WASHINGTON – Caught off guard by recent Iraqi military operations, the United States is using spy satellites that ordinarily are trained on adversaries to monitor the movements of the U.S.-backed Iraqi army, according to current and former U.S. officials.
The stepped up surveillance reflects breakdowns in trust and coordination between the two forces. Officials said it is part of an expanded intelligence effort launched after American commanders were surprised by the timing of the Iraqi army’s violent push into Basra three months ago.
The use of the satellites puts the United States in the unusual position of employing some of its most sophisticated espionage technology to track an allied army that American forces helped create, continue to advise and often fight alongside.
U.S. satellites are “imaging military installations that the Iraqi army occupies,” said a former U.S. military official, who said slides from the images have been used in recent closed briefings at U.S. facilities in the Middle East. “They’re imaging training areas that the Iraqi army utilizes. They’re imaging roads that Iraqi armored vehicles and large convoys transit.”
Military officials and experts said the move shows concern by U.S. commanders about whether their Iraqi counterparts will follow American guidance or keep their coalition partners fully informed.
“It suggests that we don’t have complete confidence in their chain of command or in their willingness to tell us what they’re going to do because they may fear that we may try to get them not to do it,” said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Web site about intelligence and military issues.
But the development also was seen as a sign that the Iraqi army has reached a level of independence and competence that U.S. military planners had hoped it would achieve.
“The bad news is we’re spying on Iraqis,” said the former military official. “The good news is that we have to.”
The former official and several other sources described the operation on condition of anonymity because of its sensitivity. The Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies declined to comment about the mission.
However, the expanded satellite surveillance comes as the Iraqi military has embarked on a series of large-scale operations to reassert government control in areas, including Sadr City and Mosul, that have been havens for hostile militias and insurgents.
Iraq’s parched terrain has been a focal point of U.S. spy satellites for nearly two decades. Satellites were used to capture images of suspected chemical and biological weapons sites before the war, although the suspicions were proved unfounded and continue to be used to track insurgent movements and the influx of arms from Iran.
The satellites are part of a vast intelligence arsenal that the United States has deployed in Iraq, including the CIA’s largest overseas station, eavesdropping equipment that monitors much of the country’s telephone and e-mail traffic, as well as Predators and other aircraft that survey the Iraqi landscape from the sky.
But in recent months, U.S. intelligence agencies have aimed the spacecrafts’ high-resolution lenses at Iraqi military positions and instructed imagery analysts to monitor those units for signs that they are preparing to deploy, officials said.