OTTAWA – The federal government says the Canadian military will remain in Iraq for at least two more years as part of an international coalition fighting the so-called Islamic State.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says the threat posed by the group, also known as Daesh, ISIL or ISIS, requires Canadian soldiers to remain in the region under Operation IMPACT until at least March 2019.
The government is adding the authority to provide training for new potential partners within the Iraqi security forces, as well as a CC-130J Hercules aircraft for tactical airlift.
The government says it will spend $371.4 million over two years to cover the cost of the extended mission.
Canada has about 200 special forces soldiers operating in northern Iraq. Hundreds of other troops are also working in a combat hospital and a helicopter detachment, flying and maintaining surveillance planes and working on an air-to-air refuelling aircraft.
The renewed mission gives the military the option of deploying “up to 850” soldiers to the region as needed, up from the current 830.
The Liberal government is still calling Operation IMPACT an “advise and assist” mission to help train local forces, although critics have long insisted Canada is involved in combat.
That debate was sparked anew this month with word that a sniper from Canada’s elite Joint Task Force 2 special forces unit, supporting Iraqi forces, killed an ISIL fighter from 3,540 metres away, a world record.
WATCH: Canadian sniper sets record for longest confirmed kill in military history.
During a phone call with reporters on Thursday, Sajjan said that despite that incredible distance, the shot was defensive. Daesh fighters could potentially launch an explosive from that distance, he noted.
“A decision was made to engage to make sure that (Canadians) protected their Iraqi security partners,” he said. “They’re engaging to save lives.”
Sajjan also confirmed that Canadian soldiers have used force on the enemy “on a number of occasions” to protect themselves, civilians and their coalition partners. He did not provide a specific number of engagements over the past year.
“I’m not doing what the previous government has done, putting up every time we engage as a way of getting some political points here. This is about allowing the Canadian Armed Forces to do their work.”
Sajjan said he is not briefed “every single day on every single time use of force has been done,” and believes his government is providing the mandate, rules of engagement and equipment that Canadian soldiers need to do their jobs.
WATCH: Video purports to show the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish YPG militia clashing with Islamic State militants in eastern neighbourhoods of Raqqa.
The mission has been formally extended numerous times since it first launched in 2014. The initial one-year renewal happened in March 2015 (under the Conservatives), bringing the end-date to March 2016.
Then, in early 2016, the new Liberal government made dramatic changes that terminated Canada’s bombing mission but expanded development, intelligence gathering and training work. At the same time, Operation IMPACT was renewed for another year, until March 2017.
Finally, it was extended once again over the winter to the end of this month.
With files from Global News
© 2017 The Canadian Press