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US in first ground fight with Islamic State, and loses man in combat -

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TIM PALMER: The United States significantly escalated its military campaign against Islamic State in Iraq today. For the first time since President Obama sent US forces back to Iraq last year, American soldiers have gone into battle on the ground.

Until now the American ground contingent had been limited to training and advising local soldiers and militiamen. Today's raid freed scores of prisoners that Washington says were about to be executed. And in the action, one American soldier was killed, the first combat death the US has suffered since its return to Iraq.

Peter Lloyd reports.

PETER LLOYD: It was another night in another of Iraq's house of horror makeshift prisons under Islamic State control. The graves had been dug as executioners and the condemned, 70 prisoners in all, readied for the moment scheduled for after morning prayer.

This sickening impunity that's been deepening Iraq's sectarian troubles was about to face its first direct battleground challenge that included US troops. Five American Chinook and black hawk helicopters swooped in low and fast, unloading a crack team of special operations commandos, supported by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.

The operation was announced half a world away at the Pentagon by spokesman Peter Cook.

PETER COOK: This operation was deliberately planned and launched after receiving information that the hostages faced imminent mass execution. It was authorised consistent with our counter ISIL effort to train, advise and assist Iraqi forces.

PETER LLOYD: Heavy gun fire was exchanged, five IS terrorists died, a number were captured. Four Peshmerga fighters were injured. The US suffered its first operational casualty in Iraq since the withdrawal in 2011.

It's thought the serviceman was attached to the delta force commando unit. The raiders expected to find and rescue 20 prisoners. Instead they flew away with 70. The Pentagon says there's no change in strategy here.

Peter Cook again.

PETER COOK: Our mission in Iraq is the train, advise and assist mission. This was a unique circumstance and you've seen what our forces are doing in terms of the training in Iraq. We've got several locations where US forces are training and assisting Iraqis along the way. They have the right to defend themselves, those US forces, but this was a unique circumstance and this particular situation is not something that has played out across Iraq previously.

PETER LLOYD: But the atmosphere of rivalry between global powers is now more manifest in the fight against Islamic State since the Russians unveiled their war campaign against IS on the side of the Syrian government.

Analyst Rodger Shanahan.

RODGER SHANAHAN: This probably serves a few functions, a) it sends a pretty strong message both to Islamic State that they're not untouchable in areas, it sends a message to the Iraqi government that the US is capable of fulfilling these types of actions and it also reinforces to their partners in the Kurds that the US is willing to go beyond what they've done up until this point.

PETER LLOYD: To Rodger Shanahan it is perhaps more pointedly a sign to the Russians of US military capacity and commitment at fighting face to face when needed. But what puzzles him is the shifting accounts of the backgrounds of the prisoners.

RODGER SHANAHAN: The early reports were that there were a number of Kurds who were about to be executed the next day so the mission had to be set up quite quickly. What we find out now is that there are a number of people who are rescued; there are no Kurds amongst them.

It's very strange that you launch this operation very quickly but yet - with very precise information - but yet there are no Kurds when you're expected to find Kurds. It might raise the question as to what the actual target was on this occasion.

PETER LLOYD: Another intriguing piece of speculation after the raid was whether it was conducted to rescue one or a number of high value prisoners whose lives could not be lost.

TIM PALMER: Peter Lloyd.