Home / Top Story / Kurdish rescue mission to free Islamic State prisoners: how it happened

Kurdish rescue mission to free Islamic State prisoners: how it happened


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Helmet cam of raid against IS

Kurdish authorities release video a joint special forces raid on an Islamic State compound in northern Iraq last week that killed a US commando.

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Irbil, Iraq: 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 Islamic State.

The drone operators feared the worst – that IS 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 counter-terrorist unit who had firsthand knowledge of what would unfold in the next few hours. Kurdish officials began to consider a rescue mission.

US and Iraqi special forces free hostages from a prison controlled by Islamic State.

US and Iraqi special forces free hostages from a prison controlled by Islamic State. Photo: AP

But there was more: Among the prisoners, officials believed, were former officials from Saddam Hussein’s Baath party and military who had co-operated with IS but were no longer trusted by the jihadists.

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“We always want to save Kurds and peshmerga; they’d burnt 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 US 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.

US and Iraqi special forces search a prisoner inside a makeshift prison in the town of Huwija, 15 kilometres west of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk.

US and Iraqi special forces search a prisoner inside a makeshift prison in the town of Huwija, 15 kilometres west of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk. Photo: AP

Worse, an American was killed during the operation, sparking concern among Kurdish officials that the US death, the first in Iraq since 2011, would damage the close working relationship Kurdish forces have enjoyed with US special operations forces since 1991, when the US first dispatched its most elite troops in preparation for an offensive against Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait.

US officials on Friday identified the dead soldier as Master Sergeant Joshua L. Wheeler, 39, of Roland, Oklahoma. He was assigned to the US Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, NC, commonly known as Delta Force.

“The Americans weren’t supposed to fight unless there was an emergency,” said the counter-terrorism 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 counter-terrorist officer, a member of the unit that carried out the raid, watched the mission unfold via drone video beamed back to a command centre 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.

The defenders were caught by total surprise, according to the officer.

“The fight was nothing,” he said. “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 metres 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,” one official said. “This is no scandal; it’s just Iraq.”

TNS

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