NEW YORK - Iraqi officials have expressed outrage at the United States use of a small fleet of surveillance drones to help protect the US Embassy, Consulates and American personnel in Iraq, The New York Times reported Monday.While senior Iraqi officials say the aircraft are an affront to their sovereignty, the Times’ Baghdad-datelined dispatch said American contractors have been told that the US State Department was considering to field unarmed surveillance drones in the future in a handful of other potentially “high-threat” countries, including Indonesia and Pakistan, and in Afghanistan after the bulk of American troops leave in the next two years.But, according to the dispatch, State Department officials said that no decisions have been made beyond the drone operations in Iraq. The Iraq drone programme was described by the US State Department’s diplomatic security branch in a little-noticed section of its most recent annual report, and outlined in an online prospectus for companies that might bid to manage it.It foreshadows a possible expansion of drone operations into the diplomatic arm - until now they have been mainly the province of the Pentagon and the CIA, the dispatch said.The drones are the latest example of the State Department’s efforts to take over functions in Iraq that the military used to perform. About 5000 private security contractors now protect the embassy’s 11,000 staff members, it said. When embassy personnel move around the country, small helicopters buzz over their convoys to provide support in case of an attack. Often, two contractors armed with machineguns are tethered to the outside of the helicopters.The State Department began operating some drones in Iraq last year on a trial basis and stepped up their use after the last US troops left Iraq in December, taking the military drones with them. The US, which will soon begin taking bids to manage drone operations in Iraq over the next five years, needed formal approval from Baghdad to use such aircraft there, Iraqi officials were cited as saying.But such approval may be unlikely given the political tensions between the countries, the Times said.A senior US official said negotiations were underway to obtain authorisation for the drone operations. But Ali al-Mosawi, an adviser to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki; Iraqi national security adviser Falih al-Fayadh; and acting Minister of the Interior Adnan al-Asadi all said they had not been consulted by the US.Mr Asadi said he opposed the drones, adding: “‘Our sky is our sky, not the US’s sky.”The Pentagon and CIA have been stepping up their use of armed Predator and Reaper drones for missile strikes against militants in places such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, it was pointed out. More recently, the US has expanded drone bases in Ethiopia, the Seychelles and a secret location in the Arabian Peninsula.The State Department drones carried no weapons and were meant to provide data and images of possible hazards such as public protests or roadblocks to security forces on the ground, US officials said.They are much smaller than armed drones, with wingspans as short as 45 centimetres, compared with 16 metres for the predators. The State Department confirmed the existence of the programme, calling the devices unmanned aerial vehicles, but it declined to provide details. ‘’The department does have a UAV programme,’’ it said in a statement. ‘’The UAVs being utilised by the State Department are not armed, nor are they capable of being armed.’’