Since 2013 the U.S. has been covertly flying unmanned reconnaissance aircraft over Iraq to gather intelligence on insurgents, according to U.S. officials.
The operation was limited in scale and proved little value to the U.S. and Iraq when ISIL fighters rapidly seized two major Iraqi cities this week, the officials said.
Before the ISIL offensive, the program was expanded based on mounting U.S. and Iraqi concerns about the expanded military activities of ISIL fighters.
Officials declined to disclose what type of drones were being deployed but said the flights were conducted only for reconnaissance purposes.
A senior U.S. official said the intelligence collected under the small program was shared with Iraqi forces, but added: “It’s not like it did any good.” The rapid territorial gains by ISIL forces devoted to building the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, an al Qaeda offshoot, caught the U.S. by surprise, the officials said.
Following the seizure of the two Iraqi cities Mosul and Tikrit, U.S. officials have asked their military and intelligence agencies to devise options that include limited U.S. military action in Iraq, officials said.
“They’re looking at everything and anything and have been told explicitly by the White House to think outside the box of what is possible,” a senior U.S. official said.
In recent weeks, U.S. has also stepped up planning for the possible evacuation of the American embassy in Baghdad, a U.S. official said. U.S. military officials say they do not believe an evacuation will be necessary and doubt Baghdad will fall to militant forces, but said expanded planning is prudent.
Administration and military officials say they are drawing up immediate and long-term options to fight the ISIL threat in Iraq.
The options range from possible U.S. airstrikes, intelligence sharing and accelerated delivery of pre-arranged military supplies.
Long-term options include expanded training of Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces, officials said.