(CNSNews.com) – U.S. and Kurdish peshmerga special forces in northeastern Iraq have rescued some 70 hostages held by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) and feared to be at risk of imminent execution, according to the Pentagon and Kurdish officials. The mission cost the life of a U.S. service member, believed the first American to die in combat in Iraq since U.S. troops were withdrawn in late 2011.
“This operation was deliberately planned and launched after receiving information that the hostages faced imminent mass execution,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said of the mission carried out early Thursday morning local time. “It was authorized consistent with our counter-ISIL effort to train, advise, and assist Iraqi forces.”
“Some of the debriefs that we’ve gotten, already, back indicate that not only had some people been executed recently at this facility, but that the people at this facility feared that their lives were in danger within a matter of hours.”
Cook described the part played by U.S. forces as “a support role” and said the mission was “a unique circumstance in which very close partners of the United States made a specific request for our assistance.”
Two-and-a-half years after U.S. forces left Iraq, President Obama began sending troops back to the country in mid-2014 for Operation Inherent Resolve, a mission to train, advise, and help Iraqi forces in the fight against ISIS jihadists. Before Thursday seven Americans involved in that mission had died, in non-combat circumstances including aircraft crashes.
“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,” U.S. Central Command commander Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III said in a statement.
“Our gratitude and heart-felt condolences go out to this young man’s family, his teammates and friends,” he said.
Cook said the American service member had succumbed to wounds sustained when ISIS terrorists fired on the rescuers. Four Kurdish personnel were injured during the helicopter assault, on an ISIS-run prison near Hawijah.
Cook said the hostages were believed to include about 20 Iraqi security forces members as well as Iraqi civilians, although a review was underway. They were now under the care of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). He said to his knowledge there had been no indication that Americans had been among the hostages.
“Five ISIL terrorists were detained by the Iraqis and a number of ISIL terrorists were killed,” Cook said, adding that U.S. forces had also recovered “important intelligence” about the jihadist group.
The operation was carried out by U.S. special forces and members of the Kurdish Directorate General of Counter Terrorism (CTD).
Figures supplied by the KRG were 69 hostages rescued, six ISIS fighters captured and more than 20 killed during the operation, which it said began at 2 AM and lasted about two hours. It said initial review indicated there were no Kurds among the hostages.
“We express our heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of the U.S. service member we lost in this operation and we are grateful to the counterterrorism professionals for their bravery and to the Global Coalition for providing support to this operation,” the KRG said.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said he believed it was the first operation of its kind to be mounted in Iraq since the anti-ISIS operation was launched.
Last May U.S. special forces carried out an operation in eastern Syria, in a bid to capture an ISIS commander and his wife, who Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said also played “an important role” in terrorist activity. The commander, known as Abu Sayyaf, was killed and his wife captured. A young Yazidi woman being held as a slave was rescued.
ISIS is believed to have killed perhaps as many as 10,000 people since declaring its “caliphate” in parts of Syria and Iraq last year, according to figures compiled by Syrian and Iraqi monitoring organizations.
Apart from combat fatalities, among its victims have been members of religious minorities including Christians, Shi’ites, Yazidis, Kurds as well as Sunni Muslims.
Execution methods have included beheading, death by firing squad, burning alive and being thrown off buildings, and victims’ “offenses” have including spying, blasphemy, homosexuality, “sorcery” and insufficient piety such as not fasting properly during Ramadan.
Before Thursday, the last U.S. service member to have died in combat in Iraq was Army Spec. David Emanuel Hickman, 23, of Greensboro, North Carolina, who was killed in a roadside bomb in Baghdad on November 14, 2011.
U.S. personnel who have died since the beginning of the anti-ISIS operation last year are:
--Marine Cpl. Jordan Spears, 21, of Memphis, Indiana, who was lost at sea after he bailed out of an MV-22 Osprey when it lost power shortly after taking off from an amphibious assault ship on October 1, 2014.
--Marine Lance Cpl. Sean Neal, 19, of Riverside, California, who died in a non combat-related incident in Baghdad on October 23, 2014.
--Capt. William Dubois, 30, of New Castle, Colorado, killed when his F-16 crashed after takeoff from a base in the Middle East on December 1, 2014.
--Tech. Sgt. Anthony Salazar, 40, of Hermosa Beach, California, who died of a non combat-related injury on April 13, 2015.
--Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Devon Doyle, 21, of Alamosa, Colorado, who died after falling from a balcony in Manama, Bahrain while on liberty on May 16, 2015.
--Army Pfc. Monterrious Daniel, 19, of Griffin, Georgia, who died at Camp Buehring in Kuwait, in a non combat-related incident on June 12, 2015.
--Seaman Philip Manes, 21, of Fairfax, Virgina, who died in Manama, Bahrain of a non combat-related incident on September 27, 2015.