WASHINGTON - Caught off guard by recent Iraqi military operations, the United States is using spy satellites that ordinarily are trained on adversaries to monitor the movements of the US-backed Iraqi Army, according to current and former US officials.
The stepped up surveillance reflects breakdowns in trust and coordination between the two forces. Officials said it is part of an expanded intelligence effort launched after American commanders were surprised by the timing of the Iraqi Army's violent push into Basra three months ago.
The use of the satellites puts the United States in the unusual position of employing some of its most sophisticated espionage technology to track an allied army that American forces helped create, continue to advise, and often fight alongside.
US satellites are "imaging military installations that the Iraqi army occupies," said a former US military official, who said slides from the images have been used in recent closed briefings at US facilities in the Middle East.
"They're imaging training areas that the Iraqi Army utilizes. They're imaging roads that Iraqi armored vehicles and large convoys transit."
Military officials and specialists said the move shows concern by US commanders about whether their Iraqi counterparts will follow American guidance or keep their coalition partners fully informed.
"It suggests that we don't have complete confidence in their chain of command, or in their willingness to tell us what they're going to do because they may fear that we may try to get them not to do it," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a website about intelligence and military issues.
But the development also was seen as a sign that the Iraqi Army has reached a level of independence and competence that US military planners had hoped it would achieve.
"The bad news is we're spying on Iraqis," said the former military official. "The good news is that we have to."
The former military and several other sources described the operation on condition of anonymity because of its sensitivity. The Pentagon and US intelligence agencies declined to comment about the mission.
However, the expanded satellite surveillance comes as the Iraqi military has embarked on a series of large-scale operations to reassert government control in areas, including Sadr City and Mosul, that have been havens for hostile militias and insurgents.
The first of the operations, launched in March, was an assault in the southern port city of Basra on elements of the Mahdi Army, a militia led by the anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Among the forces Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki deployed were units that had just completed training and did not have a US team assigned to them, which may help explain why US commanders were so caught off guard.
Despite tactical shortcomings, the operation since has been portrayed as a major success, a demonstration that the Iraqi Army, once viewed as ineffectual, if not incompetent, was emerging as a capable force.
Admiral Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last month: "They moved a division inside a few days. And a year ago the Iraqi security forces could never have moved those kinds of forces."