Countries intervening in the Iraq conflict will be called upon to conduct large-scale training of Iraqi forces for as long as a year after a U.S.-led coalition succeeds in blunting the attack power of Islamic State jihadists there, top Canadian military commanders say.
This suggests Canada's military involvement to the Iraq conflict could stretch far beyond the six-month commitment made by Stephen Harper's Conservative government.
Canada's contribution to the coalition of more than 40 countries assembled in response to the threat posed by Islamic State militants includes nearly 70 special forces soldiers in northern Iraq, six CF-18 warplanes to bomb the extremist group and two surveillance aircraft that will help select targets.
General Tom Lawson, chief of the defence staff, said a meeting of coalition countries in Washington earlier this week devoted a lot of time to how to train the Iraqi army. Bagdhad's existing forces, which benefitted from years of training assistance by the United States, nevertheless fell apart when faced with advancing Islamic State forces earlier this year.
He said Canada right now is part of the emergency response to this jihadist force that has wreaked havoc across parts of Iraq and Syria.
"Simply bringing air strike power to bear will not deal with the ISIL problem," Gen. Lawson told journalists in Ottawa Friday, referring to the Islamic State militants, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
"There's broad recognition that it will be Iraqi forces who will be putting the pressure on ISIL … in the coming months and there is a requirement to bring them to a readiness to be able to do that."
Gen. Lawson said a huge military training effort will be "the next part of the strategy" in Iraq.
Canada's air combat mission should be set up and ready to operate out of Kuwait by end of October, the brass said.
Officials said there are detailed procedures in place to limit the number of civilian casualties and stressed that pilots would have ultimate discretion over whether to release their bombs.
There are concerns that civilians could be killed or injured in coalition air strikes, including in areas where it may be difficult to distinguish between Islamic State militants and ordinary Iraqis. During the lengthy war in Afghanistan, it's believed that civilian deaths caused some people to turn against the Western coalition in favour of the Taliban.
Lieutenant-General Jonathan Vance, Commander of Canadian Joint Operations, said Canadian Forces pilots are well-trained to ensure that attacks are as precise as possible and will use guided munitions to reduce the possibility of civilian deaths. He said the missions will be approved through a "rigorous targeting process" and authorized through Canada's national chain of command.
The two surveillance planes Canada is sending to the region will provide an "unblinking eye" on proposed targets, allowing them to watch for civilians who might enter the area before a strike, Lt.-Gen. Vance said.
But in the end, officials said pilots will make the final decision on whether to release their bombs. "They are given discretion to bring their weapon back if they believe that unreasonable collateral damage may occur," Gen. Lawson said.
Asked who would take responsibility for any civilian casualties that occur as a result of coalition air strikes, Gen. Lawson noted that there are no direct flags on the tails of aircraft. However, he said, "in the law of armed conflict you take responsibility as an individual and as a nation for any collateral damage that occurs."
Separately, the federal government announced Friday that it would provide $8-million in funding to UNICEF, aimed at improving educational opportunities for children who have been affected by the conflict in Iraq. The money will go to UNICEF's "No Lost Generation" campaign, and is aimed at helping up to 200,000 at-risk Iraqi children continue their education, International Development Minister Christian Paradis said.
Ottawa has also announced funding aimed at preventing and responding to sexual violence in Iraq and Syria and is providing supplies and health care for civilians in northern Iraq, among other aid efforts aimed at the region. Earlier this month, the opposition NDP and Liberals voted against the combat mission in the House of Commons, with both parties saying Canada should do more to improve humanitarian aid to help civilians in the region and resettle refugees.