Canada suspends military aid to Iraqi, Kurdish forces amid outbreak of hostilities
Canada has suspended the mission by special forces soldiers to train Iraqi and Kurdish troops after rising tensions and clashes between the two rival forces.
At risk of being caught in the middle of those tensions, the Canadian Armed Forces announced Friday that it was temporarily standing down its ground mission, which began in late 2014 and was extended by the Liberals in June for another two years.
“We need to take a pause, we need to see how things unfold. That could happen in the near term or it could take some time,” Col. Jay Janzen, a senior military spokesperson, said in an interview.
The decision means the suspension of the work by up 200 special operations forces troops who have been operating in northern Iraq on an advise-and-assist mission to help the Kurds and Iraqis in their fight against Daesh extremists.
Janzen described it as a “prudent” decision by military leaders to ensure that Canadian troops are not caught in an “uncomfortable” situation.
He said they were deployed to Iraq with a “clear mandate” to help defeat Daesh, but added, “now some other things are unfolding. . . . We expected some bumps along the way.
“It wouldn’t be fair to say we were caught by surprise,” Janzen said of the clashes between Iraqis and Kurds.
In Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Friday issued a 24-hour suspension of the movement of troops who are deployed in Iraq’s north to bring territory held by Kurdish forces back under federal control, the Associated Press reports.
The announcement follows conflicting reports from the U.S.-led coalition that a ceasefire had been reached between Kurdish forces and troops deployed by Baghdad’s government. After initially announcing a ceasefire, the Coalition said the statement was incorrect.
In Ottawa, the Defence Department stressed that other elements of Canada’s mission — known as Operation Impact — will continue, including a detachment of helicopters, operation of a military hospital and intelligence gathering.
The Kurds and Iraqis came together to fight a common enemy in Daesh. But it was always feared that once Daesh was near defeat, deep-rooted political tensions in Iraq would again boil over.
The trigger for these latest tensions was last month’s independence referendum by Kurdish authorities. Iraqi forces, supported by Iranian-backed forces, mounted a surprise take-over of Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk earlier this month in retaliation and to ensure the oil-rich district remains in their control.
Canadian forces had been assisting Iraqi security forces to retake the nearby city of Hawija from Daesh. But Janzen said that the Canadians were out of the area before the military action in Kirkuk unfolded.
In a statement Friday, the Canadian military cited the “fluidity” of the current situation for the decision to suspend the ground mission, though for now the special forces soldiers will remain in northern Iraq.
“Once more clarity exists regarding the interrelationships of Iraqi security forces, and the key priorities and tasks going forward, the task force will resume activities. In the interim, they will continue to monitor the situation and plan for the next potential phases of operational activity,” the statement said.
Janzen cautioned that while Daesh had few strongholds left in Iraq, extremists were still present in the country and he expected them to shift to employ terror-style tactics.
“Just because Daesh doesn’t hold territory doesn’t mean it’s over,” he said.
A spokesperson for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said that the federal government has constantly been evaluating how Canada’s military can best support the coalition to defeat Daesh.
“The situation on the ground in Iraq is fluid, and we will continue to assess our partners’ needs as the situation evolves,” Jordan Owens said in a statement.