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U.S. Soldier Killed In Hostage-Rescue Raid On ISIS Prison In Iraq


Dozens of hostages held by ISIS have been freed, and that news today also brought word of the first American killed in Iraq since 2011. The U.S. commando was taking part in an operations with Kurdish forces to rescue the captives. NPR's Tom Bowman has the details.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: U.S. officials said they had to move quickly. Overhead surveillance showed that time was running out. Here's Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook.


PETER COOK: This operation was deliberately planned and launched after receiving information that the hostages faced imminent mass execution.

BOWMAN: Sources said the surveillance showed something especially disturbing. The Islamic State already had dug graves for the hostages. So dozens of American and Kurdish forces swept out of the Northern Iraq city of Irbil in helicopters and banked southwest toward a walled compound in a makeshift prison. U.S. airstrikes hit the compound. A U.S. official said the Kurdish forces, called the Pesh Merga, which means those who face death, led the assault force. One American who took part in that assault was shot, said Cook, and later died at a hospital in Irbil.

At least 10 ISIS fighters were killed in the operation and five taken prisoner. Four Kurds were wounded, and all of the hostages were safely released. Officials said the assumption was the hostages were Kurdish, but all turned out to be Arab, mostly civilian and about two dozen members of the Iraqi army.

The operation raises questions about the role of the estimated 3,000 U.S. forces who deployed to Iraq over the past year. White House and Pentagon officials have repeatedly said they're only there on a train, advise and assist mission and only working out of Iraqi bases. Peter Cook, the Pentagon spokesman, was asked to explain the U.S. role in this raid.


COOK: They were in a support role as a - if you will, with the Pesh Merga taking the lead into this compound, and it was in that role that this one soldier was unfortunately wounded and later died from his injuries.

BOWMAN: A support role that one Pentagon official said, sounds like combat to me. Still, Cook insisted, under questions from reporters, that this type of operation, approved by Defense Secretary Ash Carter, was in keeping with the mission outlined by President Obama last year.


COOK: In that support role, they are allowed to defend themselves and also defend partner forces and protect against the loss of innocent life.

BOWMAN: But President Obama seemed clear about the scope of the train-and-assist mission when he announced it last year at the White House.


BARACK OBAMA: American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq, but we will help Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists who threaten the Iraqi people, the region and American interests as well.

BOWMAN: Pentagon sources say this not the first time U.S. commandos have quietly worked outside of bases in Iraq. American Green Berets helped in operations to protect the Yazidi minority from an ISIS assault last year, and others have trained Kurdish forces in calling in airstrikes before the Kurds slipped over the border to fight in Syria. U.S. commandos have mounted several missions in neighboring Syria, trying to rescue Western hostages. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.