Canadian soldiers involved in 2 more firefights in Iraq
TORONTO (AP) — Canadian government officials insist that special forces troops in northern Iraq are not involved in a combat mission, even though the commandos engaged in two more firefights there over the last week with Islamic State group militants.
Earlier this month, Canadian soldiers engaged in a gun battle with militants after coming under a mortar and machine gun attack while conducting training at the front lines. It was the first ground firefight between Western troops and the Islamic State group.
Navy Capt. Paul Forget said Monday that two similar events occurred over the last week. In both cases, soldiers acting in self-defense returned fire and “neutralized” the threat, he said.
Canada has 69 special forces soldiers with Kurdish peshmerga fighters in what the government calls an advising and assisting role. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in Parliament in late September the soldiers would not accompany the fighters, but a Canadian general said last week they do 80 percent of the training and advising behind front lines and about 20 percent right at the front lines.
The general also revealed that Canadian soldiers have been helping the Kurdish fighters by directing coalition airstrikes against Islamic State extremists, work generally considered risky because it means they are close to the battle against the group.
The Canadians’ efforts complement those of the United States, which has conducted the vast majority of the airstrikes against the Islamic State group. But in their new role, the Canadians are performing a task that so far the U.S. has been unwilling to do. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has repeatedly said the U.S. would consider directing attacks from the ground but that it has not done so.
Forget said Canada’s role has progressed since the mission started last October.
“When we initially got there and we were conducting the advise and assist role for Iraqi security forces, we were teaching them the basics of - of warfare, if you will. That has since evolved,” Forget said.
Opposition parties have accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s conservative government of dragging Canada farther into direct combat operations, contrary to what the Harper government has promised.
“How many gun battles, how many airstrikes, how many targets painted by our troops on the ground before the prime minister and this minister admit that our troops are in a combat mission?” Opposition New Democrat leader Thomas Mulcair asked.
Jason MacDonald, a spokesman for Harper, said “all of the activities outlined by the military today are consistent with the advise and assist mandate they have been given.”
Canada is among dozens of countries that have joined the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State militant group. Canada sent special forces and joined the air combat mission after a request from President Barack Obama. Canada has six CF-18 fighter jets, two surveillance planes, a refueling tanker aircraft and 600 airmen and airwomen based in Kuwait as part of the mission.