We’re actually a little bit ahead of where we wanted to be.”

The fight, however, is entering what Pentagon officials have called a new and potentially harder phase, one that will entail a deeper level of U.S. involvement but also tougher targets.

In an attempt to ramp up the tempo of the war, the U.S. military is escalating its engagement, dispatching an additional 450 Special Operations forces and other troops to Syria and Iraq, deploying hundreds of Marines close to the front lines in Iraq and bringing Apache attack helicopters and B-52s into service for the air campaign.

The extra resources are an acknowledgment, U.S. officials say, that the war can’t be won without a greater level of American involvement. The targets that lie ahead are those that are most important to the militants’ self-proclaimed caliphate, including their twin capitals of Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Fallujah, a key concern because of its proximity to Baghdad. [Continue reading…]

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An army captain takes Obama to court over war on ISIS

The New York Times reports: A 28-year-old Army officer on Wednesday sued President Obama over the legality of the war against the Islamic State, setting up a test of Mr. Obama’s disputed claim that he needs no new legal authority from Congress to order the military to wage that deepening mission.

The plaintiff, Capt. Nathan Michael Smith, an intelligence officer stationed in Kuwait, voiced strong support for fighting the Islamic State but, citing his “conscience” and his vow to uphold the Constitution, he said he believed that the mission lacked proper authorization from Congress.

“To honor my oath, I am asking the court to tell the president that he must get proper authority from Congress, under the War Powers Resolution, to wage the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” he wrote.

The legal challenge comes after the death of the third American service member fighting the Islamic State and as Mr. Obama has decided to significantly expand the number of Special Operations ground troops he has deployed to Syria aid rebels there. [Continue reading…]

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How U.S. troops fight ISIS while Obama plays down their role in combat

The New York Times reports: The battle in Teleskof began early Tuesday when volleys of mortar shells and blasts from rocket-propelled grenades disrupted meetings that the SEALs were having in the town with officials from the pesh merga, the Kurdish force battling the Islamic State in northern Iraq. Soon, a force of more than 100 Islamic State fighters punched through Kurdish checkpoints and overwhelmed the defenses on the southern edge of Teleskof, a largely Christian town about 14 miles north of Mosul.

The fighters from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, had taken the town by surprise, forcing many local fighters to retreat north of the town as it was overrun. The attackers “were able to very covertly assemble enough force” to “sprint towards Teleskof,” said Col. Steve Warren, the American military spokesman in Baghdad.

The SEALs were grossly outnumbered, and radioed that they were in a “troops in contact” situation — military jargon for a firefight. Colonel Warren said that American fighter planes, bombers and drones were sent to the town, along with a second group of SEALs. That group included Petty Officer Keating.

Matthew VanDyke, who runs a security firm, Sons of Liberty International, that is training local Iraqi forces — the Nineveh Plain Forces — said that the SEALs arrived in a convoy of sport utility vehicles from the north and drove directly into Teleskof.

“They went directly into combat,” he said.

Mr. VanDyke said that one of the trucks in the SEAL convoy appeared to get hit by a rocket- propelled grenade, and that the SEALs then got out of the S.U.V.s and went further into the town on foot.

A pitched battle continued, with the SEALs moving among buildings in the town and calling in airstrikes. About 9:30 a.m., Colonel Warren said, one of the SEAL team members radioed for medical help. Petty Officer Keating had been shot by an Islamic State sniper in the side, in an area not covered by his bulletproof vest.

Two Black Hawk helicopters arrived, drawing fire from Islamic State fighters, but were able to evacuate Petty Officer Keating to the American military’s medical mission in Erbil. He was pronounced dead shortly afterward.

The SEALs eventually pulled out of the town after they ran out of ammunition, Mr. VanDyke said.

Eventually, several hundred Kurdish pesh merga and other local fighters were able to mass for a counteroffensive. By the end of the day, those militias had managed to expel the Islamic State fighters from Teleskof.

Although American officials have used linguistic contortions for months to present the American military role in Iraq as something other than direct combat, Mr. Carter did not hesitate on Tuesday to call Petty Officer Keating’s death a “combat death.” [Continue reading…]

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