WASHINGTON -- The United States is quietly rushing dozens of Hellfire missiles and low-tech surveillance drones to Iraq to help government forces combat an explosion of violence by an al-Qaida-backed insurgency that is gaining territory in both western Iraq and neighboring Syria.
The move follows an appeal for help in battling the extremist group by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who met with President Barack Obama in Washington last month.
Three bombings on Christmas in Christian areas of Baghdad, which killed dozens of people, bore the hallmarks of an al-Qaida operation.
But some military experts question whether the patchwork response will be sufficient to reverse the sharp downturn in security that has already led to the deaths of more than 8,000 Iraqis this year, 952 of them Iraqi security force members, according to the United Nations, the highest level of violence since 2008.
Al-Qaida's regional affiliate, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has become a potent force in northern and western Iraq. Riding in armed convoys, the group has intimidated towns, assassinated local officials and, in an episode last week, used suicide bombers and hidden explosives to kill the commander of the Iraqi army's 7th Division and more than a dozen of his officers and soldiers as they raided an al-Qaida training camp near Rutbah.
The State Department condemned the twin Christmas Day attacks that killed at least 37 people.
One car bomb, which killed at least 26 people, went off near a church in the Dora neighborhood of Baghdad during Christmas Mass. Another bomb exploded in an outdoor market in another nearby Christian neighborhood, killing 11.
The U.S. embassy in Baghdad said the Christian community in Iraq "has suffered deliberate and senseless targeting by terrorists for many years, as have other Iraqis."
The goal of terrorist groups such as al-Qaida, experts believe, is to drive out the remaining Christians and sharpen ethnic tensions.
There were about 1.5 million Iraqi Christians before the U.S. invasion of the country in 2003, but the numbers have dwindled to about half that, and Christians continue to emigrate.
The Shiite-dominated Maliki government has made some gestures to try to reassure the Christian community of its place, including making Christmas a national holiday.
The government is also in the middle of a major military operation in the western desert aimed at rooting out the militants who have sent violence in Iraq to the highest levels since 2008. More than 8,000 people have been killed this year, according to United Nations estimates.
The surge in violence stands in sharp contrast to earlier assurances from senior Obama administration officials that Iraq was on the right path, despite the failure of U.S. and Iraqi officials in 2011 to negotiate an agreement for a limited number of U.S. forces to remain in Iraq.
Iraq's foreign minister has floated the idea of having U.S.-operated, armed Predator or Reaper drones respond to the expanding militant network. But Mr. Maliki, who is positioning himself to run for a third term as prime minister and who is sensitive to nationalist sentiment at home, has not formally requested such intervention.
The idea of carrying out such drone attacks, which might prompt the question of whether the Obama administration has succeeded in bringing the Iraq War to what the president has called a "responsible end," also appears to have no support in the White House.
"We have not received a formal request for U.S.-operated armed drones operating over Iraq, nor are we planning to divert armed ISR over Iraq," said Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, referring to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.
For now, the new lethal aid from the United States includes a shipment of 75 Hellfire missiles, which were delivered to Iraq last week. The weapons are strapped beneath the wings of small Cessna turboprop planes and fired at militant camps with the CIA secretly providing targeting assistance.
In addition, 10 ScanEagle reconnaissance drones are expected to be delivered to Iraq by March. They are smaller cousins of the larger, more capable Predators that used to fly over Iraq.
U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials say they have effectively mapped the locations and origins of the al-Qaida network in Iraq and are sharing this information with the Iraqis.
Administration officials said the aid was significant because the Iraqis had virtually run out of Hellfire missiles. The Iraqi military, with no air force to speak of and limited reconnaissance of its own, has a very limited ability to locate and quickly strike al-Qaida militants. The combination of U.S.-supplied Hellfire missiles, tactical drones and intelligence is intended to augment that limited Iraqi ability.
The Obama administration has also given three sensor-laden Aerostat balloons to the Iraqi government and provided three additional reconnaissance helicopters to the Iraqi military. The United States also is planning to send 48 Raven reconnaissance drones before the end of 2014 and to deliver next fall the first of the F-16 fighters Iraq has bought.
The lack of armed drones, some experts assert, will hamper efforts to dismantle the al-Qaida threat in Iraq over the coming weeks and months.
"Giving them some ScanEagle drones is great," said Michael Knights, an expert on Iraqi security at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "But is it really going to make much difference? Their range is tiny."
"The real requirement today is for a long-range, high endurance armed drone capability," added Mr. Knights, who frequently travels to Iraq. "There is one place in the world where al-Qaida can run a major affiliate without fear of a U.S. drone or air attack and that is in Iraq and Syria."
In an effort to buttress the Iraqi military's abilities, the Obama administration has sought congressional approval to lease and eventually sell Apache helicopter gunships. But some lawmakers have been hesitant, fearing that they might be used by Mr. Maliki to intimidate political opponents.
A plan to lease six Apaches to the Iraqi government is on hold in the Senate. Frustrated by U.S. reluctance to sell Apaches, the Iraqis have turned to Russia, which delivered four Mi-35 attack helicopters last month and planned to provide more than two dozen more. Meanwhile, cities and towns like Mosul, Haditha and Baqouba that U.S. forces fought to control during the 2007 and 2008 troop surge have been the scene of bloody Qaida attacks.
Using extortion and playing on Sunni grievances against Mr. Maliki's Shia-dominated government, the al-Qaida affiliate is largely self-financing. One Iraqi politician, who asked not to be named to avoid retaliation, said al-Qaida militants had even begun to extort money from shopkeepers in Ramadi, Anbar's provincial capital.
A number of factors are helping the al-Qaida affiliate. The terrorist group took advantage of the departure of U.S. forces to rebuild its operations in Iraq and push into Syria. Now that it has established a strong foothold in Syria, it is in turn using its base there to send suicide bombers into Iraq at a rate of 30 to 40 a month, using them against Shiites but also against Sunnis who are reluctant to cede control.
Ayad Shaker, a police officer in Anbar, said that al-Qaida had replenished its ranks with a series of prison breakouts and that the group had also grown stronger because of the limited abilities of Iraqi forces, the Syrian conflict and tensions between Mr. Maliki and the Sunnis.
Officer Shaker said that three close relatives had been killed by al-Qaida and that he had been wounded by bombs the group had planted.
"I fought al-Qaida," he said. "I am sad today when I see them have the highest authority in Anbar, moving and working under the sun without deterrent."
Tribune Washington Bureau contributed.