Stephen Harper is defending Kurdish fighters as questions persist over the death of a Canadian Armed Forces soldier in Iraq, saying the tragic "friendly fire" shooting of Sergeant Andrew Doiron by peshmerga militia shouldn't overshadow the impressive job they're doing to push back Islamic State militants.
Mr. Harper made the remarks Saturday afternoon in northern Iraq during a visit under heavy security that took him within six kilometres of Islamic State fighter positions.
He was asked about the March 6 accidental shooting of Sgt. Doiron, when peshmerga fighters apparently mistook approaching Canadian soldiers for the enemy. Two months later, the military has yet to make public the findings of investigations into the mishap.
Mr. Harper said he hasn't seen the reports yet.
"Look, this was a terrible tragedy – we will get the facts – but let it not obscure, frankly, the respect I think we should have for the Kurdish fighters in this area," the prime minister told reporters.
"Back last summer when [Islamic State] was literally overrunning this entire country with virtually no resistance at all, these were the people who stood up and resisted them and stopped them in this area," Mr. Harper said of the Kurds.
Mr. Harper said he's been worried since the Canadian Special Forces soldier died about the impact on relations between the Kurds and the Canadian Armed Forces.
"One of my first concerns since the death of Sgt. Doiron has been not just the morale of our troops but the relationship between our people here and the peshmerga we were working with because this goes to the heart of the mission of our forces in this area," Mr. Harper said.
He said he believes relations have remained strong since, taking another opportunity to praise how the Kurds drove back Islamic State in parts of northern Iraq.
"They didn't do that with any of the training they're getting today or with a lot of the equipment they are getting today. They did it because they had to," the prime minister said.
As part of a surprise trip to Iraq this weekend the prime minister journeyed to the region where nearly 70 Canadian Special Forces soldiers are assisting the Kurds in the fight against the jihadist group that still controls about a third of Iraqi territory.
He met with peshmerga and Canadian soldiers in what's known as Sector 7.1 to receive a briefing on the war and to watch the Kurds demonstrate skills and equipment they've received courtesy of Canada.
The meeting took place about 40 kilometres west of Erbil, a bustling metropolis in Kurdish Iraq.
Thick black smoke rose in the distance behind Mr. Harper, the result of fires the Canadian military said were started by Islamic State fighters to make it harder for the U.S.-led coalition to launch precise airstrikes in the area. Coalition aircraft patrolled overhead during the prime minister's visit.
Only five months ago, the area Mr. Harper stood on was held by the Islamic State as part of the swath of destruction it carved across Syria and Iraq.
Also present at the event with Mr. Harper was Farhang Afandi, an interpreter working on contract for the Canadian Armed Forces who was raised in Canada and is also the son of Hamid Afandi, a former Minister of peshmerga Affairs and the current commander of 10,000 men defending district 7.2 of the Kurdish front line outside Erbil.
Several weeks ago Mr. Afandi blocked Globe and Mail reporter Mark MacKinnon from travelling to the area where Sgt. Doiron was killed, overruling permissions granted by the office of Kurdish president Masoud Barzani and the Ministry of peshmerga Affairs.
The Canadian Department of Defence has denied any role in turning back the Globe and Mail and on Saturday Mr. Afandi was in no mood to discuss what happened.
"I was just the messenger," he told the Globe Saturday of the decision to block Mr. MacKinnon.
Mr. Afandi was overheard complaining to a Prime Minister's Office official about media coverage that ensued from his encounter with The Globe and Mail.
The peshmerga being advised by Canadians are responsible for a 55-kilometre stretch of the battle lines with Islamic State extremists and the Kurds have managed to push back their enemies by about six kilometres over the last half year.
Mr. Harper arrived in Iraq about 7:00 am Saturday morning, Baghdad time, travelling in a Canadian C-17 heavy lift military aircraft and protected by heavy security.
The prime minister's trip had been under a media blackout, for security reasons, until after early Saturday meetings in Baghdad, His first order of business was a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose unity government is trying to overcome deep-seated divisions between Sunnis, Shias and Kurds as it fights to reclaim Iraq from Islamic State forces.
Later he traveled to Erbil in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
Mr. Harper announced $139-million in additional humanitarian aid for refugees affected by the conflict in Iraq and Syria, where Islamic State seized large portions of land in 2014.
He also unveiled nearly $2-million in security aid including six bomb disposal robots and 200 night vision goggles.
He also pledged more than $26-million in development and stabilization initiatives for Iraq to rebuild infrastructure, education, health, child protection and fund investigations of human rights violations.
The visit is politically important for Mr. Harper, who has committed Canada to 18 months of war in Iraq and Syria over the objections of his major political rivals, Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau.
In late March the prime minister used his Parliamentary majority to extend the mission until March 2016. This deployment includes Canadian fighter jets bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria as well as nearly 70 Special Forces soldiers acting as military advisers to Kurdish fighters in the north.
The mission will cost taxpayers more than half a billion dollars by early next year.
Mr. Harper, who will likely use footage or photos of this trip in the expected fall election campaign, is trying to frame himself as a strong leader who's not afraid to send Canadians into combat when circumstances warrant.
In Baghdad, he helicoptered partway to the meeting with Mr. Abadi at the Presidential Palace, switching to a vehicle at the diplomatic helipad in the city's Green Zone.
The Iraqi capital remains extremely dangerous for westerners and locals as the Baghdad government fights to take back its country. There's been a spike in bombings recently, according to local media reports and the Canadian prime minister's stop here was handled as if he were visiting a war zone.
Roads were closed off and Iraqi troops with red berets and submachine guns stood one every half block.
The Canadian delegation piled into a large white van that appeared to be armoured. The media traveled in a white Mercedes van with embedded cell phone jammers to prevent bomb attacks.
The honour guard was composed of the Iraq army, navy and air force.
A huge red carpet snaked outside of the palace that once belonged to Saddam Hussein and was headquarters to the U.S. Authority during the occupation.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi greeted the prime minister at his car and they stood underneath a wooden gazebo while both national anthems played. Mr. Harper met with Mr. Abadi in a separate whitewashed siting room trimmed with dark wood and crystal chandeliers. Defence Minister Jason Kenney accompanied him.
The two leaders discussed Canada's military contribution to the coalition of more than 60 countries fighting Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria as well as the local security situation, the Prime Minister's Office said.
General Tom Lawson, the Chief of the Defence Staff in Canada, boasted of Canadian efforts in northern Iraq to upgrade the combat skills of Kurdish peshmerga fighters.
"What has happened is the pesh is no longer a soft target," he said.
"No one doubts their fighting spirit. [But] they needed the training, the professionalism."
Gen. Lawson said Islamic State fighters '"have not found success in forays against these guys."
Iraq's biggest victory so far in the fight against the extremist group is recapturing the relatively small northern city of Tikrit. The Baghdad government and its allies are now debating whether to begin an advance towards Mosul, the biggest city under Islamic State control or attack the group's fortifications in western Anbar province.