US Special Operations Forces Expanding in Iraq to Battle ISIS

PHOTO: Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., right, accompanied by Defense Secretary Ash Carter, left, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 1, 2015.PlayAndrew Harnik/AP Photo
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Defense Secretary Ash Carter told Congress today that the U.S. would establish a special operations "targeting force" in Iraq as part of the intensified military effort to fight ISIS.

The special operations force would conduct raids, could free hostages held by ISIS, gather intelligence and capture ISIS leaders in both Iraq and Syria.

It is part of the broader role for U.S. special operations forces that Carter said would occur in the wake of the raid in late October where U.S. special operations forces helped free 70 ISIS hostages in northern Iraq. That same raid resulted in the death of Master Sergeant Joshua L. Wheeler, the first American fatality from combat in Iraq since the return of U.S. forces to that country in mid-2014.

Some U.S. Special Operations forces currently operate inside Iraq in an advise-and-assist role with Iraqi and Kurdish forces, but have not engaged in unilateral raids, U.S. officials said. The American forces that participated in the October rescue raid in Hawija, Iraq, were accompanying Kurdish forces when they became involved in the fight.

Carter told the House Armed Services Committee today that "we're deploying a specialized expeditionary targeting force to assist Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces and to put even more pressure on ISIL."

ISIS is also known as ISIL or the Islamic State.

Carter said their operations in Iraq would create "a virtuous cycle of better intelligence, which generates more targets, more raids, and more momentum."

A U.S. official told ABC News that initial planning for the new special operations task called for roughly 200 personnel in Iraq. The official also said it was unclear if that number of personnel would fall under the current authorized cap of 3,550 U.S. troops in Iraq or might lead the White House to authorize a larger number of troops to serve in a training and advise and assist role in Iraq.

General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the committee today any military recommendations in the war on ISIS are not limited by that troop cap.

"I can assure you that I don't feel at all inhibited about making recommendations that would cause us to grow greater than 3,500, or would I were to believe that would help us to defeat ISIL,” Dunford said.

Much as special operations forces operated against al Qaeda in Iraq during the previous U.S. military in Iraq, “our operations will be intel driven,” said Dunford. "Our assessment is that this force and the operations this force will conduct will provide us additional intelligence that'll make our operations much more effective. And I think that's what the secretary refers to when he talks about the virtuous cycle.”

“The enemy doesn't respect boundaries; neither do we. We are fighting a campaign across Iraq and Syria. So we're going to go where the enemy is and we're going to conduct operations where they most effectually degrade the capabilities of the enemy," Dunford said.

Carter said the force would "also be in a position to conduct unilateral operations into Syria." Over the past year, U.S. special operations forces have already conducted two targeted raids into Syria.

The force's operations in Syria would be separate from the scheduled deployment of up to 50 special operations forces that will soon be deployed to northeastern Syria. In October, the Pentagon announced that it would send up to 50 special operations forces there to work with the Syrian Arab Coalition, a force of 5,000 Arab rebels that has been fighting ISIS.

Carter said the special operations task force had been established with the cooperation of the Iraqi government. "The raids in Iraq will be done at the invitation of the Iraqi government and focused on defending its borders and building the ISF's (Iraqi Security Forces) own capacity," he said.

In an appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee in October, Carter had included "raids" as one of the "Three R's" that would guide the intensified effort against ISIS. The other two R's described putting military pressure on Raqqa, ISIS's de facto capital in Syria, and Ramadi, the western Iraqi city seized by ISIS earlier this year.

Editor’s Note: ABC News initially reported that the raid that resulted in the death of Master Sergeant Joshua L. Wheeler occurred in September 2015. It occurred in October 2015.