WASHINGTON/ERBIL, Iraq, Oct 22, (Agencies): One member of a US special operations team was killed during an operation to rescue hostages held by Islamic State militants in northern Iraq, the first American killed in ground combat with the militant group, US officials said on Thursday.
Around 70 hostages were successfully rescued during the operation, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said in a statement. US special operations forces were assisting Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces in rescuing hostages held at an Islamic State prison near Hawija, in northern Iraq, in a mission requested by the Kurdistan Regional Government, Cook said. “Dozens” of US troops were involved in the mission, a US defense official said, declining to give further specifics on the number involved. “It was a deliberately planned operation but it was also done with the knowledge that imminent action was needed to save the lives of these people,” the US defense official said.
The US serviceman was shot during the mission and taken back to Erbil, where he died, the US defense official said. He was the first US serviceman killed in ground combat operations against Islamic State, which has been the target of daily air strikes in Iraq and Syria by a US-led coalition for more than a year.
Five US helicopters launched from Erbil were involved in the mission, and the United States was providing helicopter lift, intelligence support, air strike support, and advisory support to the peshmerga, the US defense official said. Air strikes were launched both before and after the mission to block approaches to the prison and destroy it afterward, the US defense official said.
Those rescued included 20 members of Iraqi security forces, Cook said in his statement. Five Islamic State members were detained and are in Kurdish custody, and more than 10 were killed, the US defense official said.
A Reuters source in the Hawija area said the special forces raided a house where Islamic State commanders were gathering, triggering gun battles and blasts that lasted several hours. Sheikh Jaafar Mustafa, a senior commander of the Kurdish peshmerga forces, confirmed an operation had taken place but said he had no further information about it. In May, American special operations forces killed senior Islamic State leader Abu Sayyaf from Tunisia in a raid in Syria. Hawija is a stronghold of Islamic State militants who have captured Kurdish peshmerga fighters in battles. Meanwhile, a spokesman for US-led coalition forces in Iraq and Syria says they carried out a large-scale attack on Syria’s Omar oil field as part of its mission to target the Islamic State group’s ability to generate money.
Operations officer Maj Michael Filanowski told journalists in Baghdad on Thursday that the strikes late Wednesday struck IS-controlled oil refineries, command and control centers and transportation nodes in the Omar oil field area. US officials say it was one of the largest set of strikes since launching the air campaign last year.
Filanowski says the refinery generates between $1.7 and $5.1 million per month for the Islamic State group. He says the strikes did not target Omar’s entire infrastructure, focusing instead on specific targets that would stunt their ability to sell oil. Elsewhere, Iraqi forces said Wednesday they found 19 different mass graves containing the bodies of 365 fighters from the Islamic State group in the reconquered town of Baiji. An army officer confirmed a large number of IS bodies had been discovered in mass graves, but could not say how many and mentioned that some had also been found in another neighbourhood.
In a statement, the security forces said that “the total number of graves discovered by the heroes of the Popular Mobilisation is 19”. It said the mass graves were found in the Asri neighbourhood of Baiji, 200 kms (120 miles) north of Baghdad, and contained a total of “365 bodies of DAESH terrorists”. DAESH is an Arab acronym for IS. It was not clear how long the bodies had been buried there nor how all of them were identified as fighters.
Baiji and its nearby refinery — once the country’s largest but now extensively destroyed — has been the scene of almost uninterrupted fighting in the past 16 months. Iraqi forces led by the Popular Mobilisation, an umbrella group dominated by Tehran-backed Shiite militias, have fully retaken the area in recent days. Some key flashpoints in the area changed hands many times since IS launched a sweeping offensive across Iraq in June 2014 but the broad operation launched about 10 days ago appears to have secured victory for the security forces.
In another news, a major increase in violence by the Islamic State group saw over 1,000 attacks and nearly 3,000 deaths worldwide in the past three months, analysis firm IHS Jane’s said Thursday. The figures show a 42-percent jump in daily attacks by the jihadist group, averaging 11.8 per day from July to September, up from 8.3 per day between April and June. The figures suggest that air strikes by the US-led coalition have had only a limited impact on the group. The London-based analysis firm recorded 1,086 IS attacks, causing a total of 2,978 civilian and government fatalities — a huge 65.3 percent increase in the average daily killings by the group compared to the previous three months, and an 81 percent jump on one year earlier.
IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre uses open sources to compile their database, and said IS likely carried out far more attacks that could not be verified. “While the airstrikes and wider coalition efforts have put the group under significant pressure, it is seemingly still some way from being sufficiently weakened to allow the recapture of territory, let alone be defeated,” Matthew Henman, head of the Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, told AFP. Russia’s increased involvement in Syria in recent weeks is likely to further strengthen IS, since there was a “clear indication” that Moscow is more interested in defending the Syrian regime than defeating IS. “Already over the past week the Islamic State has made gains in areas of Aleppo governorate due to the targeting of rival opposition groups and this is likely to continue,” said Henman. “Civilian deaths in Russian airstrikes also give the Islamic State a powerful propaganda tool.”
The figures reflect the inclusion of Nigeria’s brutal Boko Haram militant group, which declared allegiance to IS in March. Renamed Wilayat Gharb Afriqiyah, the group’s attacks were the deadliest of any IS affiliate. “This underlines the nature of the group’s insurgency in Nigeria and several bordering countries, with its operations characterised by mass-casualty operations targeting the civilian population in the group’s northeast operational heartland,” Henman said. The new figures also reflect changes in the type of combat over the summer in Iraq and Syria, which still account for the vast majority of IS activity.