Two U.S. service members were killed in Iraq in an engagement with enemy forces on Sunday, the Pentagon said on Monday.
The two soldiers, whose names have not been released pending next of kin notification, were killed in a firefight with Islamic State militants in the northern Iraqi district of Makhmur. They were there to accompany and advise Iraqi security forces.
On Monday, Iraq’s elite Counter-Terrorism Service announced it had conducted a raid a day earlier on an Islamic State encampment in the Qarachogh mountain range, some 37 miles southwest of the city of Irbil.
The clashes involving U.S. troops and Iraqi forces took place in a cave complex. Twenty-five Islamic State militants were killed and nine tunnels and a training camp were destroyed.
There were few other details, but an Iraqi officer who requested anonymity to be able to discuss operational matters said four of the Americans were also wounded.
“The Daesh fighters popped out of one entrance and killed the two Americans. They dragged their bodies into the cave complex,” he said, using another term for Islamic State.
A contingent of U.S. forces then stormed the area to recover the bodies; four of their members were wounded.
“It was a big firefight, one of the most intense we’ve faced in this period,” he said.
The death of the U.S. soldiers comes amid tensions between Iraq and the U.S. over American troops’ presence in the country after a January strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the top Iranian commander. The U.S. has some 5,200 service members in Iraq, the Pentagon says, along with an unspecified number of contractors.
Suleimani’s assassination was seen by many politicians as a gross violation of Iraq’s sovereignty and sparked renewed calls for the U.S. to leave the country. Joint anti-Islamic State operations between Iraqi security forces and the coalition were suspended for a time. Col. Myles Caggins, spokesman for the coalition in Iraq, said joint missions between Iraqi and U.S. forces had restarted mid-February.
Sunday’s operation began around 7 a.m., when warplanes struck areas of the Qarachogh mountains, according to witnesses quoted by Rudaw, an Iraqi Kurdish news channel. Four helicopter gunships pressed the attack on three different sites in the mountains, before soldiers rappelled from the helicopters.
Iraq’s anti-terror force said the firefight ended early Monday morning.
A source familiar with operations in the area, who spoke on condition of anonymity to be able to discuss security matters freely, said the two service members were likely to be from the Marine Raiders, a special operations force that works with Counter-Terrorism Service on anti-Islamic State operations.
In August, the Pentagon declared the death of Gunnery Sgt. Scott A. Koppenhafer, who was assigned to 2nd Marine Raider Battalion, Marine Forces Special Operations Command. He was killed in enemy small arms fire during a raid on Islamic State militants in northern Iraq.
Islamic State, whose militants once controlled a full third of both Syria and Iraq, lost the last of its putative caliphate last year. Since then, its members have found refuge in remote areas of both countries, including the Qarachogh mountains.