(CNSNews.com) – A Navy SEAL killed during an Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) attack in Iraq was “killed in combat,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest acknowledged Tuesday, but was “not in a combat mission.”
The serviceman, identified as Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Charlie Keating IV, was the third member of the U.S. armed forces to be killed in combat since President Obama sent troops back into Iraq to advise, train and equip local forces, three years after the formal U.S. withdrawal was completed.
Keating was killed when ISIS attacked a Kurdish peshmerga position some two or three miles behind the front line in northern Iraq, according to the Pentagon.
“This is an individual who is not in a combat mission, but he was in a dangerous place,” Earnest told a daily briefing. “And his position came under – under attack. He was armed, trained and prepared to defend himself.”
“Unfortunately, he was killed. And he was killed in combat, but that was not a part of his mission,” he continued. “His mission was specifically to offer advice and assistance to those Iraqi forces that were fighting for their own country.”
Speaking to reporters in Stuttgart, Germany earlier, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said he was just receiving reports of the death of an American serviceman in the Erbil region.
“It shows you it’s a serious fight that we have to wage in Iraq,” he said. “It is a combat death, of course. And very sad loss. I don’t know all the circumstances of it and as – we’ll give you more as we learn more.”
The administration continues to differentiate between what it calls “enduring offensive combat operations” – which it says applied to the 2003 Iraq invasion – and the mission that began in mid-2014 when Obama first announced the deployment of 300 military advisers to help forces confronting ISIS. With effect from last month, the U.S. troop cap in Iraq now stands at 4,087.
“The mission that our men and women in Iraq have right now is different from the mission that our service members had during the 2003 invasion of Iraq,” Earnest said.
Then, he said, U.S. forces reaching a peak of more than 100,000 were “given the mission to seek out and engage the enemy in combat.”
The current mission, by contrast, involves about 4,000 personnel.
“Their mission is a dangerous one, but it is predicated on building up the capacity of Iraqi forces to go and take the fight to ISIL” Earnest added.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey named Keating, a graduate of Arcadia High School in Phoenix, as the Navy SEAL killed earlier in the day, and instructed that all state flags fly at half-staff on Wednesday.
“Mr. Keating is the third American service member to be killed in direct combat in our nation’s fight against ISIS,” Ducey said. “His death is a tragic reminder of the daily sacrifices made by our men and women in uniform – fighting evil and extremism on the front lines to protect freedom and democracy at home and throughout the world.”
Last October Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, a Special Forces soldier, was killed during a joint U.S.-peshmerga raid on an ISIS prison, becoming the first American killed in action in Iraq since the 2011 pullout.
The in March, U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Louis F. Cardin was killed when ISIS attacked a coalition fire base near Mosul. He was the first U.S. service member to be killed in an attack launched by the terrorist group.
Since 2013 Obama has consistently said that will not put U.S. “boots on the ground” in either Iraq or Syria.
Last week, after the president announced that 50 special operators already in Syria will be joined by an additional 250 troops, State Department spokesman John Kirby said the deployments in Syria and Iraq are not “boots on the ground” in the sense of a conventional ground combat mission.