(USA TODAY) -- A Pentagon official confirmed Friday that the U.S. is now flying armed drones over Baghdad, but only for protection of the U.S. embassy, according to media reports.
CBS News quotes the unidentified official as saying the flights, for now, do not represent the first step toward broader air strikes against extremist insurgents.
The armed Predator drones, with Hellfire missiles, departed from an air base in Kuwait, according to The New York Times. The official said the flights will augment about 40 unarmed reconnaissance flights over Iraq each day.
The higher U.S. military profile comes as Iraq's top Shiite spiritual leader urged the country's top political leaders to agree on the next prime minister before the new parliament opens next week.
Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is weighing in increasingly in 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 political leaders to set aside their differences and form an inclusive government came in the form of a Friday 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 biggest number of seats in April 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 (ISIS) 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.
On the military front, a senior Iraqi army official told The Associated Press that Iraqi commandos aboard four helicopters landed at a soccer pitch inside a university campus in the insurgent-held city of Tikrit late Thursday and clashed with ISIS militants for several hours.
One of the helicopters developed mechanical problems after takeoff from Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, but landed safely in the provincial military headquarters. The official had no word on casualties and declined to specify the mission's objectives. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.
The official also said 200 troops have arrived at a key refinery north of Baghdad under attack by militants for more than a week. The reinforcing troops join a 100-strong contingent that has been defending the Beiji refinery, Iraq's largest and the source of about a quarter of the country's oil product needs, including fuel for power stations.
Contributing: Associated Press