NDP Leader Tom Mulcair says the killing of an Islamic State insurgent by one of Canada's elite snipers in Iraq calls into question Ottawa's claims that Canadian troops are not involved in direct combat operations.
A Joint Task Force 2 commando set the world's military record for a confirmed kill at a distance of 3,540 metres – an astonishing feat of marksmanship.
In a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday, the NDP Leader said the killing of the Islamic State insurgent – even at such a long distance – constituted direct combat.
The government's rules of engagement for the military training mission in Iraq does not authorize Canadian special-forces soldiers to engage in direct combat but they can fire their weapons to protect themselves or the Iraqi security forces they are assisting.
"It is not clear exactly how and when this engagement occurred but it seriously calls into question your government's claim that Canadian Forces are not involved in direct combat in Iraq," Mr. Mulcair wrote. "Why have you not declared the current military operation is now a combat mission."
He said any changes to the mission should be announced and properly debated in the House of Commons.
"In March 2015, you stated unequivocally, "involvement in direct combat in this war does not serve Canada's interests," he said. "You have also stated that air strikes and long-range rifle fire constitute ground combat."
Jordan Owens, press secretary for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, said that, while Canada's troops in Iraq are in a "non-combat role," the advise and assist mission "mandates our soldiers to protect our partners and themselves if necessary."
Major-General Michael Rouleau, the commander of JTF2 and Canadian Special Operations Regiment, told The Globe and Mail on Thursday that the JTF2 sniper acted within the government's advise and assist mandate.
"We were offset from the fight itself from a significant distance. We saw partner forces that were in trouble and we assisted them," Maj.-Gen. Rouleau said. "We could have chosen to request for fire and dropped ordinances on the advancing [Islamic State] elements, but when you are dropping a 100, 500 or 1,000 pounds of explosives, the potential to hurt civilians is much greater."
Maj.-Gen. Rouleau would not say where the unnamed Canadian sniper and his spotter partner were operating for security reasons. But Canadian special forces are known to be working alongside Iraqi security forces in the campaign to dislodge Islamic State from the city of Mosul.
The sniper team had spotted IS fighters approaching Iraqi security forces, who were unaware that they were about to be ambushed. Using a McMillan TAC-50 rifle, the sniper did not expect to hit the target at such a distance, but hoped his "harassing fire" would frighten the enemy combatants to flee.
Previously, the world record for the longest sniper kill had been held by British Corporal Craig Harrison, who killed a Taliban gunner at a distance of 2,475 metres. Another shot took out the assistant gunner.
Two Canadians hold the third and fourth records of long-distance confirmed kills.
Canadian Corporal Rob Furlong set the world record in 2002 at 2,430 metres when he gunned down an Afghan insurgent carrying an RPK machine gun during Operation Anaconda. Weeks before, Canadian Master Corporal Arron Perry briefly held the world's best sniper record after he fatally shot an insurgent at 2,310 metres.
Maj.-Gen. Rouleau has called the 3,540 kill shot an "incredible martial achievement," which he said has been independently verified and is an "irrefutable act." Some of Canada's allies fighting in Iraq have reviewed the digital record of the sniper shot, he said.
Canadian special forces sniper teams undergo years of intense training. Wind speed, temperature, barometric pressure and the rotation of the Earth all have to be considered before pulling the trigger.
The team usually carries a hand-held weather meter, range-finding equipment and a ballistic calculator to make the necessary adjustments on the sniper's scoop.
"There is an element of art involved where the sniper actually has to estimate where the [Islamic State] fighter is going to be, because when he pulls the trigger, there is just under 10 seconds of time of flight for the round," Maj.-Gen. Rouleau said.
Canada has a reputation among Western military forces for the skill of its snipers, despite the small size of the Canadian Armed Forces compared with those from the United States and Britain.
JTF2 special forces are primarily tasked with counterterrorism, sniper operations and hostage rescue. Much of the information about this elite organization is classified and not commented on by the government. The unit's snipers and members of Canadian Special Operations Regiment, who are carrying out the main task of training Kurdish forces, have been operating in tough conditions in Iraq. There are about 207 Canadian special-forces members in Iraq.