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US Armed Drones Take To The Skies Over Iraq
The US is flying armed drones over Iraq - but only to protect American military advisers who are in the country, the Pentagon has said.
At a news conference, Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said for over a week the military has been flying manned and unmanned aircraft over Iraq, averaging a few dozen sorties each day, for reconnaissance purposes.
The decision to arm some of the drones follows the deployment to Baghdad of troops who will advise and assist Iraqi counter-terrorism forces.
So far, 180 of 300 US troops, including special forces, promised by President Barack Obama have arrived in the country.
"The reason that some of those aircraft are armed is primarily for force protection reasons, now that we have introduced into the country some military advisers whose objective will be to operate outside the confines of the embassy," said Rear Admiral Kirby.
It comes as Iraqi forces, backed by helicopter gunships, reportedly launched an operation early on Saturday aimed to dislodge fighters from the jihadist militant group ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) in Tikrit.
The northern city is one of two major urban centres seized in recent weeks in a dramatic blitz across the country.
Tikrit residents reported clashes in the city.
Airstrikes were carried out on militants who were attacking troops at a university on Tikrit's outskirts, according to Iraqi military spokesman Lieutenant General Qassim al Moussawi said.
Several people were earlier killed in an airstrike in Baiji, where both sides are struggling for control of the country's biggest oil refinery.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani - the most influential Shia cleric in Iraq - has called on the country's leaders to choose a new prime minister within the next four days.
The political intervention could hasten the end of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's eight-year rule.
Mr al Sistani, who commands unswerving loyalty from many Shias in Iraq and beyond, said political blocs should agree on the next premier, parliament speaker and president before a newly elected legislature meets on Tuesday.
The US and other countries are pushing for a new, inclusive government to be formed as quickly as possible to counter the ISIS insurgency.
Meanwhile, seven Russian Sukhoi jets have arrived at a military airbase outside of Baghdad.
The fighters are thought to be the first in a consignment bought by the Iraqi government to provide air support to troops battling Islamic extremists.