The call came in late. Drone operators had caught sight of what appeared to be people digging trenches near the central Iraqi town of Hawija, the scene for months of intense fighting between Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga militia and militants from the Islamic State.
The drone operators feared the worst, that the Islamic State was planning a mass execution in an area where scores if not hundreds of prisoners were being held. The trenches were to become mass graves.
“They’ve got at least 100 Kurds and peshmerga fighters prisoner in that area,” said an officer in a Kurdish counterterrorist unit who had firsthand knowledge of what would unfold in the next few hours. Kurdish officials began to consider a rescue mission.
But there was more: Among the prisoners, officials believed, were former officials from Saddam Hussein’s Baath party and military who’d cooperated with the Islamic State but were no longer trusted by the jihadists.
“We always want to save Kurds and peshmerga – they’d burned some men alive earlier this year in that same place,” recalled the officer. “But we also wanted the intelligence these former regime prisoners could give us.”
In the end, the Kurdish forces, backed by American special operations aircraft and soldiers, launched a raid that freed an estimated 70 prisoners. But none of the prisoners, as it turned out, was Kurdish, and if any were former Baathists, that has yet to be determined.
Shoot at a soldier and he’s supposed to shoot you back.
Kurdish official on U.S. death
Worse, an American special operator was killed during the operation, sparking concern among Kurdish officials that the U.S. death, the first in Iraq since 2011, would damage the close working relationship Kurdish forces have enjoyed with American special operations forces since 1991, when the United States first dispatched its most elite troops here in preparation for an offensive against Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait.
U.S. officials on Friday identified the dead soldier as Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler, 39, of Roland, Okla. He was assigned to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., commonly known as Delta Force.
“The Americans weren’t supposed to fight unless there was an emergency,” said the counterterrorism officer, in an account confirmed by other officials. “But as they directed help for the operation from behind a compound wall, they came under fire and were the closest. So they radioed they would handle it.
“The man killed, it was luck. A bullet hit him in the head. As Muslims we think that the time of your death is written when you are born. It was his time.”
The counterterrorist officer, a member of the unit that carried out the raid, watched the mission unfold via drone video beamed back to a command center in Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish Regional Government. Other Kurdish officials confirmed details and provided additional information. All asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the mission.
Because the area remains a hot front line, deciding on a course of action for the counterterror unit and the American commandos was far less complex than what normally would be expected for a special operations raid, according to three peshmerga officials in Irbil.
“Normally the Americans want hours of drones, then will want people to actually go and watch the target in person, and only then they get approval, we think from lawyers in America,” one said. “This time it took only a few minutes.”
“We told them we were going no matter if they helped us, but it would be faster and better if we had their helicopters and jets to support us,” the counterterror officer said. “I like Delta guys because they always want to go, normally it just takes a long time for them to get permission. Not this time.”
The plan was relatively simple for a rescue behind enemy lines: U.S. planes would bomb all the approaches – a regular occurrence in an area that sees daily strikes – before a mix of helicopters and a handful of U.S. commandos who were to help coordinate the attack would assault what one official called “more of a mud hut than a real prison.”
The defenders were caught by total surprise, according to the counterterrorism unit officer.
“The fight was nothing,” he said, drawing on the scene he’d watched beamed to the command center in Irbil. “The guards were killed fast and the roads were cut by jet fighters.”
But as the buildings in the area were being cleared, the Delta operators came under fire from a building a hundred or so yards away. They moved to clear it.
Asked if the Americans had exceeded orders or acted irresponsibly, three officials responded emotionally that the situation called for action and instead of waiting to direct Kurds – who were busy hitting other compounds – the Americans acted according to their training.
“Shoot at a soldier and he’s supposed to shoot you back,” said one official. “This is no scandal, it’s just Iraq.”
But mourning the loss of an American commando – all Kurdish officials commented on the deep level of trust and respect between the Kurds and American special operations that dates back to 1991 – was made more painful by the perceived failure of the mission.
“We are still questioning the captured prisoners, but most appear to be Daash that had broken rules or tried to desert,” said one official, using a common Arabic term for the Islamic State.
Another said the prisoners appeared to have been taken recently. “They’re kids. Brave but kids,” that official said.
“We did not get the former Baathist commanders that we hoped to find,” he said. “They know so much, which is why Daash had them arrested and probably executed. There were bodies all around the site, but we didn’t have time to identify each of them.”
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero