Backed by US special operations forces, Kurdish troops stormed an Islamic State prison in Iraq early Thursday, freeing about 70 hostages in a high-stakes operation that left a US serviceman dead, the Pentagon said.
Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said five IS militants were captured and others were killed in the raid on a compound near Hawijah, Iraq.
The US servicemember, who died of wounds suffered during the rescue mission, was the first to be killed in action since the US-led campaign against IS in Iraq was launched in June 2014, a US defense official said.
“This operation was deliberately planned and launched after receiving information that the hostages faced imminent mass execution,” Cook said in a statement.
“It was authorized consistent with our counter-ISIL effort to train, advise, and assist Iraqi forces,” he added, using an alternate acronym for Islamic State, the militant group that has sought to carve an Islamic caliphate out of large parts of Iraq and Syria.
Cook said US helicopters and special operations forces accompanied Kurdish peshmerga forces to the prison compound.
The American who later died was wounded “acting in support of Iraqi peshmerga forces after they came under fire from ISIL,” he said.
“Approximately 70 hostages were rescued including more than 20 members of the Iraqi security forces.
“Five ISIL terrorists were detained by the Iraqis and a number of ISIL terrorists were killed as well. In addition, the US recovered important intelligence about ISIL,” Cook said.
General Lloyd Austin, the commander of all US forces in the Middle East, described the rescue operation as “complex and highly successful.”
“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,” he said.
Besides the Iraqi security forces, those freed included prisoners who were about to be executed as spies and residents of Hawijah, a coalition official in Iraq said.
“They’d executed four the previous day. We had seen mass graves had been dug on that compound and the information we now hear… is that they’d been told they would be executed after morning prayers this morning,” the official told AFP.
An intelligence official in the Kurdish-controlled city of Kirkuk, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the press, told AFP that “high value detainees” were believed to be among those captured.
He said the hostages were being held in what was formerly the house of a local judge.
Residents told AFP that several Chinook helicopters were involved in the raid and that several IS-run checkpoints in the area were targeted by air strikes.
A Hawijah resident said that after the raid IS leaders in Hawijah “all went missing.”
“The Daesh leaders in Hawijah all went missing after the raid. Their offices are closed and nobody knows where they went,” the resident said, asking not to be identified by name. Daesh is the Arabic name for Islamic State.
Another resident of the area said, “The group’s top Hawijah leader was detained and another senior leader too. A number of them were killed and several of the people held in that prison were freed.”
Colonel Steve Warren, the coalition spokesman in Iraq, said US pressure has “begun to sow a bit of paranoia inside the organisation.”
“We’ve killed 70 of their mid- and high-level leaders since May, that’s an average of one every two days, so we are putting pressure on their leadership. And we’ve seen that this creates a level of paranoia that causes them to re-evaluate their own security, that causes them to interrogate their own people,” he said.
US ties to Kurds
Kurdish peshmerga forces control Kirkuk and have long worked closely with the US-led coalition.
Iraqi security and allied paramilitary forces have in recent days been closing in on Hawijah from the south and west. The city lies about 240 kilometers (150 miles) north of Baghdad.
Kurdish peshmerga forces, backed by US-led coalition air strikes, have also in recent weeks moved several kilometers closer to Hawijah, pushing down from the north and east.