The United States is flying armed aircraft over Iraq as part of "force protection" measures now that U.S. military advisers have arrived there, the Pentagon confirmed Friday.
The U.S. military said it is flying 30 to 35 missions a day over Iraq, primarily on surveillance missions. "Some of those aircraft are armed," Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said.
The flights included both drones and manned aircraft.
The White House has ordered 300 U.S. military advisers to Iraq in the wake of attacks by Sunni extremists, who have seized key towns and pose a threat to Baghdad.
The armed aircraft are a cautionary move designed to be in a position to protect the advisers, who will be working outside the confines of the U.S. Embassy, Kirby said.
U.S. military personnel will assess the capabilities of Iraq's armed forces and later provide advice and support. Many Iraqi units melted away in the face of militant attacks.
The heightened U.S. military profile comes as Iraq's top Shiite spiritual leader urged the country's political leaders to agree on the next prime minister before the new parliament opens next week.
Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is increasingly weighing in on Iraqi politics in the face of a threat by Sunni militants who have taken over large swaths of territory in Iraq's north and west. Last week, al-Sistani's call for Iraqis to fight the rebels prompted a show of force in the streets of Baghdad by militiamen vowing to fight the Sunni attacks.
On Friday, his call on top political leaders to set aside their differences and form an inclusive government came in the form of a sermon delivered in the holy city of Karbala by a cleric who represents al-Sistani.
The appeal comes as the incumbent, Nouri al-Maliki, fights to keep his job. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, in a thinly veiled vote of no confidence in al-Maliki, have both appealed to Iraqi leaders to create a more representative government.
Al-Maliki's party won the largest number of seats in April's parliamentary elections, but he has not been able to form a government.
The political gridlock, and the growing threat from Sunni insurgents, represents Iraq's worst crisis since U.S. troops withdrew at the end of 2011.
Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, said the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) executed at least 160 captive soldiers earlier this month. The rights group based its findings on satellite imagery and grisly photos released by the militants, corroborating earlier accounts of the alleged massacre and saying the actual toll could be far higher.
Contributing: Associated Press