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A CF-18 sits loaded for flight at Camp Fortin on the Trapani-Birgi Air Force Base in Trapani, Italy, on Thursday, September 1, 2011. Conservative MPs in the House of Commons have approved a motion to join the war in Iraq, clearing the way for Canadian CF-18s to take part in airstrikes in the Middle East. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The Canadian Press

The final detail has fallen into place for Canada's combat mission in Iraq after Kuwait agreed to allow Canadian warplanes to operate from a base in the Gulf State.

Canadian CF-18 fighters should be in a position to begin air strikes against Islamic State fighters within weeks, dropping laser-guided bombs on jihadi forces as part of a U.S-led coalition of countries.

The Canadian government and military have yet to provide briefings on the mission that might explain Canada's place in the chain of command of the U.S.-led coalition of more than 60 countries that is fighting the Islamic State – or whether Canadians will have any say on their bombing targets.

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General Tom Lawson, Canada's Chief of the Defence Staff, will attend meetings of coalition military commanders in Washington next week. It is expected that officials at the meetings, hosted by U.S. Joint Chief of Staff General Martin Dempsey, will hash out details of a follow-up ground campaign to dig Islamic State fighters out of the territory they have captured in northern Iraq.

Debate about the mission now turns to what precautions Canadian forces will be able to take to minimize civilian casualties from air strikes and how Ottawa can avoid being drawn deeper into the largest combat mission since the war in Afghanistan.

Canada's participation is officially scheduled to end in six months – early April, 2015 – but experts are skeptical the military involvement for Canadian Armed Forces in the region will end at that time.

"This operation, I'd expect, would go on for years," said Roland Paris, director of the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa.

"The goals that the U.S. has set for itself in Iraq and Syria will likely take years to accomplish. In principle, Canada could remove its combat forces at any time. But in practice, once you're in, it can be politically difficult to withdraw. And we're in."

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson announced on Thursday that Kuwait had given permission for Canada to use its facilities for air strikes. Meanwhile, New Democrats criticized the Conservatives for cutting short Commons debate on the mission even though the military will not be ready to start fighting for weeks. The Conservatives used their majority to pass a motion this week endorsing air strikes over the objections of both the Official Opposition, led by the NDP's Thomas Mulcair, and the Liberals.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper defended his decision in Whitby, Ont., on Thursday, saying an international consensus that spans the political spectrum exists on the need for military action.

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"Across the world, it isn't just conservatives; it's liberals and social democrats … that have understood that this is a threat that needs to be countered, and needs to be countered in many ways, including militarily," Mr. Harper said.

"I think it's important when we are talking about the country's security that these things rise above the level of partisan politics."

Mr. Paris said he believes the purpose of the air strikes is to buy time for the United States to organize local forces so they can confront the extremists themselves. This could take months or perhaps a year or longer, he said.

"The odds are this situation on the ground six months from now is going to look pretty much like it does now and [the Islamic State] will remain entrenched where it is until there is a ground force that is capable of expelling it from the Sunni heartland," he said.

The Parliamentary motion endorsing the mission ruled out a ground combat role, but nearly 70 of Canada's special forces soldiers are in Iraq advising local fighters. Hundreds of U.S. soldiers are also serving as advisers.

Mr. Paris said U.S. President Barack Obama could one day give in to pressure to assign U.S. military advisers a more "front-line" role in guiding Iraqi forces, and that Mr. Harper should rule out Canadian advisers taking part in tactical missions or assuming front-line roles.

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The risk remains that "we drift our way into a ground combat role," he said.

The NDP this week raised concerns about the measures Ottawa is putting in place to prevent civilians from being killed in bombing raids. Local populations in Afghanistan turned against foreign intervention partly because some NATO force air strikes killed innocent people.

Mr. Mulcair cited U.S. news reports saying the United States is lowering standards for selecting targets for air strikes in Iraq and Syria and abandoning "near certainty of no civilian casualty" standard that had been instituted in recent years.

Mr. Nicholson's spokeswoman Johanna Quinney said only that "the men and women in the [Royal Canadian Air Force] are well-trained on the use of force and always conduct themselves in a manner that minimizes the potential for unintended harm to civilians."

With reports from Canadian Press and Adrian Morrow

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