Canadian special forces soldiers are providing military training to Kurdish peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq with the expectation that the Kurds will participate in the planned retaking of Mosul, sources say.
The death of a Canadian soldier in Iraq on March 6 has placed this country's six-month-old training mission there under greater scrutiny, particularly as the Harper government appears to be preparing to ask the Commons to vote on an extension of Canada's military deployment to fight Islamic State extremists.
Sergeant Andrew Doiron's body arrived at CFB Trenton Tuesday and was transported to the military coroner in Toronto along Ontario's Highway 401, a stretch of road that became known as the Highway of Heroes during Canada's involvement in the Afghanistan war.
The debate over what led to the soldier's death at least temporarily divided the Kurds and the Canadians this week, with Ottawa saying Sgt. Doiron died at the hands of their allies in a friendly fire incident, but a Kurdish commander blaming Canada's soldiers for triggering the gunfire.
On Tuesday, however, a senior Kurdish official tried to heal the relationship, taking to the airwaves to apologize for the comments.
"It would not be wise to immediately release a kind of statement and … throwing the blame on the other side. This was a friendly fire. It happened. We did not like that to happen. You did not like that to happen. But unfortunately it happened. Therefore, we need to work together, both sides … we will investigate into the case," Falah Mustafa Bakir, the head of the Foreign Relations Department for the Kurdistan Regional Government, told CBC TV.
Mr. Bakir urged Canada to extend its military mission in Iraq, saying the Kurds need all the help they can get. "This a tough time. We are … fighting the terrorists of ISIS on the front line, which is 1,050 kilometres long."
Canada's contribution to the fight against Islamic State militants includes six CF-18 jet fighters launching air strikes against the jihadis and nearly 70 special forces troops operating in the vicinity of Erbil, Iraq.
As the Kurds and other Iraqi forces focus on beating back Islamic State fighters and reclaiming territory, the ultimate goal includes taking Mosul, the largest city under control of the Islamic State . The timetable for Mosul is unclear and speculation has ranged from this spring to the summer or fall.
The Canadian military is tight-lipped about much of what its special forces are doing in Iraq, but is adamant that it's not training an assault force expressly for the purpose of assaulting Mosul. Rather, as one source says, the advice and general military training is being supplied to the peshmerga to help them reclaim territory and with the "general expectation that Kurds will participate in eventual counteroffensive to retake Mosul."
The Canadian government has been laying the groundwork for an extension of the Iraq mission, and a vote is expected by early April.
The special forces mission in Iraq was supposed to be a relatively low-risk training and advisory deployment, but now includes calling down air strikes and spending significant time near the front lines of the battle.
On Tuesday, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair pressed Prime Minister Stephen Harper to admit that Sgt. Doiron's death was in fact a combat death, even though the parliamentary motion that endorsed the mission last fall said the special forces would not be in combat.
"When soldiers are so close to the front line that they are being shot at by their allies it is because they are being mistaken for the enemy, it is because they are on the front line, it is because they are in combat," he said.
Mr. Harper said the soldiers in Iraq are still doing exactly what they were mandated to do from the start.