American troops in Iraq appear to be more cautious than Canadians.
A Canadian general revealed Monday that his special operations troops in Iraq are now routinely going out with Iraqi soldiers "to the forward-most Iraqi fighting positions" and providing "eyes on" to help coalition airstrikes by "marking the target with a laser."
The mission described by Canadian Brig. Gen. Mike Rouleau, commander of Canadian Special Operations Forces, is very different from the one U.S. officials say American service members are performing in Iraq.
According to the Pentagon, U.S. troops on the "advise and assist mission" are staying out of harm's way inside headquarters facilities with Iraqi units at the brigade level or higher. These U.S. missions are underway only in several locations, including Baghdad, Taji and Al Asad Air Base in Anbar.
President Obama has said repeatedly that the 3,100 U.S. troops authorized for duty in Iraq will not have a "combat role," and U.S. military officials say today's forces are not operating on the battlefield alongside Iraqi troops. So officially, there are no Americans on the ground providing the kind of "eyes on" laser targeting that the Canadian general described.
"As far as we know, we do not have that capability," Army Maj. Neysa Williams, a spokeswoman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "When the information was released from the Canadian general, that was the first we had heard of it."
Rouleau told reporters in the Canadian capital of Ottawa that his forces got into a firefight last week, marking the first time that Western military officials have acknowledged a direct combat engagement with Islamic State fighters.
The Canadian general said a team of his special operators had "completed a planning session with senior Iraqi leaders several kilometers behind the front lines" and "when they moved forward to … the front lines in order to visualize what they had discussed over a map, they came under immediate and effective mortar and machine-gun fire."
In response, the Canadian forces alongside the Iraqi troops exchanged fire with the militants, "placing effective sniper fire on the enemy positions, neutralizing the mortar and the machine-gun position," Rouleau said.
When reporters asked whether this type of operation reflected an expansion of the U.S.-led coalition's mission in Iraq, Rouleau said it does not, and explained that operating in forward positions with Iraqis is a part of the "advise and assist" mission.
"Let me be clear about the advise and assist training: We do all advise-and-assist training kilometers behind the front lines. This represents about 80 percent of our output. The other 20 percent or so happens in forward positions, mostly close to the front lines but sometimes right at the front lines if that is the only place from where we can accomplish it," Rouleau said.
"I think the situation is a lot more nuanced than just saying if you exchange fire with a belligerent force all of a sudden it's a combat mission. This is an advise-and-assist mission. In the context of that, our ability to bring air power is one of the things that we can add value to the Iraqi forces with. Moreover, we always deploy with the inherent right to self-defense. We have the right to be able to defend ourselves if we're fired upon."
Williams, the Combined Joint Task Force spokeswoman, said she is unaware of any U.S. units with joint terminal attack controllers, or JTACs — the ground troops who specialize in relaying detailed, time-sensitive targeting information to aircraft conducting airstrikes.
The potential use of JTACs in Iraq has been a subject of high-level debate inside the Pentagon. Last year, the head of U.S. Central Command, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, requested JTACs to help improve the effectiveness of airstrikes, but that request was not approved by higher-level U.S. officials.
The accuracy of airstrikes is an issue of concern for the American-led coalition that has dropped more than 1,700 bombs since the air campaign began in August. U.S. officials have acknowledged in recent weeks that they are conducting investigations into alleged civilian causalities caused by the coalition strikes in Iraq and Syria.
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.