Canadian special-forces soldiers are treading carefully in Iraq following an Iranian missile attack against their main base last month and what their commander describes as a sensitive and complex relationship with the Iraqi central government in Baghdad.
Despite the circumstances, Maj.-Gen. Peter Dawe, commander of Canadian Special Operations Forces Command, says his troops continue to focus on their primary mission: Preventing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant from re-emerging as a major threat.
“The situation in Iraq and our relationship with the Iraqi government is sensitive and it’s complex and we’re obviously making sure we engage with the Iraqi government very deliberately to ensure that everything we do is perfect aligned with them,” Dawe said in an interview.
“But fundamentally, the mission to defeat (ISIL) has not changed. It is as valid as ever and to that end, the coalition special-operations forces deployed in theatre, including the Canadian special-operations contingent, is resuming operations with our Iraqi security-force partners.”
The Iranian missile attack was launched Jan. 8 against two coalition bases in Iraq, including one near the northern city of Irbil that Canadian special forces have used as their main staging area for years.
It came in retaliation for the U.S. having killed Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani, in a drone strike at the Baghdad airport. Shortly before the Iranian missile attack, all Canadian troops had been ordered to suspend their activities and hunker down.
There were no Canadian Armed Forces casualties stemming from the Iranian missile attack, nor did it pose an imminent threat, Dawe told The Canadian Press.
Canadian special forces resumed operations a short time later.
Yet the killing of Soleimani also prompted anger within Iraq, with the country’s Shia-dominated parliament passing a resolution calling for all foreign troops to leave the country. The resolution was supported by outgoing prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi.
Those public calls have since simmered down and the political attention in Baghdad has largely focused on establishing a new government. But there are reports the Iraqi government has told its military not to seek assistance from the U.S.-led coalition in anti-ISIL operations.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has said Canada will honour any formal request from the Iraqi government to leave.
The Canadian military will not say how many special-forces soldiers are in Iraq, but it is authorized to deploy up to 200 to help fight ISIL. Canada has had special forces in Iraq since October 2014, when the extremist group first took control of large swaths of Iraq and Syria.
The special-forces troops operate independent of the NATO training mission that Canada is leading in the south of Iraq, through which about 250 conventional Canadian troops are helping train Iraqi forces in the basics of soldiering.
The Canadian special forces are instead part of the U.S.-led coalition whose mission is to keep ISIL under pressure while the Iraqi government and international community establish the conditions for peace and prosperity across the country, thereby eliminating the group’s appeal.
Canadian special forces have been largely operating around the northern city of Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh area, Dawe said, helping Iraqi forces plan and execute missions against ISIL, also known as Daesh.
“What we are concerned about as a coalition is ensuring that Daesh doesn’t enjoy too much freedom in terms of re-establishing logistical nodes and in other ways being able to posture itself for a resumption of significant operations should the situation lend itself to that,” he said.
Canadian special-forces soldiers were originally involved in liberating Mosul and the surrounding area from ISIL’s control in 2016 and 2017. They also previously monitored the border with Syria for ISIL forces trying to sneak into Iraq.
Dawe would not reveal whether Canadian troops were watching the border now, “but suffice to say that clearly the Syrian border is an area of concern.” The same is true for Mosul, which suffered heavily during the fight to liberate it, and the less-governed areas west of the city, he said.
He also said there has been “tangible progress” in rebuilding Mosul and making Iraqi forces more self-reliant and better able to fight ISIL on their own, although there are ongoing challenges weaning them off the coalition’s high-tech intelligence and command-and-control equipment.
The U.S. Defense Department’s Office of the Inspector General warned in November that Iraqi security forces continue to rely heavily on American and other allies when taking the fight to ISIL.