One member of a US special operations force was killed during an overnight mission to rescue hostages held by Islamic State (IS) militants in northern Iraq, the first US soldier to die in ground combat with the militant group, US officials said on Thursday.
Sixty-nine hostages were rescued in the action, which targeted an Islamic State prison about 7km north of the town of Hawija, according to the security council of the Kurdistan region, whose counterterrorism forces took part.
Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said at a news briefing that the operation did not mark a change in US tactics in the war on Islamic State militants, who pose the biggest security threat to Iraq since the fall of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 2003.
“I would not suggest that this is something that is now going to happen on a regular basis, but I do think it is symbolic of the kinds of efforts that we are taking on behalf of our partners,” he told reporters.
It was the most significant raid against the Islamic State group since May, when US special operations forces killed one of its senior leaders, Abu Sayyaf from Tunisia, in a raid in Syria.
The US rescue mission unfolded amid mounting concerns in Washington over increasing Russian intervention in the Middle East.
The hostages rescued in the raid were all Arabs, including local residents and Islamic State fighters held as suspected spies, a US official said on Thursday.
The official told reporters that about 20 of the hostages were members of Iraqi security forces.
The Islamic State called the operation “unsuccessful,” but acknowledged casualties among its fighters.
In a statement distributed online on Thursday by supporters, it said US gunships had shelled areas around the prison to prevent the arrival of reinforcements, then clashed with militants for two hours.
The statement confirmed US claims that some guards had been killed and others detained in the operation.
“Dozens” of US troops were involved in the mission, a US defense official said, declining to be more specific about the number.
“It was a deliberately planned operation, but it was also done with the knowledge that imminent action was needed to save the lives of these people,” the US defense official said.
The US serviceman was shot during the mission and taken to the Kurdistan regional capital, Erbil, where he died, the US defense official said. He was the first US service member killed in ground combat in Iraq since the US withdrew its forces in 2011.
US Army Colonel Steve Warren, spokesman for the US-led coalition in Iraq, said the possibility that US citizens were among the hostages was not a consideration in carrying out the operation.
Some of the rescued people said Islamic State militants had told them they would be executed after morning prayers, Warren said.
The US forces were acting as advisers, then were sucked into the battle when Kurdish fighters came under heavy fire, he explained.
“They were pinned down and they were beginning to take casualties, so the Americans, in the heat of battle, made a decision,” he said.
He said the mission had been requested by the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Five US helicopters launched from Erbil were involved in the mission, and the US was providing helicopter transportation, intelligence support, air strike support and advisory support to the Peshmerga, the US defense official said.
Air strikes were launched before and after the mission to block approaches to the prison and destroy it afterward, the US defense official said.
Hawija is a stronghold of Islamic State militants who have captured several dozen Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in battle.
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