Operation led to first American combat death in Iraq since 2011
About 70 hostages freed from makeshift prison in Hawija area Video
Nearly 70 hostages facing “imminent mass execution” have been rescued from an Islamic State jail in a raid by Kurdish troops and US special forces in northern Iraq, according to US and Kurdish officials.
The operation on Thursday also led to the first American combat death in Iraq since 2011.
The pre-dawn raid targeted a school near the northern town of Hawija that was believed to have been used as a base by senior military commanders from the group. There were unconfirmed reports that one of Isis’s most senior leaders, Nema Arbid Nayef al-Jabouri, was one of the targets of the raid.
Jabouri, also known as Abu Fatima was not present when US and Kurdish troops descended on the small village of Fedeekha east of the town, Iraqi officials said.
But commandos freed dozens of Arab Iraqis who were being held prisoner at the school, including members of the Iraqi security forces, local residents and Isis fighters held as suspected spies.
The US government said the operation had been planned and launched at the urging of Kurdish officials after they received reports that the hostages “faced imminent mass execution”.
The Pentagon forcefully defended US involvement in the mission amid questions of whether it violated the administration’s policy of “no boots on the ground”.
Spokesman Peter Cook told reporters initial debriefs showed people had recently been killed at the compound and that lives of the hostages were facing death “in a matter of hours”.
“This was a specific circumstance, a unique circumstance … and we acted,” Cook said at his daily press briefing. “And thanks to the actions of not only the Iraqi forces involved here but the US forces, lives were saved.”
Locals near Hawija said the special forces troops arrived in Chinook helicopters, which landed at around 4am – about an hour after roads to the area had been bombed by coalition fighter jets.
One US service member was wounded and subsequently died after coming under fire from the Isis compound, the Pentagon said. Four Iraqi troops were also wounded.
An Iraqi official told the Guardian that the Hawija raid had been launched after intelligence had pinpointed Jabouri’s location. Kurdish officials said they had uncovered specific information about the prisoners’ whereabouts and the fact that they were in immediate danger.
“They believed there were up to 20 Isis commanders there,” the officials said. “They also knew the prisoners faced a big risk.
US army Colonel Steve Warren, a spokesman for US-led coalition in Iraq, said that some of the freed prisoners said that Isis fighters had told them they would be executed after morning prayers.
In a statement, the Kurdistan Region Security Council said 69 prisoners had been freed, adding that “an initial examination showed there are no Kurds among the rescued hostages.”
According to the Pentagon, five members of Isis were captured and an undisclosed number of others killed. It claimed the raid had yielded a mass of intelligence information.
The raid is believed to be the first to be launched inside Iraq since US troops returned to the country to tackle Isis, which rampaged through northern and western Iraq from June last year.
It is only the second to have taken place in the 14 months since then; in May, a US special forces operation in neighbouring Syria killed a senior Isis official responsible for oil trade, and captured his wife.
Barack Obama’s deputy spokesman Eric Schultz said the operation had been authorized by secretary of defense Ash Carter.
“It was authorized consistent with our counter-Isil effort to train, advise, and assist Iraqi forces,” he said. “The president has been clear that our men and women who serve in uniform have a narrow mission set in that part of the world … but there’s still nevertheless inherent risks, and last night unfortunately we saw a very tragic example of how that still exists.”
Schultz maintained that American troops would not be serving “in a combat role” in the region, but the expectation would continue that they would engage in special forces operations, humanitarian rescues and other counterterrorism missions.
After more than a year of setbacks, Iraqi troops have in recent weeks begun to claw back losses in the centre of the country. The Baiji oil refinery, which Isis seized last summer, was returned to state control earlier on 17 October after a series of intensive battles over many months.
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