Freed IS prisoners 'were about to face execution'

Freed IS prisoners 'were about to face execution'
A joint US-Kurdish force has freed 69 prisoners scheduled for execution from an IS prison in the Northern Iraqi town of Hawijah.
4 min read
23 October, 2015
US Chinook helicopters were used in the raid [Getty]
Kurdish and US forces stormed an Islamic State group prison in northern Iraq on Thursday, freeing 69 captives who were facing imminent execution, the Pentagon has said.

A US serviceman died of wounds sustained in the pre-dawn operation, the first to be killed in action since the US-led campaign against IS began in Iraq.

Five IS militants were captured and several others killed in the raid on a compound near Hawijah, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said.

This operation was deliberately planned after receiving information the hostages faced imminent mass execution
- Peter Cook
"This operation was deliberately planned and launched after receiving information that the hostages faced imminent mass execution," Cook said in a statement.

The Hawijah raid marked an apparent break with the normal modus operandi of US forces, which are in Iraq to support government forces but do not directly engage in combat, in line with President Barack Obama's "no boots on the ground" policy.

Cook said US helicopters and special operations forces accompanied Kurdish Peshmerga forces to the prison compound. The American who later died was wounded "acting in support of Iraqi Peshmerga forces after they came under fire from ISIL", he said, using an acronym for the IS group.

In the heat of the moment

The decision by US forces to get directly involved in the fighting was taken in the heat of the moment, when the 30 US "special operators" saw their Kurdish allies taking casualties, Foreign Policy magazine reported.

The US special ops team were thought to be from the US army's elite Delta force.

The joint US-Kurdish force was transported to the walled compound by US Chinook helicopters. Several IS-run checkpoints in the area were also targeted by airstrikes.

According to the office of Kurdish intelligence chief Masrour Barzani, 69 prisoners were rescued, six IS fighters detained and more than 20 killed.

Of the prisoners rescued, six were former IS fighters arrested as traitors, 20 were former Iraqi soldiers, and others were locals from the town of Hawijah, Foreign Policy said.

No expansion of US role in Iraq

Cook pushed back against the suggestion that this signalled an expansion of the US role in Iraq.

"This is a unique situation," he said, adding that the mission was given the green light by Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, and that the White House was notified.

"We were asked for assistance" by the Kurdish government, Cook said, stressing that "the United States are not in an active combat mission in Iraq".

The mission was "authorised consistent with our counter-ISIL effort to train, advise, and assist Iraqi forces".

'Tough fight'

They'd executed four the previous day. We had seen mass graves had been dug on that compound...
- US General LLoyd Austin
General Lloyd Austin, the commander of all US forces in the Middle East, described the rescue operation as "complex and highly successful".

"We commend 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," he said.

"They'd executed four the previous day. We had seen mass graves had been dug on that compound and the information we now hear… is that they'd been told they would be executed after morning prayers this morning," the official said.

An intelligence official in the Kurdish-controlled city of Kirkuk, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the press, told AFP that "high value detainees" were believed to be among those captured.

He said the captives were being held in what was formerly the house of a local judge.

IS going to ground

A Hawijah resident said that after the raid the IS leaders in Hawijah "all went missing".

"Their offices are closed and nobody knows where they went," the resident said, asking not to be identified by name.

Another local resident said: "The group's top Hawijah leader was detained and another senior leader too. A number of them were killed and several of the people held in that prison were freed."

Colonel Steve Warren, the coalition spokesman in Iraq, said US pressure had "begun to sow a bit of paranoia inside the organisation".

"We've killed 70 of their mid- and high-level leaders since May, that's an average of one every two days, so we are putting pressure on their leadership. And we've seen that this creates a level of paranoia... that causes them to interrogate their own people," he said.

US ties to Kurds

Kurdish Peshmerga forces control Kirkuk and have long worked closely with the US-led coalition.

Iraqi security and allied paramilitary forces have in recent days been closing in on Hawijah from the south and west. The city lies about 240 kilometres (150 miles) north of Baghdad.

Kurdish Peshmerga forces, backed by US-led coalition airstrikes, have also in recent weeks moved several kilometres closer to Hawijah, pushing down from the north and east.