A U.S. service member died after a commando raid Thursday freed about 70 hostages who were believed to face imminent execution by Islamic State fighters in northern Iraq, according to the Pentagon. It was the first American combat death in Iraq in four years.
Kurdish commandos and U.S. special operations forces conducted the raid, which came at the request of the Kurdish regional government. Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said in a statement.
The American special operator was wounded in the raid and later died from his wounds, Cook said. The 70 hostages, including 20 members of the Iraqi security forces, were released. Five fighters from the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, were captured, Cook said. U.S. forces also recovered valuable intelligence from the ISIL camp near the northern Iraqi town of Hawija, he said.
American helicopters were used to swoop the special operators to the site, Cook said. The plan had been for about 30 U.S. special operations soldiers to advise a similar number of Kurdish commandos on the raid, a senior Defense Department official said. The official was not authorized to speak publicly about details of the mission.
ISIL fighters held the hostages in a walled compound, the official said. The helicopters flew in from the south and west of the complex, and troops encountered heavy gunfire. The Kurds were pinned down before American troops took the lead and killed 15 ISIL fighters, the official said. U.S. troops wounded several more fighters as they freed the hostages.
Four mass graves had been dug in the compound, and the hostages were told they would be killed after morning prayers, the official said. The hostages included 22 Iraqi Army soldiers and some former ISIL fighters who had been declared spies.
"It is always a tragedy when we lose one of our own," said Army Col. Steve Warren, a military spokesman in Baghdad. "In the end, we saved 70 people from execution that was planned in a few hours."
The American soldier's death raises the issue of deepening U.S. involvement on the ground in Iraq, something President Obama and the Pentagon have resisted since returning last year. The special operators were on hand to advise, and under rules calling for them to stay behind the last concealed position, Warren said.
They joined the fight, Warren said, when they saw their allies under "withering fire" from ISIL fighters. “They acted appropriately," Warren said.
The Hawija district, about 30 miles south of Kirkuk, has a population of about 400,000 people. The American casualty is the first to die in combat in Iraq since U.S. troops withdrew in 2011. An improvised explosive device killed a soldier on Nov. 14, 2011.
American forces returned in 2014 to help advise Iraqi forces in their battles with Islamic State fighters. "We commend and congratulate the brave individuals who participated in this successful operation that saved many lives, and we deeply mourn the loss of one of our own who died while supporting his Iraqi comrades engaged in a tough fight," Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of Central Command, said in a statement. "Our gratitude and heartfelt condolences go out to this young man's family, his teammates and friends."
- USA TODAY: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2015/10/22/reports-us-kurdish-commandos-free-hostages-iraq/74380492/