WASHINGTON – The Obama administration has begun sending Hellfire missiles and surveillance drone aircraft to Iraq to help the government battle an expanding threat from local al-Qaida-affiliated militants, U.S. officials said, the first such assistance since the American withdrawal from Iraq in 2011.
Responding to an appeal from Baghdad, the administration sent 75 air-to-ground Hellfire missiles this month and is preparing to send ScanEagle surveillance drones early next year to counter intensifying attacks by fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, officials said.
Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said Thursday that the administration “is committed to supporting Iraq in its fight against terrorism” through the Strategic Framework Agreement, a treaty that provides for U.S. security assistance to Iraq.
The extremist group is expanding its grip across Sunni Arab-dominated territory in western Iraq and has driven suicide bombings and other violence to the deadliest levels since 2008. Militants have terrorized towns and shown an ability to reach into the heart of Baghdad.
At least 37 Christians died in the capital in Christmas Day attacks for which the group was blamed.
The Shiite Muslim-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has mobilized a force of tanks and infantry to try to attack the group in its stronghold in Anbar province. But the militants have responded strongly, killing more than a dozen soldiers and their division commander during a raid this month on a training camp.
The American surveillance drones and missiles are intended to help Iraqi forces find and destroy some of the extremist group’s camps, U.S. officials said. The Hellfire missiles already have been successfully fired from King Air propeller planes to attack militant camps.
The Obama administration has generally praised the stability of Iraq in recent years. But in recent months, it has voiced concern about the growing strength of the militant groups, a State Department official said.
On Sunday, the State Department issued a statement citing its worries about terrorists “who are seeking to gain control of territory inside the borders of Iraq.”
Though the administration has sought to limit its role in the nearby Syrian civil war, it is especially concerned that Sunni extremist groups in Syria and neighboring Iraq could threaten U.S. allies in the region.