WASHINGTON, Oct 24, (Agencies): US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Friday he expected more raids targeting the Islamic State group similar to the mission that freed dozens of captives but left an American commando dead in Iraq. Carter’s comments came as President Barack Obama tapped veteran Iraq expert Brett McGurk to coordinate the troubled US-led campaign against the self-proclaimed Islamic State group, replacing General John Allen, who served in the post for a year.
On Thursday, US Special Operations Forces and Kurdish forces stormed an IS-run prison near Hawijah in northern Iraq, freeing some 70 captives who were facing imminent execution. Of those prisoners, more than 20 were members of the Iraqi security forces. Five IS militants were also captured and several others killed, the Pentagon said.
The raid marked an apparent break with the stated role of US forces, who are in Iraq to support government forces but do not directly engage in combat in line with Obama’s “no boots on the ground” policy. But Carter said it was likely not a one-off, noting that a “significant cache” of intelligence had been retrieved. “I expect we’ll do more of this kind of thing,” Carter said. “One of the reasons for that is that you learn a great deal because you collect the documentation, you collect various electronic equipment and so forth… So the sum of all this will be some valuable intelligence.” The highly decorated soldier killed, Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, was the first American serviceman to die in action in Iraq since 2011. “This is combat, things are complicated,” Carter said in discussing the circumstances of Wheeler’s death. Carter said some of the captives rescued confirmed they had expected to be executed that day, with their graves already dug. “Not only did our support help prevent another mass killing, we enabled those partners of ours to deliver ISIL a clear defeat,” he said. The operation near Hawijah was part of a broader US-led campaign that began in June last year targeting IS, which has sought to carve an Islamic caliphate out of large parts of Iraq and Syria.
The disparate international coalition has sometimes struggled, with the White House reluctant to dramatically gear up US involvement and key members of the grouping holding divergent aims and differing degrees of commitment. The task has only become more complex since Russia and Iran intervened to prop up the Syrian government and deepen ties with Baghdad. McGurk had most recently been Allen’s deputy, focusing largely on efforts to work with Sunni tribal leaders and the Iraqi government to take back Ramadi. Meanwhile, the US soldier fatally wounded in a hostage rescue mission in Iraq heroically inserted himself into a firefight to defend Kurdish soldiers, even though the plan called for the Kurds to do the fighting, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Friday. “This is someone who saw the team that he was advising and assisting coming under attack, and he rushed to help them and made it possible for them to be effective, and in doing that lost his own life,” Carter told a Pentagon news conference Carter applauded Army Master Sgt Joshua L. Wheeler, 39, of Roland, Oklahoma, who died of his wounds Thursday.
The defense chief gave the most extensive public description yet of what transpired during the pre-dawn raid on an Islamic State prison compound near the town of Hawija. About 70 people, including at least 20 members of the Iraqi security forces, were freed.
It was the first time US troops had become involved in direct ground combat in Iraq since the war against the Islamic State was launched in August 2014, and Wheeler was the first US combat death. Carter said he expects US forces to be involved in more such raids against Islamic State targets, describing it as part and parcel of what the Pentagon calls a “train, advise and assist” mission in support of Iraqi forces. At one point he said, “It doesn’t represent assuming a combat role” – but later, in noting that it is difficult to see the full picture of what happened during the Hawija raid, he said: “This is combat. It’s complex.” Carter portrayed Wheeler as a hero and said he would be present when Wheeler’s body is returned to the US on Saturday. “As the compound was being stormed, the plan was not for the US … forces to enter the compound or be involved in the firefight,” Carter said. “However, when a firefight ensued, this American did what I’m very proud that Americans do in that situation, and he ran to the sound of the guns and he stood up. All the indications are that it was his actions and that of one of his teammates that protected those who were involved in breaching the compound and made the mission a success.” “That is an inherent risk that we ask people to assume,” Carter added. “Again, it wasn’t part of the plan, but it was something that he did, and I’m immensely proud that he did that.” Carter noted that his understanding of what happened is based on early reports. After his remarks at the Pentagon, other US officials said the plan for the rescue mission had called for the US special operations troops, who are members of the elite and secretive Delta Force, to stay back from the prison compound and let the Kurds do the fighting. The Americans transported the Kurds to the scene aboard five US helicopters. Carter said the US and its Kurdish partners collected valuable intelligence at the scene, including documents and electronics.
This, he said, shows “the great value of raids of this kind, and I expect we’ll do more of these kinds of things.” In explaining his decision to approve the use of US troops to support the Kurds in their rescue mission, Carter said there was intelligence indicating that those inside the prison compound faced mass execution by their Islamic State captors. “Their graves had already been prepared,” he said.
Asked how he knew this, Carter said: “It happens that we had seen that beforehand. We were watching this compound” after Kurdish authorities determined that it held numerous hostages. “The graves were right next door to the compound,” he said, adding that although it was impossible to know for certain that their purpose was to dispose of executed prisoners, “it sure looked like that.” Wheeler was flown from the scene after suffering his wounds and died after receiving medical treatment in Irbil in northern Iraq. Elsewhere, the Islamic State group has purportedly released a video showing the aftermath of a raid in northern Iraq by US and Iraqi special forces in which one American soldier was killed.
The video, released by the pro-IS news agency Aamaq, allegedly shows the rubble of the prison raided in the town of Huwija, as well as abandoned first aid equipment and mutilated bodies, purportedly of IS militants killed in the clashes. About 70 hostages, including at least 20 members of the Iraqi security forces, were freed from captivity in Thursday’s raid. It was the first time US troops had become involved in direct ground combat in Iraq since the war against the Islamic State was launched in August 2014.