An Islamic State offensive in northern Iraq repeatedly broke through Kurdish lines with truck bombs and mortar fire early Tuesday, killing a Navy SEAL two or three miles behind the front lines, U.S. officials said.
As the militants attacked several towns, the U.S. Air Force scrambled F-15 fighter jets and armed drones to help Kurdish ground troops fight back. The warplanes launched 25 airstrikes, officials said.
The Islamic State attack appeared aimed at pushing back the slow Kurdish and Iraqi encirclement of Mosul, the extremist group’s self-declared capital in Iraq and the largest city under its control. The militants have lost significant territory in northern and western Iraq in the last year.
The SEAL, who was not publicly identified pending notification of his family, was advising Kurdish fighters, known as peshmerga. He was shot and killed as the militants stormed the town of Tel Skuf, about 20 miles north of Mosul, according to a Kurdish official.
In a statement, Islamic State said its fighters had attacked three towns with “remotely controlled, bomb-laden” vehicles, as well as cannons and mortars. The statement said the militants seized weapons and ammunition from Kurdish barracks and bases before retreating.
“It is a combat death,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told reporters in Stuttgart, Germany, where he is meeting European allies and attending a change of command at U.S. military headquarters in Europe.
President Obama was briefed on the incident and has extended condolences to the SEAL’s family, according to Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary.
Earnest declined to say whether the death was evidence that U.S. troops are moving closer to the front lines, rather than assisting from the rear.
“The president’s been clear time and time again exactly what their mission is,” he said. “That mission is to support Iraqi forces on the ground who are taking the fight” to Islamic State.
“They are not in a combat mission,” Earnest said. “But they are in a dangerous situation. And they are in a dangerous place.”
The U.S. airstrikes destroyed several trucks with mounted machine guns and other munitions, as well as two bulldozers that the militants apparently were using in the attack, according to U.S. officials. They said at least 21 militants were killed.
The fighting comes as Prime Minister Haider Abadi’s government struggles to stem a political crisis and growing unrest in Baghdad, the capital.
Over the weekend, protesters loyal to a prominent Shiite Muslim cleric stormed the so-called Green Zone government complex and occupied the parliament overnight. Islamic State claimed responsibility for multiple suicide attacks in the capital that killed several dozen people.
Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Carter, the defense chief, all have visited in recent weeks.
Three members of the U.S. military have been killed, and 14 wounded, in fighting since the Obama administration began its war against Islamic State in August 2014. Since then, the Pentagon has launched more than 10,000 airstrikes and deployed about 5,000 troops in Iraq.
Marine Staff Sgt. Louis F. Cardin, 27, of Temecula, was killed in March by Islamic State rocket fire in northern Iraq two days after his unit established an artillery “fire base” near Makhmur, where U.S. advisors are helping Iraqi troops prepare for a long-awaited assault on Mosul.
Army Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler died in an October raid against Islamic State militants in northern Iraq. The 39-year-old native of Roland, Okla., was shot when U.S. special operations forces and Kurdish peshmerga assaulted a compound in Hawija and rescued about 70 captives.
Special correspondent Nabih Bulos in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.
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