By Yeganeh Torbati
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. commando killed in a special operations raid on Thursday in Iraq against Islamic State rushed into a firefight to rescue Kurdish forces, the U.S. defense chief said on Friday.
Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, 39, of Roland, Oklahoma, was killed during an overnight mission to rescue hostages held by Islamic State militants in northern Iraq, becoming the first American to die in combat in Iraq since 2011.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a news briefing on Friday that U.S. troops were not planning to enter the compound, and were there only to advise and assist Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga. But when a firefight ensued, Wheeler ran to help Kurdish troops, Carter said.
"He ran to the sound of the guns and he stood up," Carter said. "All the indications are it was his actions and that of one of his teammates that protected those that were involved in breaching the compound and made the mission a success."
Wheeler was awarded the Purple Heart after his death, according to an Army statement.
Around 70 hostages were rescued in the action, which targeted an Islamic State prison around 7 km (4 miles) north of the town of Hawija. .
It was the most significant raid against Islamic State since May, when American special operations forces killed one of its senior leaders, Abu Sayyaf from Tunisia, in a raid in Syria.
Wheeler was assigned to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command headquarters at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He entered the Army in 1995 and joined the U.S. Army Special Operations Command in 2004. Overall, he deployed 17 times to support combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and earned 11 Bronze Star medals, according to the Army statement.
Carter said Wheeler's body would be returned to the United States on Saturday in a ceremony attended by his family as well as Carter and his wife. Wheeler is survived by his wife, four sons, and his grandparents, the Army said.
(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Dan Grebler and Lisa Shumaker)