WASHINGTON – The death last week of a Canadian soldier, reportedly killed by friendly fire from Kurdish troops near the northern village of Bashiq, has put the spotlight once again on the dangers that U.S. troops could face in Iraq.
After a brutal, nearly 14-year war that killed 4,500 service members, the Obama administration has made it clear that no more American blood should be shed in Iraq. President Barack Obama has vowed there will be no U.S. combat ground troops, but already nearly 3,000 U.S. troops are back in the country helping to train and bolster the Iraqi forces as they battle Islamic State militants.
U.S. officials, however, say that the American forces are operating farther from the front lines and none has taken fire. The bulk of the U.S and coalition effort has been through airstrikes. Since last August, the U.S. has launched strikes on Islamic State militants or facilities at nearly 1,000 locations in Iraq, while coalition members have conducted about 540.
Some questions and answers about the U.S. presence in Iraq:
Q: How many American forces are in Iraq?
A: There are about 2,840 U.S. forces in Iraq, participating in Operation Inherent Resolve. Of those, 450 are trainers who are instructing Iraqi units in five secure locations around the country. Twelve advisory teams, comprising 200 troops of 15-20 per team, move around the country working with Iraqi brigades and headquarters units, and about 800 others are providing security for the U.S. presence. The rest are providing other support, including intelligence, surveillance and logistics.
Q: Where are they?
A: The 450 trainers are at five sites around the country: al-Asad Air Base in Anbar province, Irbil in the north, Taji just north of Baghdad, Besmaya just south of Baghdad, and a training center for special operations forces near Baghdad. Other forces are at joint operations centers in Irbil and Baghdad, or are providing support for U.S. and coalition troops around the country.
Q: How close to the front lines do they get?
A: The 12 U.S. military teams travel around the country to advise Iraqi brigades and higher headquarters. The U.S. troops are not authorized to go out on the front lines with smaller units. When the advise-and-assist teams go out, they have to get permission from senior leaders and there has to be a reasonable assurance that they will not come in contact with the enemy. Other nations largely follow those guidelines, but Canadian leaders, for example, have said their special operations forces have traded fire with militants on the front lines.
According to U.S. officials, there are more defined front lines in this fight in Iraq, as Islamic State militants dig in to protect the ground they have claimed, than in previous Iraq or Afghanistan conflicts involving U.S. troops. Those conflicts more often involved counter-insurgency warfare, where the battle lines are blurred.
Q: How many troops are in Iraq from other coalition countries?
A: There are more than 1,250 troops from other coalition countries who are participating in the effort to advise and train the Iraqi and Kurdish forces sites. They are: Australia, Great Britain, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, France, Belgium and Norway. Some countries are providing instructors at the five training sites and others are sending troops out to work directly with Iraqi and Kurdish units in the field, and some are doing both. New Zealand is planning to participate.
Q: Have there been any U.S. casualties?
A: So far three U.S. military personnel have died associated with Operation Inherent Resolve, although none is classified as "killed in action."
Marine Cpl. Jordan L. Spears, 21, of Memphis, Indiana, was lost at sea Oct. 1, 2014, while conducting flight operations in the North Arabian Sea. Air Force Capt. William H. DuBois, 30, of New Castle, Colorado, died Dec. 1, 2014, when his F-16 aircraft crashed near a coalition air base in the Middle East. Marine Lance Cpl. Sean P. Neal, 19, of Riverside, California, died Oct. 23, in Baghdad, Iraq, from a noncombat related incident.
There are no reports of U.S. troops wounded in action.
Pentagon officials have consistently said that while al-Asad air base in western Iraq is routinely hit by enemy mortars and other fire, the U.S. forces on the massive facility have not been at risk.