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Killing of Qassem Soleimani could endanger Canadian troops in Middle East, experts say

Click to play video 'Mixed international reaction following killing of top Iranian military commander' Mixed international reaction following killing of top Iranian military commander
WATCH: The killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, in a targeted killing by U.S. forces has prompted a mixed international response.

The targeted killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, could lead to the withdrawal of Canadian troops from Iraq and the Middle East, according to national security experts, as the threat level in the region has escalated rapidly.

Iran has vowed to “take revenge” following a U.S. airstrike near Baghdad’s airport that killed the top Iranian general, who had been the architect of its clandestine military operations in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.

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Wait, There’s More: The aftermath of the killing of Qassem Soleimani

Canada has approximately 955 troops serving across six different operations in the Middle East, with up to 850 member serving in Operation Impact in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait and Qatar — where Canada is leading a multinational coalition fighting against the so-called Islamic State.

Of those approximately 200 members are serving under a NATO-led mission in Iraq, according to the Department of National Defence.

“The safety and security of our members are paramount and considerations for the safety of our deployed personnel and the security of military operations are at the forefront of our military planning and decision-making process,” a Department of National Defence spokesperson said in a statement.

“Specific details regarding threat assessments or force protection measures are not released for operational security reasons.”

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Operation Impact includes air operations, explosive threat training, advising to Iraqi forces and regional capacity building.

The RCMP said Friday there are currently 12 Canadian police officers in in Iraq including members from the RCMP, Sûreté du Québec, Ontario Provincial Police, Saskatoon and Halifax police.

READ MORE: Who is Qassem Soleimani? The top Iranian general killed in a U.S. airstrike

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said Friday that Canada has long been concerned by the Quds Force, “whose aggressive actions have had a destabilizing effect in the region and beyond.”

“The safety and well-being of Canadians in Iraq and the region, including our troops and diplomats, is our paramount concern,” Champagne said in a statement.

“We call on all sides to exercise restraint and pursue de-escalation,” he said. “Our goal is and remains a united and stable Iraq.”

READ MORE: Here are some of the reasons behind rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran

Experts said the targeted killing and any retaliation by Iran could set off a major regional conflict, endangering Canadian troops in Iraq and elsewhere.

“If this looks like there may be retaliation or further unrest in the region, it may no longer be a viable training mission and Canada would most likely withdraw its troops,” said Leah West, a lecturer specializing in national security issues at Carleton University.

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“The risk assessment of the mission would substantially change.”

Shuvaloy Majumdar, a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, called the killing the most significant in the so-called war on terror.

“What differentiates Soleimani is that he had the backing of an entire state apparatus that had pursued revolutionary zeal around terrorism,” he said.

READ MORE: Trump ordered airstrike that killed senior Iranian military official, says Pentagon

Majumdar, who also worked as a former aide in the Stephen Harper government, said it’s unclear exactly what form of revenge Iran could take.

“I would imagine there is a heightened level of tension to Canadian assets deployed in the region that measures are being taken,” he said. “I certainly hope that the Canadian prime minister or foreign minister, defence minister are all talking to their allies.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has yet to comment publicly on the incident.

“[The prime minister] has been closely briefed and engaged on the situation in Iraq, including speaking with Minister Champagne and Defence Minister Sajjan, the Chief of the Defence Staff, the National Security and Intelligence Advisor, and our US Ambassador among other senior officials,” said PMO spokesperson Chantal Gagnon in a statement.
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NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh appeared to condemn the U.S. airstrike.

“The U.S.’s actions in Iran [sic] have brought us closer to another disastrous war in the Middle East,” he said in a statement on Twitter.

“The prime minister needs to act quickly with other countries to de-escalate the situation and not be drawn into the path that President Trump is taking.”

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, meets family of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in the U.S. airstrike in Iraq, at his home in Tehran, Iran, Friday, Jan. 3, 2020 in this picture released by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, meets family of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in the U.S. airstrike in Iraq, at his home in Tehran, Iran, Friday, Jan. 3, 2020 in this picture released by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP).

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that “harsh retaliation is waiting” for the U.S. and declared three days of public mourning. He appointed Brig.-Gen. Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani’s deputy, to replace him as head of the Quds Force.

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“With no doubt, Iran and other freedom-seeking countries in the region will take his revenge,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said following news of the killing.

University of Ottawa Prof. Thomas Juneau, a Middle East expert and former Department of National Defence analyst, said via Twitter that pro-Iran militias in Iraq have traditionally distinguished U.S. forces from other western forces.

That could change following Soleimani’s death, he added.

“Canadian troops in Iraq are in for a rough ride.

“With the chaos for the next few hours and days, that assumption will come under severe stress,” he said.

The U.S. military confirmed Thursday that the strike was ordered by President Donald Trump, who blamed the general for the deaths of hundreds of Americans and their allies in attacks in recent months.

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“Gen. Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,” the Pentagon said in a statement, calling the strike a “decisive defensive” action.

The Pentagon blamed Soleimani and his Quds Force for attacks on coalition bases in Iraq, including the Dec. 27 rocket attack that killed an American contractor and the Dec. 31 U.S. embassy attack in Baghdad.

Roughly 5,200 American troops are based in Iraq, where they mostly train Iraqi forces in the fight against ISIS militants. On Friday, the U.S. announced it’s sending nearly 3,000 more troops to the Mideast.

The Quds Force is the clandestine branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) responsible for extraterritorial operations, including facilitating terrorist operations.

The IRGC Quds Force is listed by Public Safety Canada as a terrorist entity that provides arms, funding and paramilitary training to extremist groups, including the Taliban, Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC).

The U.S. has urged American citizens to leave Iraq “immediately,” and the State Department said the embassy in Baghdad is closed and all consular services have been suspended.

NATO said Friday it was monitoring the situation in Iraq closely with an eye for the safety of its training mission following the death of the Iranian general.

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“We remain in close and regular contact with the US authorities,” spokesman Dylan White told Global News. “At the request of the Iraqi government, NATO’s training mission in the country is helping to strengthen the Iraqi forces and prevent the return of ISIS,” he said.

— With files from Global News’ David Akin