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U.S. expedites delivery of missiles, drones to Iraq amid violence

A man looks at the site of bomb attack at a marketplace in Baghdad's Doura District December 25 2013. REUTERS/Ahmed Malik
A man looks at the site of bomb attack at a marketplace in Baghdad's Doura District December 25 2013. REUTERS/Ahmed Malik

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has delivered dozens of Hellfire air-to-ground missiles to Iraq in recent weeks and plans shipments of Scan Eagle drones next year amid a surge in violence, U.S. officials said on Thursday, a day after at least 34 people died in Christmas day bomb attacks in Baghdad.

Al Qaeda-linked militants have stepped up attacks on Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shi'ite-led government and anyone seen to be supporting it. The United Nations estimates that more than 8,000 people have been killed in attacks in Iraq this year.

A U.S. official said that about 75 Hellfire missiles were delivered to Iraq last week, earlier than originally envisioned, and a shipment of 10 unmanned Scan Eagles surveillance drones is due next year.

The U.S. has already said the first of 18 F-16 fighter jets promised to Iraq will be delivered in the fall of 2014, with the entire order to be shipped over the course of two years.

"The recent delivery of Hellfire missiles and an upcoming delivery of Scan Eagles are standard (foreign military sales) cases that we have with Iraq to strengthen their capabilities to combat this threat," a State Department official said.

"We remain committed to supporting the government of Iraq in meeting its defense needs in the face of these challenges," the official added.

Iraq is enduring its deadliest violence in years, reviving memories of the sectarian bloodshed between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims that killed tens of thousands of people in 2006-07.

Maliki pressed senior U.S. officials during a visit to Washington last month to provide Iraqi forces with additional equipment to conduct operations against militants camped in remote areas.

Washington has been adamant it will not send troops back to Iraq but has said it will continue to help train Iraqi forces. The last U.S. troops left Iraq at the end of 2011 after eight years of war.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton)

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