The United States is flying armed drones over Iraq, a senior U.S. Defense official confirmed to Fox News, though the aircraft are not being sent at this time to engage Sunni militant fighters.
The U.S. already was flying surveillance drones over the country, and the decision to dispatch armed drones marks an escalation. But the armed drones, at this stage, still are only in place for surveillance purposes.
President Obama has not authorized combat operations in Iraq. The decision to deploy armed drones is described as defensive -- they could, if needed, be used to protect U.S. troops or the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
The White House is still weighing how deeply to get involved in the Iraq crisis, as the Shiite-led government struggles to stop the advances of Sunni militants with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
Secretary of State John Kerry has been on a weeklong tour through the Middle East and Europe in pursuit of a diplomatic solution that could ease sectarian tensions. He was in Saudi Arabia on Friday.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, has begun sending military advisers into Baghdad to help Iraqi security forces strategize against ISIS, which the State Department considers a terrorist group.
The drones are most likely being flown out of bases in surrounding countries, including possibly Turkey, though the drone pilots themselves may be U.S.-based.
Fox News' Jennifer Griffin contributed to this report.