WASHINGTON — US Defense Secretary Ash 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.
Praise For US Commando
Wheeler was reportedly part of the elite Delta Force, which specializes in hostage rescues and counterterrorism operations. He first entered the US Army as an infantryman in 1995.
The soldier, who had been awarded 11 Bronze Stars and other commendations, was deployed at least 17 times, largely in support of combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the Army.
He received the Purple Heart posthumously.
His body will arrive Saturday in the United States, where Carter, his wife and Wheeler's family will be present.
"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," Carter said.
"And in doing that, lost his own life. That's why I'm proud of him... He ran to the sound of the gun."
The defense chief also noted that Wheeler's death "reminds us of the dangers that the coalition forces confront in Iraq, but also of the important assistance they provide local forces as they lead the fight against a barbaric enemy."
The United States has 3,500 troops in Iraq to train, advise and assist Iraqi forces in fighting the IS group.
The US forces did not intend to go inside the compound or be directly involved in the raid, "but the Kurds came under heavy fire," a defense official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"They were in need of protection so the US troops engaged to finish the job."
Wheeler is survived by a wife and four sons.