Sixty-nine hostages facing imminent execution by Islamic State (IS) after Thursday morning prayers were rescued by the US and Iraqi fighters during a pre-dawn helicopter raid at a prison near the northern Iraqi town of Hawija, agencies report.
But in the bloody battle, one American soldier was fatally wounded, the first such case in the yearlong campaign against IS extremists, Pentagon officials said.
At least 20 militants were killed and five others were captured.
US forces recovered valuable intelligence from the militants’ camp in Hawija.
Dozens of US and Iraqi Peshmerga forces took part in the joint mission launched in response to information that the hostages faced imminent mass execution.
Among the hostages rescued were at least 20 members of Iraq’s security forces. Others included local residents and IS fighters held as suspected spies. No Kurds were among the rescued hostages.
“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,” a US defense official said.
Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said the joint mission began late Wednesday night at the request of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
The American troops, who were on an advise-and-assist mission, stepped in after Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers came under fire leaving four of them dead.
Asked whether the US action represented “boots on the ground”, defying previous commitments from President Obama, Cook said the rescue was a “unique circumstance” and not a change in tactics.
Obama’s deputy spokesman Eric Schultz said US soldiers serving in Iraq faced inherent risks.
“Last night, unfortunately we saw a very tragic example of how they (risks) still exist,” Schultz said.
As the IS held the hostages in a walled compound, five helicopters flew in from the south and west of the complex, and troops encountered heavy gunfire.
US gunships shelled areas around the prison to prevent the arrival of reinforcements, then clashed with militants for two hours.
After the raid and rescue, US Air Force F-15 war planes leveled the compound with bombs, the official said.