Canada’s role in the fight against the so-called Islamic State is shifting yet again, with a new aircraft heading over to Iraq this week while a group of trainers begin the slow task of helping to rid the country of thousands of improvised explosives.
Brig.-Gen. Daniel MacIsaac, the commander of Canada’s joint task force in Iraq, addressed the changes to Operation IMPACT in an interview with Global News from Kuwait.
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“Daesh has heavily, heavily polluted the areas they controlled with improvised explosive devices, and there’s quite a few explosive remnants of war,” MacIsaac said, using the government’s preferred name for the terror group that held large swaths of northern Iraq until being forced out by coalition, Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi forces.
Canada will be sending over 20 highly trained engineers to work with Iraqi soldiers and instructors, with the aim of giving local troops the skills they need to defuse the explosives left behind.
The Canadians will be based just outside of Baghdad, and not travelling to the north.
“They’re world class,” said MacIsaac of the group. “The threats change with technological changes, but so do our skill sets.”
The commander said the trainers are predominantly from Petawawa, and that Canada volunteered early to provide them to the coalition once IS-controlled territory had been retaken.
A small team of four was sent over ahead of time to work with the Iraqi bomb disposal unit and develop training plans.
“We’re now continuing that by building a progression of courses for them,” MacIsaac said.
Aurora coming home
Meanwhile, Canada will also be altering its aerial contributions to the coalition, sending over a second CC-130J Hercules from 8 Wing Trenton. It’s expected to arrive “shortly,” MacIsaac said, and will be used to move cargo and personnel around the country.
“That is all the more important now as Iraqi forces move around and make sure they establish the bases they need,” he said.
There is already a Hercules in Iraq, and that plane has flown 61 missions and delivered over a million pounds of cargo. Canada is now looking to double that capacity.
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As the second Hercules lands, Canada’s only remaining CP-140 Aurora aircraft in Iraq will be coming home. In December, it will wrap up three years of support work that included over 850 sorties. The Aurora will be re-integrated into the North American military defence strategy, MacIsaac said.
Finally, the Canadian-commanded Role 2 medical facility, located in northern Iraq, will stay up and running until at least April 30, 2018. About 50 Canadians are currently working at the hospital providing Canadian front-line medical care.
“We’ll continue to work with coalition partners and see if it needs to be extended further,” MacIsaac said.
As IS has faltered and retreated, the Canadian government and the broader coalition have faced new challenges in northern Iraq.
In September, an independence referendum was held in which over 90 per cent of Iraqi Kurds voted in favour of separation from Iraq. The Kurdistan Regional Government considered the results binding, but the vote triggered fresh hostilities between Iraqi forces and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq.
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Late last month, Canada halted the support being provided to both sides by Canadian Special Forces troops as a result of the new conflict. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, meanwhile, has refused to take sides.
MacIsaac does not command the special forces personnel working in the north and cannot speak to their mission, but he said that Canada wants to “wait and see, for a little bit more clarity in the situation and the relationships.”
The Department of National Defence confirmed that information on Thursday afternoon, saying the mission remains suspended for now.
Canada’s role in the coalition began in 2014 under the previous Conservative government. Since then, Operation IMPACT has been extended numerous times. It’s currently scheduled to wrap up in 2019.
“We have the right mandate,” MacIsaac maintained. “On a personal note, I’d really like to say it’s a privilege to command Canadians deployed here … they’re doing a great job. And for the families at home, I thank them for their support and I promise to do my best to care for Canada’s warriors.”
— With files from Bryan Mullan