The Navy SEAL killed in Iraq Tuesday was part of a "quick reaction force" attempting that was trying to extract a team of American combat advisers who came under attack from Islamic State militants near the front lines in Iraq's Kurdish region, a defense official said.
At about 7:50 a.m., U.S. military commanders received a got a report of "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 soon arrived in the village and found a fierce fight with Kurdish and American troops in close-quarters combat.Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Charlie Keating IV was a safe distance from the town of Tel Askuf at 7:30 a.m. when about 125 ISIS fighters descended on Islamic State militants attacked the village, maneuvering in small units with 20 armed vehicles and several truck bombs, a the defense official said on Wednesday. They The attack pinned down a team of about a dozen American combat advisers there who were in the village for a one-day advisory mission to meet with the Kurdish Ppeshmerga fighters who maintain several combat outposts in the area near ISIS-controlled the edge of territory controlled by Islamic State militants, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
"There were bullets everywhere," said Army Col. Steve Warren, a Baghdad-based spokesmen for the U.S. Defense Department, said Wednesday. "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 was the third American combat death in Iraq. His loss death comes at a time when the U.S. is expanding its presence the force on the ground to fight ISIS in both 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 troops in Syria 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 advicse, Warren said.
U.S. commanders knew the mission was dangerous, though. The village is less than five miles from ISIS-held territory. Commanders had preemptively assembled the quick reaction force at a nearby location to stand by in case the U.S. advise-and-assist team encountered any danger ’s day-long mission became dangerous, 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 "What it is is checkpoints along the major roads. Some outposts and and then there'll be outposts or observation posts in between those roads that observe the enemy."
"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.
"Now all this happened while our advise-and-assist team happened to be in that village," Warren said.
ISIS posted photos of the battle on social media showing its ISIS 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 that 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 Ppeshmerga 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.
Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.