WASHINGTON - The U.S. has armed drones flying over Baghdad to protect U.S. troops that recently arrived to assess Iraq's deteriorating security, the Pentagon said.
The military for more than a week has been flying manned and unmanned aircraft over Iraq, averaging a few dozen sorties daily for reconnaissance. The decision to arm some of the drones follows the deployment to Baghdad of troops who will advise and assist Iraqi counterterrorism forces.
"The reason that some of those aircraft are armed is primarily for force protection reasons now that we have introduced into the country some military advisers whose objective will be to operate outside the confines of the embassy," the Defense Department's press secretary, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, told a Pentagon press conference Friday.
Using U.S. air assets to target the leaders of the Sunni-led insurgency is one of the options being prepared for President Barack Obama as he considers what support to provide to Iraq, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said in a radio interview. Protection of critical infrastructure is part of that option, he said.
"We're flying a great deal (of) manned and unmanned ... intelligence and reconnaissance assets, and we're building a picture so that if the decision were made to support the Iraqi security forces as they confront (ISIS), we could do so," Dempsey said.
So far, 180 of 300 troops promised by Obama have arrived in the country. That's 90 advisers and 90 who are setting up an operations and intelligence analysis unit.
A handful of Predators armed with Hellfire missiles are being used over the capital for the new force protection mission, a senior defense official said. The official was not authorized to discuss the new flights on the record and requested anonymity.
Officials stressed that Obama still has not authorized airstrikes against Sunni militants who have been overrunning territory in other parts of the country.