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Canada Canada no longer training Kurdish troops in Iraq amid fight against Islamic State, defence chief says

A Canadian soldier directs Kurdish soldiers training near Erbil in northern Iraq in 2015.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Canada is no longer training Kurdish troops in Iraq, the Canadian military’s top soldier says.

General Jon Vance’s comments clear up confusion regarding the fate of what was once Canada’s central role in the fight against Islamic State militants.

Last October, Canada suspended assistance to peshmerga fighters from the semi-autonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan as well as to Iraqi government forces amid escalating fighting between both parties.

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The conflict last fall was over control of northern Iraq after most of Iraq’s territory had been wrested back from the Islamic State.

On Thursday, Gen. Vance, the Chief of Canada’s Defence Staff, told reporters that Canada is now committed to training only Iraqi government forces.

“Training with the peshmerga was ceased when it was no longer of any value in terms of the battle against Daesh,” Gen. Vance explained on Thursday outside a Canadian Global Affairs Institute conference in Ottawa. Daesh is another term for Islamic State militants.

“We have changed … partners,” the top soldier said.

A representative in Washington of the Kurdistan Regional Government said the Kurds would decline comment on the matter for now.

Gen. Vance said Canada was continuing its advise-and-assist military mission by helping Iraqi government forces ensure the northern Iraqi city of Mosul was completely secure.

Mosul was retaken from Islamic State militants in the summer of 2017, but the city is not entirely secure. Gen. Vance said there are Islamic State sympathizers there.

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“They are not actively conducting operations but they could,” he said.

“We are still deeply involved in helping set conditions for the successful return of the population to Mosul.”

For nearly three years, Canadian special forces provided military assistance to the Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq. It was valuable aid to some of the most effective opponents of the Islamic State, the jihadis who swept through Iraq in 2014 and threatened its future.

But this Canadian aid also sharpened peshmerga fighting skills that could one day be turned against Baghdad if the Kurdish pursuit of independence ever turned violence.

A failed bid for independence following a Kurdish referendum last year has left significant bad blood between the Kurdistan regional government and Iraq’s leaders in Baghdad.

In 2014, it was the Kurdish region in northern Iraq that served as the chief bulwark against the spread of Islamic State militants. The Iraqi government forces at that time were in disarray with mass desertions.

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The Kurds prevented the jihadis from taking their unofficial capital of Erbil with the battle coming as close as 40 kilometres to the city.

The Kurds played a central role in helping arrest the advance of the Islamic State jihadis and driving them from Iraq. Other Western powers also offered the Kurds training and strategic advice during this period.

Stephen Saideman, a Carleton University political scientist, said it would be very difficult for Canada to continue training the Kurds.

“During the high point of ISIS as a threat, we put all our chips behind the Kurds because they were in the best position to fight and the most willing to fight.

“But if we’re training them now, we’re training a separatist movement,” said Prof. Saideman, the Paterson Chair in International Affairs.

He said the best way to build a stable Iraq − to prevent the return of Islamic State militants − is to help Baghdad defend itself.

Prof. Saideman said however it’s important that Canada ensure it’s not training elements of Iraq that want to engage in sectarian violence. “We will need to monitor the situation very closely and find out if the people we are training are becoming death squads, or were death squads. [In that case], we would need to get out of business.”

The military does not disclose how many Canadian special forces are currently in Iraq but the number is somewhere below a cap of 200 people.

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