As reported in the Ottawa Citizen - Jan. 20, 2015
Canadian special forces have been on the front lines in Iraq, targeting extremist Islamist gunmen with bombs and sniper fire, despite assurances from the Conservative government that the country's troops would not be involved in combat.
But Canadian military leaders insist what they are doing is not a combat mission and have likened it to United Nations peacekeeping operations of the 1990s.
Canadian special forces have directed 13 airstrikes against forces from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the first starting some time in November, the military confirmed Monday. In the last week, Canadian special forces snipers also "neutralized" ISIL mortar and machine-gun positions.
In September, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that up to 69 Canadian commandos would be sent to northern Iraq to train and advise forces fighting ISIL.
"This is not a combat mission and the role is clearly defined," Harper said at the time. "Canada is joining our allies in providing critical advice to forces in northern Iraq as they continue to hold back the terrorist advance."
Brig.-Gen. Mike Rouleau, commander of Canadian Special Operations Forces Command, said Monday that the use of the commandos to help select targets and direct air attacks is not a combat mission. Nor is it an escalation in the role of Canadian special forces in Iraq, he added.
"We are enabling coalition airstrikes in our area of operations," he said. "It's very much in the advise-and-assist role."
Rouleau revealed that Canadian special forces at the front lines with senior Iraqi officers recently came under mortar and machine-gun fire. Using sniper rifles, the Canadians returned fire and "neutralized" the ISIL forces, he added.
Rouleau said the Canadians acted in self-defence and it was the first time the soldiers had come under fire. He noted he still considers the level of risk to his troops low.
Lt.-Gen. Jonathan Vance, commander of Canadian Joint Operations Command, said the military was not "trying to finesse our way out of this."
There are a number of ways for coalition forces to attack targets; in this case Canadian special forces are being used, he added. But he, like Rouleau, maintained that Canadian special forces are not taking part in a combat mission.
Just before Christmas, another Canadian general also insisted that Canadians were not in combat.
Maj.-Gen. Michael Hood, the Canadian military's director of the strategic joint staff, issued a statement Dec. 22 denying a news report that Canadian special forces had engaged in sniper activity at that time. "We have been clear that this mission does not involve ground troops in a combat role," Hood said in his statement.
But on Monday, NDP defence critic Jack Harris said the new details released by the military indicate not only that Canadians are taking part in combat but that the Iraq deployment is being escalated.
"We were told all the work would be away from the front lines but obviously that is not the case," Harris said. "Now they're calling in airstrikes. What next?"
"It certainly goes beyond what the Canadian people were told would happen," he said.
Jason MacDonald, the prime minister's spokesman, said in an email that "a combat role is one in which our troops advance and themselves seek to engage the enemy physically, aggressively, and directly. That is not the case with this mission."
MacDonald said the bulk of the special forces work is taking place away from the front lines.
Rouleau said the Canadians are spending about 20 per cent of their time at the front.
Vance said the Canadian military is in the midst of preparing for the Iraq mission to be extended if the government decides to do so. But he added that if a pullout of Canadian Forces is decided, the military will also be ready for that.
There are 625 Canadian military personnel involved in the Iraq mission. Those include the 69 special forces in northern Iraq, and aircrew in Kuwait who are supporting and operating six CF-18 fighter jets, two CP-140 Aurora reconnaissance aircraft and a CC-150 Polaris in-air refuelling tanker.
The Conservative government has committed Canada to the Iraq for six months but many expect the mission will be extended.
Harper said he expects the Canadian military effort will help degrade ISIL.
Iraqi analysts say ISIL has endured months of U.S.-led airstrikes but has lost little of the territory it had seized earlier in 2014. ISIL, supported by some Iraqi-Sunni tribes upset by their treatment at the hands of the Shia-dominated Iraqi central government, had taken control of large areas of Iraq.
The situation now is seen as a stalemate by a number of security experts in Iraq.
U.S. commanders have said it will take years before Iraqi forces can retake the territory being held by ISIL.