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Updated: January 31, 2012 03:07 IST

U.S. ‘diplomatic drones' rankle Iraqis

    Eric Schmitt
    Michael S. Schmidt
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The aircraft are an affront to sovereignty, says Baghdad

A month after the last U.S. troops left Iraq, the State Department is operating a small fleet of surveillance drones here to help protect its embassy and consulates, as well as U.S. personnel. Senior Iraqi officials expressed outrage at the programme, saying the unarmed aircraft are an affront to Iraqi sovereignty.

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The programme was described by the department's diplomatic security branch in a little-noticed section of its most recent annual report and outlined in broad terms in a two-page online prospectus for companies that might bid on a contract to manage the programme. It foreshadows a possible expansion of unmanned drone operations into the diplomatic arm of the U.S. government; until now they have been mainly the province of the Pentagon and the CIA.

High-threat countries

U.S. contractors say they have been told that the State Department is considering plans in the future to field unarmed surveillance drones in a handful of other potentially “high-threat” countries, including Indonesia and Pakistan, and in Afghanistan after the bulk of U.S. troops leave in the next two years. State Department officials say no decisions have been made beyond the drone operations in Iraq.

The drones are the latest example of the State Department's efforts to take over functions in Iraq that the military used to perform. Some 5,000 private security contractors now protect the embassy's 11,000-person staff, for example, and typically drive around in heavily armoured military vehicles.

When embassy personnel move throughout the country, small helicopters buzz over the convoys to provide support in case of an attack. Often, two contractors armed with machine guns are tethered to the outside of the helicopters. The State Department began operating some drones in Iraq last year on a trial basis, and stepped up their use after the last U.S. troops left Iraq in December, taking the military drones with them.

The United States, which will soon begin taking bids to manage drone operations in Iraq over the next five years, needs formal approval from the Iraqi government to use such aircraft here, said Iraqi officials.

Such approval may be untenable given the political tensions between the two countries. Now that the troops are gone, Iraqi politicians often denounce the United States in an effort to rally support from their followers.

A senior U.S. official said negotiations were under way to obtain authorisation for the drone operations, but Ali al-Mosawi, a top adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; Iraq's national security adviser Falih al-Fayadh; and acting Minister of Interior Adnan al-Asadi, all said in interviews that they had not been consulted by the Americans. — New York Times News Service

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