OTTAWA – Canadian troops risk being caught in the middle of escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iraq, even as the six-year-old fight against the Islamic State group morphs into a geopolitical struggle between Washington and Iran.
The past week has seen a series of rocket attacks by Iranian-backed militias targeting U.S. diplomatic and military facilities. That includes an attack Wednesday against a base in Iraq’s Kurdistan region that is home to American troops and an undisclosed number of Canadian special forces soldiers.
U.S. military officials initially reported that the rockets fired at the coalition base next to Erbil’s main airport did not reach the facility, but later reports suggested several landed inside the compound. The Department of National Defence says no Canadian Armed Forces personnel were hurt.
“The recent attacks on a military base in Erbil did not affect coalition forces,” Defence Department spokeswoman Jessica Lamirande said in a statement.
“All CAF members are safe and accounted for and we continue to monitor the situation closely with our allies and partners in the region.”
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan on Thursday voiced his continued support for the Iraq mission, adding: “We are aware of the recent events in Iraq and we are watching for security threats very closely.”
Kurdish authorities quickly blamed the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group composed of mostly Iran-backed Shiite militias that are part of Iraq’s security forces. In response, the PMF released a statement saying it was investigating the incident, according to Kurdish news service Rudaw.
The rocket strike in Erbil came as Canada’s ambassador to Iraq and counterparts from more than a dozen other countries met with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi to raise concerns about several other attacks on diplomatic missions in the country that have also been attributed to militias loyal to Iran.
“We expressed our deep concern at the rise in the number and sophistication of attacks against diplomatic premises in Iraq, including rocket and (improvised explosive device) attacks,” the envoys said in a joint statement released after the meeting and posted online by Ulric Shannon, Canada’s ambassador to Iraq.
“We noted that these attacks endanger not only foreign embassies but also Iraqis, as evidenced by the tragic death of a family near Baghdad International Airport following a rocket strike on Monday.”
The Iraqi military says two women and three children were killed when an armed group fired a rocket at the airport, where U.S. troops are stationed. Authorities have blamed the Iranian-backed militias, which were first formed in 2014 as the world rushed to stop the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
After that attack, U.S. media reported that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had threatened to close the American embassy in Baghdad unless the Iraqi government took action. Al-Kadhimi condemned the attacks, saying they threatened Iraq as a whole, and promised to hold the perpetrators to account.
While closing the U.S. embassy would have major ramifications for Canada and other allies in Iraq, many observers see Pompeo’s threat as bluster.
They also question how much power the Iraqi government has to crack down on the militias given what is widely considered as Iran’s outsized influenced in Iraq, both in terms of its links to the paramilitary groups and members of the Iraqi government.
“The big challenge is still Iranian interference,” said Bessma Momani, an expert on the Middle East at the University of Waterloo.
“They’re really testing the current government and prime minister, to be exact. He’s really tried to stand firm and be strong but he’s between a rock and a hard place.”
Canada first deployed forces to Iraq in October 2014 as ISIL was overrunning swaths of territory. The mission has since evolved several times as the situation in the region has changed, with the latest evolution leaving only about 170 troops on the ground from a high of 600 in recent years.
Canada’s main goal has ostensibly remained the same throughout, namely defeating ISIL and ensuring it doesn’t regroup. The world was given a reminder that ISIL is not down and out earlier this week when a U.S. airstrike struck a suspected Islamic State position in the area of Kirkuk.
The U.S. has been steadily withdrawing troops from Iraq, with the Trump administration announcing earlier this month plans to cut the number of American troops in the country in half to 3,000.
While Canada’s military mission in Iraq is currently set to expire in March, Momani believes it would be a mistake to end it then, saying ISIL remains a threat both there and in neighbouring Syria.
“But let’s be frank, it’s not just about (ISIL),” she added. “It’s about Iranian expansion into Iraq. It’s about Iranian expansion into other parts of the Middle East.”
As a result, she said, Canadian troops could easily be targeted again unless the militia groups are reined in and tensions in Iraq are somehow eased.
“We have to be on high alert more than ever because the fact it’s the site of potential proxy conflict between the Americans and the Iranians just shows we’re going to be stuck in it,” she said.
“At the end of the day, like it or not, even though we’ve tried to position ourselves as being different from the Americans, we are seen as the same. So we are vulnerable.”