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.