March 26, 2015 4:36 pm

‘They broke it, they fix it’: have the Conservatives taken a 180 on Iraq stance?

NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar hugs former foreign affairs minister John Baird, who he said once said it was up to the Iraqis to fix the problem with ISIS.

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OTTAWA — The Harper government’s position on the Iraqis and Syrians suffering under the oppression of ISIS has shifted considerably, taking almost a 180 in less than a year, the NDP claims.

During a conversation last June with then foreign affairs minister John Baird, the NDP critic on the file asked whether Canada would help displaced Iraqis affected by the looming crisis.

“His response was blunt: ‘They broke it, they fix it,’” New Democrat Paul Dewar recounted during a speech in the House Thursday morning.

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READ MORE: Harper seeks expanded airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against ISIS

There is no public record of that conversation, and Baird has since resigned from public office. The Prime Minister’s Office, meanwhile, did not respond to a request to comment on whether Baird’s alleged response ever reflected the Conservative stance on the issue.

During question period on June 13, 2014, however, Dewar asked the Conservatives about the increasing violence in Iraq.

Referring to ISIS only as a “heavily armed terrorist group,” Dewar noted the group took over the city of Mosul, resulting in half a million people fleeing what has become the largest city under ISIS control.

READ MORE: Canada may target groups linked to ISIS in expanded mission

He asked what “concrete steps” the government would take to help deal with the crisis, amplified by the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees Iraq was already struggling to help.

In response, Baird’s parliamentary secretary said Canada was calling for “restraint” on the use of force in populated areas and for parties to “refrain” from targeting civilians.

“They’ve gone from not being interested to this, to overreaching,” Dewar said in an interview Thursday, following the first day of debate on the prime minister’s motion to extend and expand Canada’s role in the international anti-ISIS mission.

READ MORE: Harper’s full speech on expanding Canada’s mission against ISIS

The apparent flip-flop was but one concern the opposition parties raised.

The NDP proposed amendments to the motion that would, if adopted, effectively end Canada’s military role in the Middle East “as soon as possible.” Without a military role, the mission would instead focus on humanitarian aid — constructing refugee camps, helping victims of sexual violence and protecting people of religious minorities.

“We would take our troops out of theatre,” Dewar told the House. “We would [withdraw] because we believe the smart thing to do, the responsible thing to do, is do what we’re asked to do by the Iraqis, by the people on the ground.”

Pulling out, however, is not an option for the government, Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson said.

READ MORE: Former Afghanistan Task Force head raises caution flag over Iraq

“[ISIS’s] campaign threatens the very foundation upon which our society is based,” he said during his speech. “It does so through fear, oppression and tyranny … our reaction to this threat persists as the greatest test for this generation.”

Although the Conservative motion on Iraq does not address any increase in humanitarian aid, Nicholson has said several times it is his government’s intent to provide such aid over the long term — but first, troops need to “degrade” ISIS, he said Thursday.

But there is little chance the Conservatives will achieve their goals within the year, the NDP said.

“The Americans have been there [in Iraq] for 10 years. They’re still trying to figure it out,” Dewar said, one day after NDP and Liberal critics received a briefing on the mission.

READ MORE: Poll suggests majority of Canadians favour extending anti-ISIS mission

The initial idea behind sending Canadian troops to Iraq was to train Kurdish peshmerga fighters, but that’s been slow going, those MPs heard from Canadian Forces and Foreign Affairs officials during a Wednesday’s briefing.

Maj.-Gen. Mike Hood, who will soon become the commander of the air force, told the briefing that only 650 peshmerga fighters have been trained since a contingent of 69 elite Canadian commandos deployed to northern Iraq last September, multiple sources with knowledge of what was said in the room told The Canadian Press.

Although the NDP and Liberals have both said they do not intend to support the motion, it is still expected to pass the vote Monday, given the Conservative majority in the House of Commons.

With a file from The Canadian Press

© 2015 Shaw Media

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