AMERICAN forces have begun air strikes using helicopter gunships assigned to protect the US embassy in Baghdad, as they try to repel an offensive on the Iraqi capital by Isil militants.
The strikes, believed to involve Apache helicopters, were launched over the weekend amid heavy fighting in the western approaches to Baghdad, around the cities of Fallujah and Hit.
Despite weeks of an escalating US-led air campaign against Isil, the jihadis have continued to press Iraqi forces west of the capital. Last week Isil militants were reported to be only six miles from the suburbs.
Britain also announced that its latest air strikes by RAF Tornados were west of the capital in Ramadi.
The Apaches were sent to Iraq four months ago to defend the US embassy in the capital and their use in air strikes is a significant escalation in the campaign against the militants.
Though they are known for their formidable battlefield firepower, they are also more vulnerable to ground fire than the attack jets and bombers that have so far led the air campaign.
The first missions by the US Army attack helicopters were part of a coordinated air operation, involving US fighter aircraft, and B-1B Lancers bombers on Saturday night.
US Central Command reported that coalition forces used helicopters and attack, bomber, and fighter aircraft to conduct six air strikes against Isil.
The statement said: "In Iraq, four strikes northeast of Fallujah struck two mortar teams, a large Isil unit and two small Isil units.
"One strike southeast of Hit destroyed two Isil Humvees. One strike northeast of Sinjar destroyed an Isil Humvee. To conduct these strikes, the US employed helicopters and attack, bomber, fighter aircraft deployed to the US Central Command area of operations. All aircraft departed the strike areas safely."
The US said it had deployed an unspecified number of Apache helicopters to Baghdad International Airport in June to help protect personnel and assets at the US Embassy in the city and at the airport.
US military sources say the Apache unit in Baghdad is a company of eight AH-64Ds from the 3rd Battalion, 159th Aviation Regiment. (© Daily Telegraph, London)