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United States drones patrol Iraq, angering officials

BAGHDAD - A month after the last US 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 US personnel. Senior Iraqi officials expressed outrage at the program, saying the unarmed aircraft are an affront to Iraqi sovereignty.

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 US government; until now they have been mainly the province of the Pentagon and the CIA.

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US contractors say they have been told that the State Department is considering future 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 US 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.

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