The joint US and Kurdish Peshmerga raid on an Islamic State prison in northern Iraq was mounted after intelligence revealed prepared graves near the facility, the US defence chief said Friday.
“Graves were right next door to the compound,” US Secretary of Defence Ash Carter said, explaining the Pentagon’s assessment that the 70 captives freed in the commando operation had faced “imminent mass execution.”
The raid, in which one US special operations soldier was killed in a firefight, prevented the Islamic State group “from broadcasting a horrific massacre to the world,” Carter said.
The US commando who died in the raid was identified as Army Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, 39. He was the first American killed in combat in Iraq since 2011.
“When a firefight ensued, he stood up, ran to the sound of the guns,” Carter said, noting that while it wasn’t part of the plan he was nevertheless “immensely proud” of Wheeler’s actions.
The raid allowing the gathering of documentation and electronic equipment that is expected to yield valuable intelligence, Carter said.
He held out the possibility that the US would engage in future similar raids. Because of its unique capabilities, the United States may “do do more of this type of thing,” Carter said.
“When we find things that will effectively prosecute the campaign, we will do it,” he said.
Of the 70 hostages rescued in the raid near Hawijah, conducted at the request of the Kurdistan regional government in northern Iraq, 20 were members of the Iraqi security forces. None of the captives proved to be Kurds.
A number of Islamic State militants were killed in the action and five were detained.
The mission was approved directly by Carter under the auspices of Operation Inherent Resolve, which targets Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria.