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Chief of Defence staff General Jonathan Vance speaks during a news conference in Ottawa on Aug. 30, 2016. (FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Chief of Defence staff General Jonathan Vance speaks during a news conference in Ottawa on Aug. 30, 2016. (FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Canadian troops have fired first at Islamic State, top soldier says Add to ...

The country’s top soldier says that Canadian troops have shot first at Islamic State forces in Iraq, reopening the question of whether the military is engaged in a combat mission against the terror group.

While government and military officials have said Canadian Forces are allowed to fire in defence in Iraq, General Jonathan Vance, chief of the defence staff, made it clear Tuesday that troops have fired first at the Islamic State. However, he said this does not mean the mission is turning from a “train, advise and assist” role into a combat one.

“The use of force by our soldiers on this operation ... has only been used in a defensive mode to ensure that our partners were not subject to an attack that they couldn’t deal with,” Gen. Vance told the House of Commons defence committee.

“If you are suggesting that our forces have been manoeuvring so as to provide offensive fire, thereby taking the fight to the enemy, then you are wrong.”

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Gen. Vance insisted Canadian troops have always been allowed to fire first in the fight against the Islamic State – something he says he has made clear throughout the mission.

“I’ve said this publicly. We do not have to be shot at first to defend ourselves,” Gen. Vance said. “I don’t think that any Canadian that’s listening out there would think that we need to be shot first before we can take defensive actions.”

For instance, Gen. Vance said that Canadian Forces would shoot first if Kurdish forces do not have the ability to defend themselves against suicide bombers, in order to protect themselves and their partners. He said he is confident Canadian troops are still operating within the parameters of the mission mandate outlined by the Liberal government.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan echoed Gen. Vance’s comments Tuesday, saying Canadian troops need to be able to defend themselves, their partners and civilians.

“When it comes to self-defence and the rules of engagement, you do not have to wait to be shot at first,” Mr. Sajjan told reporters. “The last thing you want to be able to do is put a restriction like that onto our troops.”

Last year, the Liberals campaigned on the promise to end Canada’s combat mission in Iraq. Although the government withdrew Canada’s six CF-18 fighter jets from the U.S.-led coalition in February, it ramped up the training mission by increasing the number of troops on the ground to more than 200 from 69. Canadian troops were first deployed to Iraq in October, 2014, under the previous Conservative government.

The federal government continues to insist Canada’s involvement in the coalition against the Islamic State is not a combat mission. However, the opposition parties disagree.

“The Liberal government ... continues to mislead Canadians by insisting that we are in a non-combat role,” Conservative defence critic James Bezan said during Question Period Tuesday. “Will the defence minister finally be honest, acknowledge that our troops are in combat, and apologize for misleading Canadians?”

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said outside the House of Commons that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government have to stop “beating around the bush” and call the Iraq mission what it is.

“Mr. Trudeau promised word for word in his program to put an end to Canada’s involvement in the combat mission in Iraq. He has not done that. This is a combat mission. When you have soldiers on the front line firing first, you’re in a combat mission.”

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