Drone attacks hit high in Iraq

WASHINGTON — U.S. commanders in Iraq have ordered an unprecedented number of airstrikes by unmanned airplanes in April to kill insurgents in urban combat and to limit their ability to launch rockets at American forces, military records show.

The 11 attacks by Predators — nearly double the previous high for one month — were conducted as the Pentagon has intensified efforts to increase the use of drones, which play an increasingly vital role for gathering intelligence and launching attacks in Iraq. Last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates prodded the Air Force to do more to rush drones to the war zone.

An AGM-114 Hellfire missile is unloaded from an MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle after a mission in May at Balad Air Base, Iraq in this undated image.

The increase in Predator attacks coincided with a spike in fighting in Baghdad’s slum of Sadr City and in the city of Basra, where the Iraqi government mounted an offensive to root out militias there.

Commanders are expected to rely more on unmanned systems as 30,000 U.S. troops sent last year are withdrawn. The military has dozens of Predators in Iraq and Afghanistan. In all it operates 5,000 drones, 25 times more than it had in 2001.

“The Predator teams have just been doing unbelievable work down there (in Basra) and in Baghdad as well,” Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, said in a statement last week.

Air Force Predator drones, armed with laser-guided Hellfire missiles that can destroy vehicles and take out attack teams, are launched in Iraq. They can be piloted remotely from bases in the USA. Another operator directs cameras and radar to collect intelligence. Analysts select targets; commanders can then order an airstrike.

Since July, Predator missions have more than doubled in Iraq, said Air Force Lt. Col. Scott Murray, who directs the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance division at the Combined Air and Space Operations Center in southwest Asia. He declined to offer a specific number of flights over Iraq. However, the Pentagon said recently that it operated 24 round-the-clock Predator patrols in Iraq and Afghanistan. Less than a year ago, it had eight such patrols.

A review of the Air Force’s daily summary of activity in Iraq show more than 12 Predator strikes since March 28.

The previous monthly high for drone attacks was six in November 2006 and July 2007, Air Force data show.

A key Predator target: insurgents firing rockets and mortars from nearby neighborhoods into Baghdad’s Green Zone, the seat of Iraqi government and the U.S. Embassy. On Monday, four U.S. troops were killed by rocket or mortar fire in Baghdad.

The relatively small explosion caused by a Hellfire missile can minimize destruction in crowded urban settings, he said.

The planes, which can stay aloft for several hours, allow them to “stare” at areas where insurgent activity is expected, Murray said.

“Predator proves the value of persistence,” said Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute. “It’s like having your own personal satellite over your target.”

Predators go “beyond limiting the risk of casualties to U.S. troops, said Michael O’Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution. “It’s the immediate response. If we were able to do more effectively with people on the streets, we’d do it.”

By Tom Vanden Brook
Tuesday, April 29, 2008


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