American killed during hostage rescue in Iraq; first U.S. combat death in the country since 2011

Smoke rises during a military operation launched by Kurdish troops in Iraq's northern Kirkuk province on Sept. 30, 2015. A U.S. service member was killed Thursday in a hostage rescue operation involving American and Iraqi commandos.

Smoke rises during a military operation launched by Kurdish troops in Iraq’s northern Kirkuk province on Sept. 30, 2015. A U.S. service member was killed Thursday in a hostage rescue operation involving American and Iraqi commandos.

(Associated Press)

A high-stakes raid Thursday by U.S. special operations forces and Kurdish fighters to free 70 prisoners held by Islamic State militants resulted in the first combat-related death of an American service member in Iraq since 2011.

The predawn operation also raised questions about the expanding role of the U.S. military in Iraq and President Obama’s vow to put “no boots on the ground” in the Middle Eastern country.

The Pentagon characterized the operation as part of Obama’s mission to train, advise and assist Iraqi forces against the militants, and not as a combat operation. But the raid, which needed special approval by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, squarely put U.S. forces into a fierce battle alongside another army to save foreign captives.

The mission marked an expansion of U.S. participation in the fight against Islamic State to aid partners in its ground offensive against the militants. So far, the U.S. has stood resolute in providing an advisory and backup role, delivering airstrikes, training and financial support to proxy ground forces.


“This was a unique circumstance in which very close partners of the United States made a specific request for our assistance,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said in a news briefing. “There was a deliberate process to analyze this situation and the circumstances, and that’s when the decision was made to move forward with this operation.”

He added, “I wouldn’t suggest you should look at this as some change in tactics on our part. This is not something that’s going to now happen on a regular basis.”

Under the cloak of darkness, before 2 a.m. local time, three Chinook and two Black Hawk helicopters took off from an air base in Irbil in northern Iraq and flew about 90 miles to the prison in the town of Hawija, said U.S. officials, who were not authorized to speak publicly on the classified raid.

About 60 U.S. special forces belonging to the Army’s Delta Force and Kurdish commandos were packed inside, headed toward a high-walled compound with two large buildings at the corners, which U.S. intelligence analysts had been watching via aerial spy imagery for more than two weeks, officials said.

The goal was to free captured Kurdish troops known as peshmerga, who have been among the fiercest fighters in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State. The Kurds and U.S. believed there were at least 20 peshmerga inside, Kurdish and U.S. officials said. Aerial images showed there were trenches dug outside the compound, which officials believed were intended to be mass graves for the captives being held.

Before the helicopters touched down, attack aircraft delivered airstrikes around the compound to block roads in which nearby Islamic State fighters could join the battle, the officials said. When Kurdish fighters approached the prison, Islamic State militants opened fire.

The American who was killed was wounded amid the firefight and airlifted back to Irbil, where he later died. Four Kurdish fighters also were wounded.

After getting into the facility and killing about 15 Islamic State fighters acting as guards, the forces took 75 captives and loaded them into the helicopters.

At least five of the captives were former Islamic State fighters being held as traitors, officials said. The Pentagon confirmed that more than 20 of the captives were members of the Iraqi army. The whole raid lasted about two hours. U.S. and Kurdish officials were surprised to find that no Kurds were among the rescued hostages.

Hawija, about 150 miles north of Baghdad, has been in the hands of Islamic State since the group first swept through and seized towns in Iraq and Syria last year. The militants have paraded captured peshmerga fighters around the town in metal cages and posted the video online.

“We thought there would be peshmerga forces being held in the prison,” said Bayan Rahman, Kurdistan’s government representative in Washington. “But we see this mission is a success. Rescuing anyone from [Islamic State] is a reason for celebration.”

Although the U.S. military has unilaterally conducted at least two other ground raids against the Islamic State in Syria, this operation marks the Pentagon’s first confirmed assault in Iraq since Islamic State rose to power last year.

Ground raids, based on intelligence, can be more precise, but they also come with a much greater risk of U.S. casualties.

“The special operators were definitely involved in combat,” said Patrick Martin, an Iraqi analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a nonpartisan public policy group in Washington. “The Pentagon can say it’s not a combat mission, but it is.... There’s a lot of politics involved with looking like you’re scaling up.”

As a candidate, Obama vowed to be a president who ends wars rather than starts them. But he has continually been pushed by critics for more direct U.S. military involvement in the fight against Islamic State.

Other U.S. ground assaults included one in May when Abu Sayyaf, a militant leader who helped spearhead the group’s lucrative black-market oil, gas and financial operations, was killed in Syria. U.S. forces captured Sayyaf’s wife and a cache of the militants’ laptops, cellphones and other materials for intelligence before returning to a military base in Iraq.

Another operation was an unsuccessful raid last summer meant to rescue U.S. hostages, including James Foley, the U.S. journalist later beheaded by the militants. Islamic State moved Foley and the other captives before U.S. forces arrived in northern Syria, according to the White House.

Islamic State has mounted assaults on the Kurdish region since the group overran large portions of northern and western Iraq in 2014. The U.S. is helping the Iraqi government take back Ramadi, the capital of western Anbar province, and the northern town of Baiji, which has a lucrative oil field.


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