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Defence Minister Rob Nicholson.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Canada's special forces soldiers will continue to direct air strikes and train Kurdish fighters near the front lines in Iraq even though the opposition charges that the Prime Minister misled Canadians about the true extent of the ground mission.

While the deployment was designed to avoid ground combat, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson said Canadian soldiers will keep up with ongoing tasks and defend themselves whenever necessary.

"We've been very clear from the start that we were there to advise and assist the Iraqis, and we've been very clear we'd be participating in air strikes," Mr. Nicholson told The Globe and Mail in an interview.

The government says Kurdish forces do not have the technical know-how and skill to direct air strikes by coalition jets, including Canadian CF-18s.

"They currently don't have the means nor the capacity, quite frankly, to conduct target designation," Mr. Nicholson said.

He said Canada will continue to train peshmerga fighters near the front lines "where necessary" and if that draws fire, Canadians will respond in kind. The military says about 20 per cent of training is conducted near front lines.

"If you fire on Canadian forces, they will fire back. It's an act of self-defence, and I think Canadians expect that of our armed forces," Mr. Nicholson said.

In a news conference at a daycare centre in Toronto on Tuesday, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said the actual role of the special forces does not square with what Stephen Harper said when the mission was up for debate and a vote last fall.

"Mr. Harper cannot get away with telling Canadians 'there will be no combat by our troops,' and then try to explain away the fact they are, of course, involved in combat," Mr. Mulcair said. "He was asked those specific questions by me in September, and he told Canadians they would not be involved in combat. He did not tell the truth."

At a caucus meeting in London, Ont., Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said the troops have the right to defend themselves. However, he added that Mr. Harper will have to explain why the mission has changed in recent months.

"The Prime Minister established parameters for the mission that he laid out with great assurance before the House of Commons, and as we found out yesterday, have not been respected," Mr. Trudeau said. "The Prime Minister made statements in the fall around this mission that turn out, today, to not have been entirely truthful and therefore, the Prime Minister has very serious questions to answer."

He said the latest developments show that, in his view, "troops have participated in ground combat."

As recently as October, Canada's top military commander said special forces soldiers would not guide air strikes in Iraq, a role that was not part of their assignment.

"I should be very clear, our special forces are a contingent of 69 over there, are entirely employed in training up counter- terrorist agents with Kurds. So they will have nothing to do with that," General Tom Lawson, chief of the defence staff, told CTV News Oct. 19 when asked if this country's military advisers would be guiding airborne bombing attacks on ground targets.

Brigadier-General Mike Rouleau, commander of Canadian Special Operations Forces Command, revealed in a media briefing on Monday that soldiers have directed air strikes against ground targets 13 times in the past seven or eight weeks, which means guiding attacks by methods such as "marking the target with a laser so the bomb hits precisely where you want it to hit."

The senior officer defended this apparent expansion of the Canadian role by saying allied local fighters "have neither the tools nor the training whatsoever to be able to do this."

Brig.-Gen. Rouleau also announced that, for the first time, Canadian military advisers have engaged in a firefight after coming under attack when they were at the front lines conducting training.

The Canadian special forces soldiers in northern Iraq are serving as military advisers to Kurdish peshmerga. This is not considered a combat operation because the advisers did not go there to engage with Islamic State soldiers.

U.S. forces in the area "haven't had any ground engagements" with IS militants, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command. British officials said they will not comment on the activities of special forces working with the coalition.

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