"We're in combat," Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Wednesday. "I mean, of course, this is a combat zone. There's a war going on in Iraq, if folks haven't noticed. And we're here and it's all around us."
The comments came after Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler was killed last week in a raid to free hostages held by ISIS. They are in stark contrast to President Barack Obama's insistence last summer that "American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq" while announcing the decision to assist Iraqis fighting ISIS.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter also acknowledged later Wednesday that "there are American troops in combat every day" in Iraq, but he hedged his statement by saying that the overall U.S. role in Iraq is not to carry out a combat mission. Rather, he said, the U.S. mission to train and support local forces that does involve a combat aspect.
While the U.S. conducts aerial bombing raids against ISIS and sometimes carries out Special Operations ground missions, U.S. military personnel in Iraq are largely charged with training and advising Iraqi forces and are not directly embedded with those forces when they engage ISIS on the ground.
Still, Carter was unequivocal that Wheeler -- a Special Ops soldier -- died in combat.
"Of course he died in combat. That's what happened," Carter said Wednesday during a news conference.
On Friday, however, he was more equivocal, emphasizing that Wheeler's activities were not indicative of the U.S. taking on a combat stance in Iraq.
"It doesn't represent assuming a combat role. It represents a continuation of our advise-and-assist mission" for Iraqi security forces, he told reporters.
Carter has said that the American public can expect to see more Special Forces raids on the ground against ISIS.
When pressed further on his comments, Warren, the Army spokesman, was unflinching in his assessment -- noting that there's a reason why U.S. forces serving in Iraq receive imminent danger pay, combat patches and carry guns.
"You know, our aviators are conducting combat air patrols, I mean, that's the name of the mission, combat air patrol. So, of course it's combat," he said. "You know, they are conducting combat -- when you're a pilot and you strike an enemy target with thousands of pounds of bombs, that's aerial combat."
Warren added, "It's a dangerous place, you know. We've had a man killed, we've had men -- personnel wounded. That's going to continue to happen."