OTTAWA — Canadian special forces and other military personnel in Iraq have resumed some of their activities following a temporary suspension last week, though many others remain on lock down.
Canada’s mission in Iraq has two main elements, one of which involves about 200 troops who have been training local forces through NATO to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. A similar number of special forces have been working as part of the U.S.-led anti-ISIL coalition.
Both elements saw their missions suspended last week, with orders for the troops to hunker down on military bases or, in some cases, relocate to Kuwait, over fears Iran or its proxies would retaliate for the U.S. having killed Iran’s most important general, Qassem Soleimani.
Those fears proved to be founded as Iran launched ballistic missile attacks against two military bases in Iraq on Jan. 8, including one outside the northern city of Irbil where Canadian special forces have been operating for the past five years. No one was injured in the attacks.
Yet the Department of National Defence says some Canadian special-forces soldiers have since returned to their work. Military transport planes and helicopters have also resumed flying personnel, equipment and supplies in and out, as well as around, of Iraq.
“Certain Canadian Special Operations Forces activities have resumed under strict parameters to ensure safety of our members,” Defence Department spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier said in an email.
Special forces “are optimized to operate in this kind of ambiguous, volatile environment,” he added. “As such, the conditions under which they have been permitted to resume certain activities is different than that of regular forces.”
Le Bouthillier said the protection of Canadian forces was the top priority, but would not provide further details.
The special-forces soldiers have been working with specialized Iraqi counterterrorism forces, primarily in the north of the country, to eliminate remaining ISIL cells.
Meanwhile, Brig.-Gen. Michel-Henri St-Louis, the commander of Joint Task Force Impact, which oversees many of Canada’s other anti-ISIL efforts in Iraq and the surrounding region, told The Canadian Press that Canadian military aircraft and helicopters are again flying in Iraq.
“As the situation has evolved in the last couple of days, we have been able to resume the Hercules flights into Iraq,” said St-Louis in reference to the military’s C-130 transport planes, which are based in Kuwait and ferry personnel, supplies and equipment to and from the mission in Iraq.
“In Iraq itself, the helicopters have also done some flying to allow that inside Iraq transport of personnel that is key in this repositioning and adjustments that we need to do,” he said, adding the military also recently swapped out some of its helicopters due to wear and tear.
Canada has two squadrons of Griffon helicopters in Iraq for transportation and resupply.
Yet while Canada’s special-forces soldiers and military aircraft are again on the move, the roughly 200 Canadians attached to the NATO training mission in the south of the country are still waiting for the signal to resume their mission.
One of the complicating factors is whether the Iraqi government actually wants them and the rest of the thousands of U.S. and Western troops to stay and continue training the country’s local forces and help with the fight against ISIL.
Following Soleimani’s death, the Iraqi parliament passed a non-binding resolution calling for them to leave. While many Sunni and Kurdish parliamentarians boycotted the vote, outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi voiced his own support for the resolution.
Morale among the Canadians in Iraq is high, said St-Louis, who said the damage from the Iranian missile attack on Irbil was minimal. Soldiers are in contact with their families, he added, and commanders are continuing to assess the security situation and guard against potential threats.
As for how the Iraqis feel about them, “the contacts we have here with the Iraqi security force partners, what I’m hearing from them is they want us to return and continue to help them, train them and support them as they develop the capacity they need to face” ISIL.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 16, 2020.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press