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U.S. helicopters return to combat in Iraq

IRBIL, Iraq — The United States sent helicopters into combat against Islamic State targets west of Baghdad on Sunday, the first time low-flying Army aircraft have been committed to fighting in an engagement that the Obama administration officials has promised would not include "boots on the ground."

The U.S. Central Command, in a statement about U.S. activities against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, provided few specifics about the helicopters. They were probably AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, which were deployed to Baghdad International Airport in June to provide protection for U.S. military and diplomatic facilities.

Until Sunday, U.S. airstrikes in Iraq have been limited to fast-moving Air Force and Navy fighter aircraft and drones. But the use of the relatively slow-flying helicopters represents an escalation of U.S. military involvement and is a sign that the security situation in Iraq's Anbar province is deteriorating. Last week, ISIS militants overran numerous Iraqi bases and towns and were becoming a widespread presence in Abu Ghraib, the last major town outside of Baghdad's western suburbs.

Jeffrey White, a former senior Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who closely follows developments in Iraq, said the use of helicopter gunships by the United States means that U.S. troops effectively are now directly involved in ground battles.

The decision indicates that nearly two months of U.S.-led airstrikes by fixed-wing fighters and bombers have failed to stop ISIS from massing ground troops and launching offensive operations, said White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a center-right policy institute.

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