SIMI VALLEY, Calif. (CNN) — The Pentagon has identified two U.S. Marines who were killed in Iraq on Sunday, including a 34-year-old from Southern California.
Gunnergy Sgt. Diego D. Pongo, of Simi Valley, was killed in what officials are calling one of the “most intense” battles U.S. forces have been involved in recent months, a military spokesperson confirmed.
Capt. Moises A. Navas, 34, of Germantown, Maryland, was also killed in the joint Iraqi-U.S. helicopter assault on a suspected ISIS-occupied cave complex in the Makhmur Mountains of northern Iraq.
“This was one of the most intense clashes with ISIS that coalition troops have participated in in several months,” Col. Myles Caggins, the chief coalition spokesman, told CNN.
The mission began with several dozen Iraqi counterterrorism forces, along with approximately a dozen special forces Marines traveled by helicopter to the area where intelligence showed 15 to 20 ISIS fighters had hidden.
The Marines were accompanying the Iraqis, so there was an expectation they could become involved in combat. As they got close to the target, they encountered stiff resistance from ISIS fighters largely equipped with small arms. The firefight that ensued was at “close range,” according to Caggins. The two Marines were killed and three other Americans and one coalition member were wounded, essentially taking out the fighting capability of half the team led by the Marines.
After the initial firefight, a team of Army Delta Force special operations troops were sent to recover the bodies of the two Americans, according to a U.S. official. The coalition has not publicly acknowledged that Delta was involved.
Their effort became a six-hour mission in which the Delta troops encountered more opposition, killing four ISIS fighters.
“The forces trekked through mountainous terrain and eliminated four hostile ISIS fighters who were barricaded in the caves,” Caggins said in a statement on Monday. “The recovery took approximately six hours.”
Earlier this year, the Iraqi Parliament voted to end the presence of all foreign troops in Iraq. The vote represented a rebuke of the U.S. over its targeted airstrike on Qasem Soleimani, a top Iranian commander who was killed in January.
CNN reported in January that there were roughly 5,000 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq. The Trump administration has said it does not intend to pull troops out of the country.