US drones provoke outrage in Iraq
ERIC SCHMITT and MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT - New York Times
BAGHDAD — A month after the last American troops left Iraq, the State Department is operating a small fleet of surveillance drones here to help protect the United States Embassy and consulates, as well as American personnel. Senior Iraqi officials expressed outrage at the program, saying the unarmed aircraft are an affront to Iraqi sovereignty.
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The program 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 program. It foreshadows a possible expansion of unmanned drone operations into the diplomatic arm of the American government; until now they have been mainly the province of the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency.
American contractors say they have been told that the State Department is considering plans 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 American troops leave in the next two years. State Department officials say that 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 armored 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 American 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, Iraqi officials said. 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 American official said that negotiations were under way to obtain authorization for the drone operations, but Ali al-Mosawi, a top adviser to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki; Iraq’s national security adviser, Falih al-Fayadh; and the acting minister of interior, Adnan al-Asadi, all said in interviews that they had not been consulted by the Americans.
Mr. Asadi said that he opposed the drone program: “Our sky is our sky, not the U.S.A.’s sky.”
The Pentagon and C.I.A. have been stepping up their use of armed Predator and Reaper drones to conduct missile strikes against militants in places like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. More recently, the United States has expanded drone bases in Ethiopia, the Seychelles and a secret location in the Arabian Peninsula.
The State Department drones, by contrast, carry no weapons and are meant to provide data and images of possible hazards, like public protests or roadblocks, to security forces on the ground, American officials said. They are much smaller than armed drones, with wingspans as short as 18 inches, compared with 55 feet for the Predators.
The State Department has about two dozen drones in Iraq, but many are used only for spare parts, the officials said.
The United States Embassy in Baghdad referred all questions about the drones to the State Department in Washington.
The State Department confirmed the existence of the program, calling the devices unmanned aerial vehicles, but it declined to provide details. “The department does have a U.A.V. program,” it said in a statement. “The U.A.V.’s being utilized by the State Department are not armed, nor are they capable of being armed.”
When the American military was still in Iraq, large white blimps equipped with sensors hovered over many cities, providing the Americans with surveillance abilities beyond the dozens of armed and unarmed drones used by the military. But the blimps came down at the end of last year as the military completed its withdrawal. Anticipating this, the State Department began developing its own drone operations.
According to the most recent annual report of the department’s diplomatic security branch, issued last June, the branch worked with the Pentagon and other agencies in 2010 to research the use of low-altitude, long-endurance unmanned drones “in high-threat locations such as Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The document said that the program was tested in Iraq in December 2010. “The program will watch over State Department facilities and personnel and assist regional security officers with high-threat mission planning and execution,” the document said.
In the online prospectus, called a “presolicitation notice,” the State Department last September outlined a broad requirement to provide “worldwide Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (U.A.V.) support services.” American officials said this was to formalize the initial program.
The program’s goal is “to provide real-time surveillance of fixed installations, proposed movement routes and movement operations,” referring to American convoy movements. In addition, the program’s mission is “improving security in high-threat or potentially high-threat environments.”
The document does not identify specific countries, but contracting specialists familiar with the program say that it focuses initially on operations in Iraq. That is “where the need is greatest,” said one contracting official who spoke on condition of anonymity, because the contract is still in its early phase.