Pentagon discloses existence of first-of-its-kind US base in northern Iraq
WASHINGTON - About 200 US Marines have established an artillery position in northern Iraq, the US military said Monday -- a first-of-its-kind deployment whose existence was revealed only after one of the Marines was killed in a rocket attack.
The marine, Staff Sergeant Louis Cardin, was killed Saturday in an Islamic State rocket attack on the fire base that wounded several others.
US President Barack Obama acknowledged Cardin's death on Monday at a press conference in Havana with Cuban President Raul Castro, saying his thoughts and prayers were with his family.
"It's a reminder that even as we embark on this historic visit, there are US armed service members who are sacrificing each and every day on behalf of our freedom and our safety," he said.
The death also pointed to a deepening US ground troop involvement in the fight against the Islamic State group.
While US warplanes launch daily strikes against ISIS positions in Iraq, the estimated 3,900 US troops in the country are officially in a supporting role training and advising Iraqi troops.
With the exception of raids by US special operations forces, the US troops have until now not been directly involved in combat.
But Cardin's death prompted the Pentagon to disclose that he was engaged in providing fire support from a "recently established coalition fire base near Makhmur in northern Iraq."
On Monday, a US military spokesman acknowledged that the Marines established "Fire Base Bell" two weeks ago, deploying the equivalent of a company with "four guns."
Colonel Steve Warren, the Baghdad-based military spokesman, said the Marines were there to provide "force protection" for several thousand Iraqi troops at Makhmur.
US military advisers are accompanying the Iraqis as they prepare for an offensive on the ISIS-held city of Mosul.
"This is the first time we have established a spot that is only American," he said, adding that it was several hundred meters (yards) from an Iraqi base.
Obama had promised at the start of the US-led offensive against the ISIS group that he would not send US ground troops to fight the jihadists.
But the slow progress in retaking lands captured by ISIS fighters has pushed Washington to go further, allowing special operations forces to carry out targeted raids and military advisers to get nearer to the fighting.
The Marines and the military advisers with Iraq's 15th Division are less than twenty kilometers (12 miles) from the front line, according to Warren.