- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 28, 2016

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter clashed sharply with lawmakers on Capitol Hill Thursday over the White House’s refusal to say the U.S. military was in a full-fledged war in Iraq and Syria, even as the administration was announcing a fresh round of deployments to both countries to fight the Islamic State.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the U.S.-led operations to drive Islamic State, from its bastions in Iraq and Syria, Mr. Carter was taken to task over the administration’s characterization of anti-Islamic State operations in the Mideast as a noncombat mission.

“Whenever [the White House] talks about our troops in the Middle East, they go to great lengths [to say] they will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil,” Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska said during a pointed exchange with Mr. Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford.

Mr. Sullivan accused administration and Defense Department officials of going through rhetorical “somersaults” to insist that “our troops are not in combat when they’re in combat” — in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

The 3,500 to 5,000 American troops and special forces deployed in Iraq and Syria as part of Operation Inherent Resolve “are in combat … and I think that we need to say that clearly,” Mr. Carter replied.

However, the Pentagon chief maintained that while American troops were engaged in fighting, the onus to defeat the Islamic State would fall on local forces, not U.S. ones.

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“The point being made is … not to try to substitute for local forces, but to try to get them powerful enough that they can expel ISIL with our support,” Mr. Carter said. “And when we provide that support, we put [our] people in harm’s way.”

President Obama has long touted his efforts to end America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011 and officially ending combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014.

Since then, White House had been wary of portraying American involvement in Iraq and Syria as a combat mission, saying the bulk of U.S. operations in both countries are “train, advise and assist” missions.

But as the number of U.S. forces on the ground in Iraq and Syria grows, and American casualties begin to trickle in, it remains to be seen how long the White House can sustain its argument.

Marine Staff Sgt. Louis F. Cardin was the latest U.S. casualty in Iraq, killed after his unit’s fire support base outside the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul was attacked in March.

The roughly 200 Marines at Firebase Bell, located 50 miles southeast of Mosul, will be rotating back to their home units by August. Marine Corps Sgt. Austin Long said Thursday an Army artillery unit would be taking up positions at the complex once the Marines leave.

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Marines at the complex have been supporting Iraqi forces with mortars and heavy artillery since Baghdad’s campaign to retake the city began in March. American commanders are weighing more such bases as Iraqi forces prepare for their final push into Mosul.

Earlier this month, Mr. Obama ordered 200 U.S. troops backed by additional American air power and a shipment of heavy weapons be sent to Iraq to support the upcoming Mosul offensive. The Pentagon also deployed another 250 U.S. special operations forces and military advisers to Syria to coordinate efforts to retake Islamic State’s self-styled capital in Raqqa.

• Carlo Muñoz can be reached at cmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

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