BAGHDAD Iraq has started flying unmanned aircraft or drones along its borders to stop foreign fighters and arms entering through neighboring countries, the Interior Ministry said on Tuesday.
Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Abdul Karim Khalaf said the drones would police all Iraq's borders and their first mission took place two weeks ago.
"This is the first time Iraq has used unmanned planes to intensify the monitoring of Iraqi borders," Khalaf told a news conference. "This is a new technique to control our borders, which exceed 3,600 km (2,250 miles)."
Last month U.S. forces shot down an Iranian drone spy plane that ventured inside Iraq in an incursion that angered Iraqi officials deeply suspicious of their more powerful neighbor's regional ambitions.
For years Sunni Islamist al Qaeda militants crossed into Iraq's western deserts through Syria, while Shi'ite militiamen received arms, weapons and training through the mountainous border with Iran.
U.S. and Iraqi officials say the flow of foreign fighters through Syria has fallen drastically and tighter border security has forced al Qaeda to rely on young and inexperienced local recruits.
High-tech scanning equipment installed at crossing points on the Iranian border has meanwhile constricted the flow of weapons for what the U.S. military alleges are Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias. Tehran denies backing Iraqi militants.
Violence across Iraq has fallen sharply in the past 18 months. The U.S. troops that invaded in 2003 to topple President Saddam Hussein will cease combat operations by August 31 next year and will all have left by the end of 2011.
Khalaf said the drones were most useful at night, when their infrared sensors could detect the body heat of militants.
"The planes have already been used to chase three infiltrators," he said.
Khalaf said the number of border security centers had increased tenfold since 2006, with the average distance between them now around 1,500 meters (5,000 ft), compared with 10 to 15 km (six to nine miles) three years ago when sectarian bloodshed raged in Iraq.
(Writing by Tim Cocks)