The United States is continuing to fly drones in Iraq, against the wishes of the Iraqi government. There are US drones operating in Iraq in at least two known programmes, and possibly in other covert operations which are as yet undetected.
According to the New York Times, the US operating a ‘small fleet’ of surveillance drones to protect the massive US embassy, the consulates, and US personnel. They are apparently under control of the State Department, the diplomatic arm of the government, where previously drone operations had been confined to the military and the CIA.
The drones range from small helicopter drones a few inches across, to (as one report suggests) drones the size of a Predator drone. The State Department claims that none are armed or capable of being armed (suggesting that Predator drones are not being used). Most likely these are mostly small drones for protecting convoys, but there is certainly little the Iraqi government can presently do to prevent US ‘diplomatic’ personnel from launching surveillance drones whereever they wish, besides diplomatic outrage.
The US still has 17,000 ‘diplomatic’ staff in Iraq, based mostly in the massive embassy constructed on the outskirts of Baghdad.
It isn’t clear where the drones are launched from, although certainly the smaller drones involved could be launched from within the compound, or perhaps even from convoys travelling around Iraq.
While the flight of American drones has caused a flap, little mention is made of the American involvement in the war against PKK insurgents in Kurdistan, in Northern Iraq.
The US is known to have been supplying Turkey surveillance information from flights over Iraqi Kurdistan to help Turkey attack PKK insurgents. With the departure of the US military from Iraq, the Iraqi government has given permission that US operated Predator drones be flown over Iraqi Kurdistan from their new bases in Incirlik, Turkey. News.az says that four US Predator drones were transferred to Turkey.
In December, 35 civilians were killed by Turkish air raids just inside Turkey, when they were mistakenly identified by drone surveillance over Iraq as Kurdish fighters. As the civilians entered Turkey from Iraq, on a cigarette and fuel smuggling trip, they were successively attacked by a drone and then by Turkish fighter jets. The Guardian labelled the drones as ‘Turkish’ drones, but the Turkish Aydinlik daily went so far as to suggest that first bomb was fired by a ‘US’ Predator drone.
On another front, it isn’t possible to know whether US conducts overflights of Iraq by stealth drones like the RQ-170, which would likely be undetectable by the Iraqi government. Known drone flights over neighbouring Iran are based from sites in Afghanistan, rather than from the west, so it is uncertain whether there is a covert drone presence in Iraqi skies.