American commandos made a last-minute decision to jump into a firefight between Kurdish special forces and Islamic State fighters during a raid in northern Iraq that freed dozens of hostages but left one American dead.
The 30 American special operators — thought to be from the U.S. Army’s Delta Force — were only supposed to be operating in support of Kurdish forces near the town of Hawijah, south of Kirkuk, on Thursday morning, but “in the heat of combat they saw their friends taking some casualties” so they “made a decision to go in and assist,” a U.S. military official told Foreign Policy. In the ensuing firefight, one American service member was killed, the first U.S. combat death in Iraq since 2011.
The raid kicked off after midnight on Thursday after U.S. officials saw intelligence indicating that mass graves had been dug at the site and that the prisoners were going to be executed en masse at dawn.
American and Kurdish commandos landed at the walled compound aboard helicopters flown by the U.S. Army’s elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known as “Night Stalkers,” after which the Americans took up concealed positions behind a wall to observe the Kurdish assault.
But once the firefight started and Kurds began to go down, the plan changed, leading to an intense fight that marked the first direct ground combat between U.S. forces and the Islamic State in Iraq. Kurdish officials have said about 20 Islamic State fighters were killed in the assault. There has been no word of civilian casualties.
The group of 70 prisoners freed from captivity included at least six former Islamic State fighters being held as traitors, the official confirmed. The remainder included about 20 Iraqi soldiers and a large group of local Iraqi Arabs from the town of Hawijah.
Overall, no U.S. official has been able to articulate exactly why the raid was conducted, since no “high-value” targets were thought to be at the site. Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said on Thursday that the U.S. military “did not have a crystal clear idea of who exactly would be [there]” once the troops arrived.
A statement from the Islamic State translated by the SITE Intelligence Group claims that the “failed operation by the Crusader coalition” resulted in the “killing and wounding” of several Kurds and Americans. The statement also accuses the Americans of bombing the prison after the raid, which killed “dozens” of prisoners left inside in a “cowardly and despicable operation.”
The raid has raised questions over the role that U.S. forces should play in Iraq, since President Barack Obama has insisted that they are tasked only with performing non-combat advise and assist missions. Cook added that despite the American combat death, “U.S. forces are not in an active combat mission in Iraq.”
The raid came at the request of the Kurdistan Regional Government and was within the bounds of U.S. operations in Iraq “in their advise and assist capacity,” Gen. Lloyd Austin, the head of U.S. Central Command, said in a statement.
After the raid, American F-15 fighter planes came in and destroyed the compound.
The operation appears to be the most significant American ground operation in the region since U.S. Delta Force troops raided the home of Abu Sayyaf, a top Islamic State financier, in Syria in May. He was killed in the raid which nabbed a treasure trove of documents and intelligence. The soldiers also captured his wife, known as Umm Sayyaf, who was turned over to Kurdish authorities for interrogation.
The American casualty — who has not been identified — marks the first time a U.S. service member has been killed in Iraq since the American withdrawal in 2011. About 3,500 American forces returned in 2014 to advise Iraqi forces in their fight with the Islamic State.
Photo credit: U.S. Army