U.S. commando death in Iraq raises issue of ‘mission creep’

A convoy of Iraqi army vehicles driving out of Hawija, Iraq, in 2013.
A convoy of Iraqi army vehicles driving out of Hawija, Iraq, in 2013. AP

A U.S. special forces commando was killed in Iraq during a joint U.S.-Kurdish raid that freed about 70 hostages from an Islamic State prison, the Pentagon announced Thursday. He was the first American to die during combat there in almost four years.

The Pentagon and the White House confirmed the death but not some other details that were provided by Kurdish security officials. The United States said 22 of the rescued hostages were Iraqi soldiers and the rest were civilians, with no Americans in the group.

The assault on the Islamic State prison outside the town of Hawija, Iraq, 100 miles north of Baghdad, was the first time since the March 2003 U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq that American and Kurdish forces have conducted a rescue operation together. It was also the first time that American combat troops have undertaken a ground mission in Iraq since President Barack Obama sent the first of 3,000 troops back there 16 months ago with orders that limited their activities to training, advising and equipping Iraqi soldiers.

White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz said the rescue operation was launched at the request of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government. “That operation was deliberately planned and launched after receiving information that the hostages faced imminent mass execution. It was authorized consistent with our counter-ISIL effort to train, advise and assist Iraqi forces,” he said, using the government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State.

At the Pentagon, Press Secretary Peter Cook insisted that the overnight raid did not go beyond the support role that American troops supposedly are engaged in in Iraq.

“In that support role, they are allowed to defend themselves, and also defend partner forces, and to protect against the loss of innocent life,” Cook said “And that's what played out in this particular operation.”

U.S. officials did not identity the dead American or provide details on the exact circumstances of his death.

The number of Islamic State militants killed was uncertain; reports ranged from six to 20. Five militants were captured, according to U.S. and Kurdish officials.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter authorized the raid, and “the White House national security team was notified of this,” Cook said.

Hawija lies about halfway between the Iraqi cities of Tikrit and Kirkuk and has been under Islamic State control since the summer of 2014, when Iraqi soldiers fled the Islamic State onslaught. Since then, Kirkuk, whose population is a mixture of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, has been under the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government, though it lies outside the officially recognized autonomous Kurdish zone and its ownership is likely to be a point of bitter contention between Kurds and Arabs in any post-Islamic State period.

5 The number of Islamic State militants reportedly captured in the U.S.-Kurdish raid on a prison run by the militant group.

Cook said that Kurdish regional officials were holding the five captured Islamic State fighters, but he declined to say whether and when American officials would have access to them.

“I'm not going to get into details,” Cook said. “We were able to recover those hostages. We were able to take them and put them in the – the Kurdistan regional government now has, if you will, control over those people. And I'm just going to leave it there, without getting into the operational details.”

Kurdish commanders attached to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of two main Kurdish political parties in Iraq, told McClatchy that their fighters took the lead in the raid, backed by U.S. special forces flown in by American aircraft. In a statement, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. operations in Iraq, said that “Iraqi forces” were in the lead.

The operation was launched after American surveillance drones reportedly saw a large pit being dug Wednesday in what appeared to be preparation for a mass execution, Kurdish sources said.

The Pentagon declined to say where the American elite forces were dispatched from to join the raid. Sources in Iraq, who requested anonymity in order to provide operational details, said they came from a joint operating center that U.S. and Iraqi commanders run in Irbil, the Kurdish capital, about 60 miles northeast of Hawija.

“We command 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,” Austin said. “Our gratitude and condolences go out to this young man’s family, his teammates and his friends.”

Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria have proven to be the most reliable ground partners in the U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State.

The American death was the first in Iraq by hostile forces since an explosion killed a soldier in Baghdad on Nov. 14, 2011, three months after the U.S. formally ended its combat mission in the country.

The death again raised the issue of what rules of engagement govern the deployment of the 3,000 or so troops that have been deployed to Iraq since the Islamic State captured nearly a third of the country in an advance that brought the jihadists to within 60 miles of Baghdad.

Since shortly after U.S. aircraft began targeting Islamic State positions in Iraq in August 2014, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has tried unsuccessfully to advance legislation declaring war against the radical group and authorizing military action.

Obama has said he would welcome passage of such a measure, but he insists that he has the power to wage the air war against the Islamic State under his constitutional powers as commander in chief.

Cook claimed a separate authority for American troops to participate in the raid.

“This was authorized by the secretary of defense specifically under our Operation Inherent Resolve mission, specifically the campaign to defeat ISIL through support to Iraqi security forces, which includes these Kurdish peshmerga forces,” he said. “So it was within Operation Inherent Resolve that they were acting.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect date for the most recent previous U.S. combat death in Iraq. It was Nov. 14, 2011.

White House correspondent Lesley Clark contributed to this account in Washington

Special correspondent Prothero reported from Iraq. James Rosen: 202-383-0014; @jamesmartinrose