Footage has emerged of a rescue operation that occurred in northern Iraq this week, in which United States special operations forces rescued about 70 Kurdish hostages in a military raid on an Islamic State (IS) stronghold that left one American service member dead.
The operation took place at a prison compound in the town of Hawija on Thursday and involved Kurdish forces. Kurdish counter-terrorism forces planned and led the early morning raid with support from US forces, Iraqi Kurdistan's US representative said according to Reuters.
In the video, which was posted online by the Kurdish Region Security Council on Sunday, men in long robes are seen being escorted through a dark room by gun-wielding US soldiers. Gunfire can be heard throughout the footage. In a later segment, the men are searched one at a time by military personnel as they are led through a narrow hallway.
Four Kurds were wounded and a US commando was killed during the operation, becoming the first American to die on the ground in the fight against IS militants in Iraq and Syria. The Pentagon identified the soldier as Master Sergeant Joshua L. Wheeler.
According to US Defense Secretary Ash Carter, Wheeler rushed into a firefight to rescue captive Kurdish forces. Carter said that US troops had not planned to enter the compound, and were initially there only to advise and assist the Kurdish fighters. The American forces were ultimately drawn in when the Kurds began to incur casualties, according to Colonel Steve Warren, a spokesman for the US-led coalition that has been bombing IS militants for more than a year.
Such rescue attempts are rare. The joint operation highlighted the status of Kurdish peshmerga fighters as key allies in the fight against the militant group, also known as ISIL, who control large swathes of Iraq and neighboring Syria.
"The intention was to rescue peshmerga taken hostage by ISIL," said the source in the Security Council of Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region of northern Iraq. "We had solid intelligence that peshmerga were being held in that compound."
None of the captives freed by the raiders were peshmerga, suggesting that Kurdish prisoners may have been moved by militants to another location, a Kurdish source added.
Some 62 peshmerga have gone missing in battle with the militants and several have been beheaded in Islamic State propaganda videos. Islamic State holds hostages in detention centers across the sprawling lands it controls. It also regularly executes people it accuses of spying for the Iraqi state or foreign powers.
Iraqi government forces, Shi'ite militias, and the Kurds are all fighting Islamic State, but coordination can be difficult in a country deeply divided along sectarian and ethnic lines. Iraq's Defense Ministry said earlier on Friday it was not informed about the raid, which took place just north of the Islamic State-controlled town of Hawija.
"We just heard this from the media, we didn't know about it," ministry spokesman General Tahsin Ibrahim Sadiq told Reuters. "It was just the peshmerga and the Americans, and the Ministry of Defence didn't have any idea about that."
The mission was the most significant raid against Islamic State in months, and Warren said it had been requested by the Kurdistan Regional Government. The Pentagon said it did not mark a change in US tactics, and a CIA spokesman declined to comment on the suggestion that the rescued hostages had connections to the US government.
US officials denied the rescued hostages had any connection to the United States. But senior Iraqi Shi'ite politician Ayad Allawi said he suspected there must have been significant figures among the hostages to warrant a risky intervention by US special forces.
"I think this would have happened only if there were some useful assets," he said.
Sergeant Wheeler's body was brought home to the US on Saturday and the Oklahoma native received the Purple Heart after his death. The 39-year-old was assigned to the US Army Special Operations Command headquarters at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He entered the Army in 1995 and joined the US Army Special Operations Command in 2004. Overall, he deployed 17 times to support combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and earned 11 Bronze Star medals, according to an Army statement.