Canadian special forces are preparing to work with the Iraqi military to secure the war-ravaged city of Mosul, where Vance said ISIL remains a threat even as thousands of displaced families return home.
Yet before that can happen, the Iraqis need to form a new government – which has proven difficult following elections last month – and indicate whether it still wants international forces operating in the country.
“There are a number of factors affecting mission planning for Iraq as we go forward,” Vance said after an event organized by the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
“The government of Iraq needs to form a government and signal its intent as it relates to future military operations by coalition or on a bilateral basis in Iraq. So that’s Job 1.”
Canadian troops have been largely on the sidelines in Iraq since October, when Canada suspended all assistance to the Iraqi military and Kurdish peshmerga when the two clashed over the latter’s independence referendum.
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Up until that point, Canadian special forces had worked almost exclusively alongside the Kurds for more than three years to first stop ISIL’s advance across northern Iraq and then to dislodge it from the region.
Since the suspension of assistance, ISIL has lost control of the last of its territory in Iraq and turned to traditional insurgency tactics such as suicide bombings, while tensions between the Iraqis and Kurds have also cooled.
But friction between the country’s various political parties, none of whom secured enough votes for a majority government, have raised concerns about renewed divisions along religious and ethnic lines.
The Canadian Forces have been conducting reconnaissance and other preparatory work to get ready for the launch of the next phase of their mission in Iraq, Vance said, with a specific focus on helping families return to Mosul.
The country’s second-largest city was held by ISIL for three years, until Iraqi forces – with help from Canada and other international partners – were able to liberate it from the extremist group following nearly a year of bloody fighting.
Hundreds of thousands of people fled the city ahead of its capture by ISIL and during its liberation, and Vance indicated Canadian troops will help Iraqi forces make it more secure so families can return.
“It needs to be secure and there’s still remnants of ISIL there,” he said.
“They’re not actively conducting operations, but they could. So, trying to ensure successful security conditions in Mosul so that people have the confidence to return home is also what we’re looking at.”
Vance also confirmed that Canada has officially ceased operations with the Kurds after years of working alongside the peshmerga in the north of the country, and that it intends to partner exclusively with the Iraqi military.
The military’s current mandate in Iraq is set to expire in March.