Canadian special forces soldiers on a “non-combat” mission in Iraq have been giving directions to fighter jets to bomb Islamic State positions and have exchanged gunfire with extremists, the military said Monday, revealing a more involved role for Canadians than previously disclosed.
While their mission to train Iraqi forces is not supposed to involve fighting, the small band of elite troops has seen frontline action, senior commanders told a briefing.
That includes calling in airstrikes by Canadian CF-18s on targets and in one dramatic incident in the last week, firing on extremists after being attacked.
At the time, the Canadians were visiting front-line positions with Iraqi forces as they planned an operation. The group came under “immediate and effective” mortar and machine-gun fire, forcing the Canadians to fire back, Brig.-Gen. Michael Rouleau, commander of the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command, told reporters.
“Using sniper fire, they neutralized both threats at some distance,” he said, adding that there were no injuries.
“This is the first time this has happened since our arrival and our reaction is wholly consistent with the inherent right of self-defence.”On 13 occasions, Canadian soldiers have also helped guide CF-18s to bomb targets, including one time when troops took a photo of two ISIL fighters with a machine-gun.
“We are enabling coalition air strikes within our area of operations,” Rouleau said.
On some strikes, the Canadians have used a laser to “designate” the target for the fighter aircraft “so that bomb hits precisely where you want it to hit,” he said.
Other times, the soldiers have provided surveillance on an enemy target to offer reassurance to senior commanders that the bombs won’t cause civilian casualties.
He denied that this marked an escalation in the involvement of Canadians in the fighting or blurred the lines on the non-combat edict.
The Conservative government dispatched 69 special forces soldiers to Iraq last fall to act as advisers to local fighters battling the Islamic State group (also known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL) with the guarantee made in Parliament that they would not engage in combat themselves.
Rouleau said special forces troops help make air strikes “faster, it’s more efficient . . . and it’s in many ways safer.”
“We’ve been very clear that our advise and assist regime was going to try and maximize the effects of Canada’s commitment.”
Rouleau, who went to Iraq last week to visit the ground troops, said the majority of training is done “kilometres” behind the front lines but said some does happen in forward positions near the action.
Rouleau said the advisers have been training Iraqi security forces on how to use mortars, become effective snipers and perform battlefield medicine. As well, a Canadian military medical team with surgeons and trauma nurses is also on the ground in northern Iraq.
Lt.-Gen. Jonathan Vance, Commander of Canadian Joint Operations Command, said that the coalition campaign which began last year has succeeded in halting the advance by Islamic State fighters but that it will take a sustained effort by Iraqi ground troops to confront extremists.
“We stopped and contained them rather quickly but the complete degradation of ISIL will likely take years,” Vance said.
“It will take a ground force of considerable size and skill to reverse this situation and remove ISIL. There is only so much you can do with air power.”
Operating from a base in Kuwait, two Royal Canadian Air Force reconnaissance aircraft, one aerial refueller and six CF-18s have flown 358 missions and the fighters have dropped bombs 28 times.
Meanwhile, the Defence Department continues to refuse to release any estimates about the cost of the mission. The department has denied a Toronto Star request under access to information laws for cost estimates prepared last October.
The six-month Canadian mission, opposed by both the Liberals and New Democrats, is due to expire in April unless extended.
Liberal MP Marc Garneau said the Liberal party will consider any motion to extend the mission but that its requests for briefings on the mission have been repeatedly rebuffed.