Canadian special forces troops are back to full employment in northern Iraq — but for how long?
All joint operations between the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition and Iraqi security forces were suspended in early January following the targeted killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
The all-clear to resume specialized military training and assistance was confirmed late last week by the Iraqi Army as the country’s parliament faced a deadline to select a new prime minister.
Maj.-Gen. Peter Dawe, who is in charge of Canadian Special Forces Command, told CBC News on Monday that his troops are back on the job helping the Iraqis track down the remnants of ISIS — but they’re fully aware of the precarious political climate.
“The entire premise of our mission — to defeat Daesh — has not changed and Canadians should be aware of that,” said Dawe, using an alternate name for ISIS. “It’s still a sensitive space right now in terms of interaction with the [Iraqi] government.”
Following the drone strike that killed Soleimani and al-Muhandis, Iraq’s parliament passed a non-binding motion to eject foreign troops — a proposition that remains unresolved because of the absence of a stable government.
Dawe suggested the coalition and the Canadian troops are treading carefully, adding they “are not blind” to the “complex situation” in Iraq as the country grapples with both political uncertainty and ongoing street protests.
“It is very important to the coalition to respect the Iraqi government’s wishes,” he said. “And so this return, the resumption of operations, is happening very deliberately to ensure it is perfectly aligned with what the government of Iraq envisions.”
Earlier this month, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said that if the Iraqi parliament formally asked foreign troops to leave the country, Canada would withdraw its forces.
The prospect of the country’s politicians dealing with that question remained remote on Monday after Iraq’s president stepped in and asked Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi to attempt to form a government and serve as prime minister.
That decision prompted immediate protests from ordinary Iraqis who say they are fed up with corruption and Iranian influence in Baghdad.
Allawi, a former communications minister, is seen to have little political, popular or military backing, according to an analysis released Monday by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.
Canadian troops have been working with Iraqi counter-terrorism units in Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, which was left largely in ruins after ISIS was driven out in a major months-long battle.
They’ve made important strides in helping the Iraqis develop their capability to track down extremists, said Dawe.
The mission has focused on training Iraqi officers. The elite Canadian soldiers also help the Iraqis plan raids and sometimes follow them into the field to observe.
“Ultimately, our intention is to make our Iraqi security personnel as self-reliant as possible.” said Dawe. “We continue to revisit those parameters with view to helping our partners become self-reliant and independent.”
In retaliation for the killing of Soleimani, Iran fired a volley of ballistic missiles at the air base in Erbil, which the Canadians have used as a centre of operations and a logistics hub.
And while there were no Canadian casualties in that attack, some Canadian soldiers were relocated out of Iraq shortly before the attack as tensions between Washington and Tehran escalated.
Dawe suggested those soldiers who were withdrawn belonged to the separate but concurrent NATO military training mission in Baghdad, and were not part of his contingent.
Canadian special forces soldiers “were not particularly close” to the Iranian missile strikes when they happened, he said.
“It was not an imminent threat to our people,” said Dawe. “There was concern for the welfare of our people but it was not overly or particularly proximate.”