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Kenney hints at possible Iraq mission extension, duration ‘not yet decided’

Defence Minister Jason Kenney makes his way to a bilateral meeting with Admiral William Gortney, NORAD and U.S. Northern Command, after speaking at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute on security and defence at the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa on Thursday.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Canadian Defence Minister Jason Kenney appears to be publicly laying the groundwork for an extension of this country's military contribution to the fight against Islamic State extremists in Iraq, saying Thursday the Harper government believes "it's a matter of national interest that we be there."

On Thursday, as the Defence Minister has done several times in recent days, Mr. Kenney dropped broad hints about Conservative intentions that build on remarks Monday when he said Ottawa is "inclined to continue to play a meaningful role it the fight."

These messages both test the waters with voters and prepare Canadians for a longer commitment to Iraq.

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As always, Mr. Kenney cautioned that no decision has been taken on whether Canada will extend a mission that was mandated by Parliament to last six months. This period expires at the end of March with a decision due by then for renewal or termination.

During a speech to an Ottawa military crowd Thursday – his first formal address as Defence Minister since he assumed the job in early February – Mr. Kenney spoke of options under consideration and of returning to Parliament to seek authorization for an extension.

"The federal cabinet will soon make an assessment of the progress of that mission to date before deciding on options for potential renewal of this operation, and seeking an endorsement for it, from Parliament," Mr. Kenney said.

He underlined how important it is for the Conservative government to be in this conflict.

"Let's be clear. This government is committed to playing a meaningful role in the fight against ISIS because it constitutes a threat to not just Middle Eastern security but global, including Canadian, security," the minister told reporters.

"So we believe it's a matter of national interest that we be there and exactly how or for what duration we have not yet decided."

Canada's contribution currently includes six fighter planes dropping bombs on Islamic State targets as well as two surveillance aircraft, an aerial refuelling tanker and 69 special forces soldiers directing combat from the ground in northern Iraq.

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David Perry, a senior analyst at the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute, says he believes the government is signalling there'll be an extension of some kind and the real question is what form this might take.

He said the government will have to decide whether to bring home Canada's CF-18 fighters and whether to expand the numbers of Canadian soldiers training Kurds in northern Iraq.

"Everything to me looks like it's lining up for us to continue doing what we're doing," Mr. Perry said.

NDP defence critic Jack Harris said it's time for the government to unveil its future plans for addressing the chaos caused by the Islamic State.

"Mr. Kenney can hint all he wants but let them put down a proposal and we'll deal with it," Mr. Harris said.

Last fall, when the Conservative government used its majority to endorse a parliamentary motion on the military mission, the NDP opposed it and instead advocated for Canada to make humanitarian aid to the region the focus of this country's contribution.

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"This government seems to have one arrow in its quiver. That is the military mission that they see as the only way to go," Mr. Harris said.

Mr. Kenney made a point of noting in his Ottawa speech Thursday how broad the public backing is for the Canadian Armed Forces deployment in Iraq.

Polls such as a recent Ispsos Reid survey released Feb. 14 showed three-quarters of respondents back Canada's participation in air strikes against Islamic State targets.

The poll also found 73 per cent agreed strongly or somewhat strongly that Canada "should do everything possible to prevent [the Islamic State] from getting its own state, even if it means putting Canadian soldiers on the ground in Iraq."

Separately on Thursday, the Canadian military said CF-18 jet fighters conducted one air strike last week. Canadian planes led an attack by coalition planes that destroyed an Islamic State compound being used as a bomb-making factory.

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