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, US 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 that the administration "is committed to supporting Iraq in its fight against terrorism" through the Strategic Framework Agreement, a treaty that provides for US 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 terrorised 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 mobilised 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, US officials said. The Hellfire missiles already have been successfully fired from King Air propeller planes to attack militant camps.
The ScanEagle has more limited range than the armed Predator drones used by US forces in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, so its arrival will leave Iraq short of a solution, analysts say.
But US officials said they have received no request from Iraq for armed drones. Such a request probably would stir protests from Iraqis, who are sensitive to signs that a country viewed as their former occupier is again meddling.
Iraq has not been able to completely rebuild its air force since the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled longtime ruler Saddam Hussein. Most of Iraq's aircraft were destroyed during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
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 US allies in the region.
Kenneth M. Pollack, a former US official and longtime Iraq analyst, told a House committee this month that violence in Iraq was "multiplying by orders of magnitude," and that the country was on a pace to double its civilian deaths in 2013 compared with 2012.
About 8000 civilians have been killed in Iraq this year, according to United Nations figures.
Pollack, now with the Brookings Institution's Saban Center, said the regional threat creates a special challenge for Washington because the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq at the end of 2011 has left it with limited influence.
SHI'ITE MILITIA CLAIM RESPONSIBILITY FOR ATTACK
A camp of Iranian dissidents in the Iraqi capital was hit by rockets on Thursday (local time) in an attack the group said killed three residents and seriously wounded several others.
A Shi'ite militia claimed responsibility for the attack on the Mujahadin-e-Khalq (MEK) camp in western Baghdad, which has repeatedly been the target of mortar and rocket attacks in recent months.
The group, which calls for the overthrow of Iran's clerical leaders and fought on Iraq's side during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, is no longer welcome in Iraq under the Shi'ite-led government that came to power after the 2003 US-led invasion.
A Paris-based spokesman for the MEK, Shahin Gobadi, said three people had been killed when ''Camp Liberty,'' located in a former US military compound, was hit with dozens of missiles.
Several of the wounded were in a critical condition, said Gobadi, adding that more than 50 had been reported injured.
The group accused the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of being behind the attack in an attempt to win support from Iran's government ahead of elections next year.
Iraqi authorities have repeatedly denied involvement in attacks on the group.
In a rare claim of responsibility for attacks on the MEK, Wathiq al-Batat, commander of the al-Mukhtar Army militia, said his group had fired 20 Katyusha rockets and mortar rounds at the camp.
''We've asked (the government) to expel them from the country many times, but they are still here,'' he said, accusing the group of communicating with Sunni and Shi'ite politicians he said were linked to al Qaeda.
The US State Department condemned the attack ''in the strongest terms.''
In a statement, it urged the Iraqi government to take additional steps to secure the camp against further violence and ''to find the perpetrators and hold them accountable for the attack.''
Al-Mukhtar Army is a relatively new Shi'ite militia, which has said it is supported and funded by Iran.
Batat is a former leader of the more well-known Kata'ib Hezbollah militia.
Shahriar Kia, another spokesman for MEK who lives in the camp he said houses about 3000 Iranian dissidents, said two men were killed when a rocket fell near their caravan.
''I saw two caravans set ablaze and black smoke billowing,'' he said. ''We are still taking shelter inside the caravans out of fear of more shelling.''
Police sources confirmed the camp had been targeted by mortars and said four wounded Iranians had been transported to a hospital in western Baghdad.
More than 50 people were killed at a separate MEK camp north of Baghdad in September. The attack drew condemnation from the United States and Britain.