(The Guardian) Nearly three years after Barack Obama withdrew the US military from its bloody, exhausting second conflict in Iraq, the first US service member has died there in the third US-Iraq war.
Marine Lance Corporal Sean P Neal, one of 1,600 troops serving in Iraq to support the Iraqi struggle against Islamic State (Isis), died of a “non-combat” injury, the US announced late on Friday. Neal, of Riverside, California, died in Baghdad, more than 7600 miles from his home, on Thursday.
Neal, 19, was the first American acknowledged to have died in Operation Inherent Resolve,the US military’s new name for the war Obama launched on August 7. Americans have been dying in Iraq since 1991, some four years before Neal was born.
Technically, Neal may not have been the first US fatality of the Iraq-Syria war against the Islamic State. Naval forces assigned to US Central Command, which has operational control of the war, acknowledged on October 3 that a Marine, Corporal Jordan L. Spears, went missing at sea in the North Arabian Gulf after bailing out of his MV-22 Osprey. Spears took off from the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island, which carried Marines of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, assigned to support the war in Iraq and Syria.
But Neal is the “first casualty announced by the Department since Operation Inherent Resolve was announced,” said Maureen Schumann, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department.
Neal was a mortarman with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. He was part of the special Marine air-ground task force that deployed to Iraq around September, according to the 1 Marine Expeditionary Force public affairs office. He had barely been in the Marines a year, having enlisted on July 22, 2013.
The Marines said the circumstances surrounding Neal’s death were under investigation. Marine Central Command did not immediately return inquiries seeking additional comment about how Neal died or what function he was performing in Iraq.
The second Iraq War, lasting from 2003 to 2011, claimed the lives of 4,487 American servicemembers.
In June, after Isis overran much of the Sunni areas of Iraq from its base in eastern Syria, Obama ordered US troops back into Iraq, officially in a “non-combat” role. Troops based in Baghdad and Erbil have supported and advised Iraqi and Kurdish forces on their counteroffensives. On August 8, US airstrikes against Isis targets began, a mission that has spread into attacking Isis training facilities, barracks, positions and vehicles in Syria.
With Obama ruling out US ground combat, US military planners acknowledge that they will not have a reliable, capable ground force to take territory from Isis in either country for months at least. Iraqi units, described by commanding general Lloyd Austin as the centerpiece of the war for the moment, are not ready to wrest Mosul or other significant territory from Isis . Across the border, the US has yet to begin vetting Syrian rebels for training as a proxy force, a process expected to take the better part of a year for an initial strength of 5000 fighters, against as many as 31,000 Isis militants. It is unknown if the vetting effort even has a US officer assigned to it yet.
Despite Austin’s stated prioritization of Iraq, US airstrikes have most heavily targeted Isis near the Syrian border with Turkey, to relieve the Isis assault on Kobani. Meanwhile, Isis is reportedly consolidating and expanding its hold over Iraq’s Anbar province, west of Baghdad. US military officials have said in recent days they do not see a significant Isis threat to Baghdad, the site of Neal’s death.
On Friday, combatting a swell of criticism about the conduct of the war, the Pentagon spokesman, Rear Admiral John Kirby, told reporters patience was necessary.
“We believe the strategy is working; that the policy is sound, the coalition continues to gain both momentum and strength,” Kirby said.