WASHINGTON • US and Kurdish forces stormed a militant prison in Iraq and freed some 70 captives facing imminent execution, the Pentagon has said.
But a US serviceman died of wounds sustained in the pre-dawn operation on Thursday, the first to be killed in action since the US-led campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) began in Iraq in June last year.
Five ISIS militants were captured and several others killed in the raid on a compound near the town of Hawija, about 240km north of Baghdad, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said.
"This operation was deliberately planned and launched after receiving information that the hostages faced imminent mass execution," he said in a statement.
Officials later confirmed the freed detainees were Arabs, including around 20 members of the Iraqi security forces. The others were local residents and ISIS fighters that the group had accused of spying, said a US official.
The freed hostages told officials that they had been told they were to be executed at dawn on Thursday after the morning prayer. Trench graves had already been dug.
The Hawija raid marked an apparent break with the normal modus operandi of US forces, which do not directly engage in combat in line with President Barack Obama's "no boots on the ground" policy.
Mr Cook pushed back against the suggestion that this signalled an expansion of the US role in Iraq. "This is a unique situation," he said, adding that the mission was given the green light by Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, and the White House was notified.
"We were asked for assistance" by the Kurdish government, Mr Cook said. "So I would not suggest that this is something that's going to now happen on a regular basis."
He 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", he said.
Mr Cook said the operation had also produced "important intelligence" about ISIS. He said that the slain commando was the first US combat death since 2011.
US officials said on Thursday night that Kurdish officials insisted they had solid intelligence that ISIS was about to massacre prisoners, including a number of peshmerga fighters. "They were going with or without us," said a senior Defence Department official.
The US forces included commandos from the Delta Force counter-terrorism unit, officials said.
An intelligence official in the Kurdish-controlled city of Kirkuk said that "high-value detainees" were believed to be among the captives. Kurdish peshmerga forces control Kirkuk and have worked closely with the US-led coalition.
Iraq's Defence Ministry was not informed about the operation, ministry spokesman Tahsin Ibrahim Sadiq said yesterday, adding that ministry officials were meeting representatives of the US-led coalition in Baghdad to learn more about the operation.
General Lloyd Austin, the commander of all US forces in the Middle East, said: "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."
NEW YORK TIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS