WASHINGTON — Some of the manned and unmanned aircraft that the United States is flying over Iraq are armed to protect newly arrived American military advisers on the ground, Pentagon press secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said June 27.
The aircraft are being flown with the Iraqi government’s permission, the admiral said during a regular Pentagon briefing.
“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.”
There are 90 U.S. service members on six teams assessing conditions in and around Baghdad. Another 90 Americans are setting up the joint operations center in Baghdad.
All told, there are around 500 American service members in the country sent by President Barack Obama to help the Iraqi military as it faces advances by Sunni militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant who have overrun much of the country’s northern and western provinces.
The aircraft are flying between 30 and 40 missions a day in and around Baghdad, Kirby said. The information gathered will feed into the team assessments and the information is being shared with Iraqi forces.
The president has made no decisions about the use of kinetic force, Kirby said, “but it would be irresponsible for us not to be planning, preparing and thinking and to be ready in case he should make that decision.”
Obama has however, decided to ask Congress for $500 million for fiscal year 2015 to help train and equip moderate elements of the opposition battling the Assad regime in neighboring Syria, where the civil war is being blamed for sending Sunni extremists across the border and destabilizing Iraq.
“That opposition, mind you, still has to be vetted,” Kirby said.
Defense officials say it’s imperative that such aid does not end up arming extremists. “But that doesn’t mean that you stop the effort to try to enable and build the capacity of partners in a very tough part of the world,” Kirby said. “You don’t just turn it off because there’s a risk that … some of it may fall into the wrong hands.”