Stephen Harper has told Conservative MPs that Canada should participate in the international fight against Islamic State militants as he prepares to detail for Canadians on Friday the next phase of this country's military involvement in Iraq.
Mr. Harper made the case behind closed doors at the weekly Tory caucus meeting on Parliament Hill on Wednesday, delivering a statement to MPs on the threat posed by the extremist Islamic State and why Canada must throw its weight behind the military mission in the Mideast.
Sources say the Prime Minister will announce Canada's plans for Iraq on Friday, including whether to extend a 30-day non-combat deployment of military advisers to the region, where extremist Islamists have cut a path of destruction across parts of Syria and Iraq.
Cabinet this week debated a request from the United States for Ottawa to play a combat role in Iraq by supporting air strikes against Islamic State forces. This could include deploying CF-18 fighters, refuelling tankers or even surveillance aircraft to the theatre of war.
Mr. Harper did not outline military options in his discussion with Conservative MPs, a source familiar with the discussion said. Instead he asked for feedback.
While the government remains mum on whether Canada will launch an air combat mission in Iraq, it's expected to beef up its military role in some fashion.
A government source said a vote on a new deployment would take place early next week if needed. It would easily pass given the Conservative majority but the Tories want Liberal Party support for any Canadian participation in the war, the sort of political cover that ensures they're not alone in the fight.
The Prime Minister has moved relatively slowly in considering a response to the U.S. request for help in launching aerial attacks against Islamic State targets. It has been a week since the U.K. Parliament voted Sept. 26 to launch air strikes and Belgium and Denmark answered the Americans' call for planes to support the fight.
The Liberals, after voicing opposition to air strikes last week, are not closing the door to endorsing a combat mission if the Conservatives put up a concrete proposal for debate. "What has become clear is that the Prime Minister is intent on sending Canada into war in Iraq and it's up to him to make a case for it," Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said Wednesday.
Mr. Trudeau said he doesn't feel Canadian public opinion is divided on what to do about the Islamic State.
"I feel that the public is trying to understand what is going on," Mr. Trudeau said. "Canadians are worried across the country, but for now, we can't form an opinion because the Prime Minister is not telling us on what it will be based."
In a surprising turn, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird revealed the number of Canada's special forces troops taking part in the Iraq military advisory mission is far below the figure the Conservatives had said were expected to deploy.
Only 26 elite soldiers are now operating in Iraq. The government had earlier informed the Commons that up to 69 special forces troops would be sent.
Mr. Harper explained Ottawa authorized up to 69 to be deployed on an as-required basis but there was a need for only 26.
While the NDP is not officially opposed to an expanded military mission, Leader Thomas Mulcair distanced himself from what he called "the Prime Minister's war in Iraq," saying the focus should be on providing humanitarian assistance.
"This is not a UN mission, so we have to be extremely careful before we start listening to the siren songs of those who would propel us full-force into a war," he told reporters.
Conservative MPs emerged from a caucus meeting offering a clear support for the expansion of Canada's mission.
"Certainly I think it's safe to say we're pretty united on this issue," said Conservative MP Laurie Hawn, a former fighter pilot. "I'm biased, but I think [participating in air strikes] is a thing we can do very, very effectively. We've done it before in Libya, Kosovo, [the first] Gulf War."
Still, Mr. Hawn said he feels ground troops should come from neighbouring countries, and not the Canadian Forces.
Conservative MP Erin O'Toole, a former officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force, added that "air strikes is one option that's being heavily considered."
"I think there's unanimity [in caucus] in making sure Canada's part of the international coalition in some way," he said, adding he expects the vote will come to the House of Commons next week.
Heritage Minister Shelly Glover said there is no doubt in her mind that Canada has to participate in the coalition against Islamic State.
"These are people who are violent and brutal and they have decapitated journalists, they have raped and brutalized women. That is all we need to know to know we need to stand up to them. This cannot be allowed to continue," she said.
With reports from Josh Wingrove