The U.S. military has begun flying armed drones over Baghdad to protect U.S. military advisers there, news reports said Friday, as the Iraqi army struggled to dislodge Sunni militants from Saddam Hussein's hometown that they overran during their sweep through northern Iraq.
U.S. officials had maintained that all drone reconnaissance flights over Iraq were unarmed. But CNN and The Associated Press quoted an unnamed Pentagon official as saying the armed drones would provide additional protection for 180 U.S. military advisers rushed to Baghdad to help the Iraqi government turn back Sunni militants.
AP quoted the official as saying the flights started in the last 24 to 48 hours to bolster manned and unmanned reconnaissance flights the military has been sending over Iraq in recent weeks. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the new flights on the record.
Any airstrikes that are not defensive still would require President Barack Obama's approval.
Obama rushed advisers to Iraq after Sunni militants led by the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant stormed Mosul and other northern cities and have swept south. The extremist offensive is the most serious threat to the survival of the Shiite-led, U.S.-backed Iraqi government since U.S. forces withdrew from the country in 2011.
The U.S. military on Friday named a two-star general and Iraq War veteran to oversee the advisory teams. Army Maj. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard, deputy commanding general of operations for the Kuwait-based U.S. 3rd Army, will direct the work of the advisers. Pittard served as a brigade commander during the Iraq War and later commanded the Iraq Assistance Group, which managed the transition to Iraqi security control.
As the U.S. gears up its assistance, Iraq's battered army has been struggling to blunt the ISIL offensive as the militant juggernaut moves toward Baghdad.
On Friday, the Reuters news agency, quoting residents, reported that Iraqi helicopters fired on a university campus in Tikrit to try to dislodge insurgents. On Thursday, Iraqi forces launched an airborne assault on Tikrit, flying troops into a stadium in helicopters, one of which crashed after coming under fire.
Iraq's army reinforced its troops holding out against ISIL assault on the Beiji oil refinery, a major source of fuel for domestic consumption. An Iraqi official told reporters that about 200 troops had joined a 100-strong contingent that has been fighting for more than a week around the refinery, which provides about 25 percent of the country's petroleum needs.
State-run television aired footage Friday purporting to show troops disembarking from helicopters at Beiji, with some carrying boxes of supplies. Dense black smoke was rising from what appeared to be a large fuel tank
In London, Human Rights Watch said Friday that analysis of photographs and satellite imagery "strongly indicate" that the ISIL staged mass executions in Tikrit after capturing it on June 11. Human Rights Watch estimated that as many as 190 men were slaughtered over three days but the real figure may be higher because an on-site investigation is not possible.
"The photos and satellite images from Tikrit provide strong evidence of a horrible war crime that needs further investigation," Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
The massacre appeared to be aimed at instilling fear in Iraq's demoralized armed forces as well as among the country's Shiite majority, whom the Islamic State views as heretics.
In the west, ISIL fighters clashed with a joint force of Iraqi Army and tribal forces in Barwana, eight miles south of the Haditha dam. Government forces are said to be reinforcing the dam to prevent a repeat of an incident earlier this year when the ISIL seized the Fallujah dam on the Euphrates River. The ISIL opened the floodgates, inundating surrounding areas and depriving downstream communities of water.
During its offensive, the ISIL was helped by Sunni tribes and former members of Saddam's Sunni-dominated Baath Party, who have long complained they were marginalized by the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. U.S. officials, meanwhile, have urged the Iraqis to form an inclusive government to wean Sunnis away from the ISIL.
Al-Maliki's party won the most seats in the April parliamentary election but needs support from other parties to gain a parliamentary majority and to hold onto his job. Parliament is due to meet Tuesday to begin the process of picking the next prime minister, with the ISIL threat adding new urgency to finish the process soon. Many Sunnis and some Shiite politicians believe al-Maliki must be replaced because of his image as a polarizing Shiite hard-liner.
On Friday, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, stepped up pressure on parliament, calling on political blocs to agree on the next prime minister even before parliament convenes.
Al-Maliki, who is fighting to keep his job, warned army commanders that militants were likely to try to undermine security in the Iraqi capital ahead of Tuesday's session. "Baghdad must be secured and not subjected to any instability at this time," he said in televised comments.