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UK to Send Reaper Drones to Strike Islamic State in Iraq

The British military has never before deployed the highly controversial unmanned aircraft outside Afghanistan.
October 16, 2014, 4:10pm
Image via Getty

Britain is to send two heavily armed Reaper drones to Iraq to carry out strikes against the Islamic State, the first time they have been deployed by the country outside Afghanistan.

The drones will be deployed alongside British Tornado fighter jets already carrying out airstrikes against IS after parliament approved aerial military intervention in Iraq last month.

"As the UK's only armed remotely piloted aircraft, Reaper will add to the strike capability we are already providing from Afghanistan," Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said in a statement written to parliament.

Fallon added that the use of the drones would be bound by the rules of engagement laid out in the parliament's vote approving the use of air strikes in Iraq.

The Reaper drones are constructed by General Atomics and are being redeployed from Afghanistan, Fallon said.

The deployment of the drones from the Royal Air Force's 13 Squadron marks their first use outside of Afghanistan, where they carried out over 4,500 sorties since 2008. They are to be stationed at a base outside of Iraq, though the defense secretary did not specify where.

The move comes after a change in tactics by the Islamic State due to the airstrikes being conducted by both US and British forces, including apparent efforts to avoid traveling in convoys.

Fallon said more drones could follow, explaining that "as Reaper numbers in Afghanistan reduce, we intend to move more of them to the Middle East, adding to our coverage."

The deployment of Reaper drones by Britain comes as Idriss Nassan, the deputy head of the foreign relations committee in the besieged Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, claimed that while airstrikes were "effective," they were not enough to defeat the Islamic State.

Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander accused Fallon of being "complacent" due to the Islamic State conquering a large swathe of Iraq's western Anbar province and coming close to overrunning Kobane in Syria, just miles from the Turkish border.

Alexander added: "It is reported [the Islamic State] also drew to within 15 miles of Baghdad's international airport only last week.

Fallon said the Reaper drones, armed with laser-guided weaponry and sensors would arrive "shortly."

Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond, in a separate statement, also confirmed their deployment to parliamentarians, claiming the United Kingdom was making a valuable contribution to sophisticated surveillance and direct attacks. Hammond added that as part of an international coalition Britain had aided in the "stabilization" of the fight for northern Iraq.

"There will be a tactical ebb and flow but the collation air campaign has stabilized the strategic picture and the assessment of our experts is Baghdad is not in immediate danger," he said.

The use of drones has come under heavy criticism from human rights groups. Amnesty International has suggested that some strikes may be classed as war crimes, and they often draw a vehement public backlash in the countries where they are deployed.

Follow Tom Breakwell on Twitter: @TBreakwell