Skip to main content

The Honorable Robert Nicholson, Minister of National Defence, is greeted by members of Air Task Force-Iraq while visiting Kuwait during Operation Impact on 11 December, 2014.

Islamic State militants have the capacity to build very sophisticated and tricky bombs and so in late November when a farmer near Erbil, Iraq, found explosive devices on his land after jihadi forces fled, he called on Kurdish peshmerga soldiers for help.

The Kurds then turned to the Canadians.

On Nov. 25, peshmerga engineers, coached by Canada's special forces soldiers, located and disabled six complex bombs – clearing the way for the farmer to return to tending his land in northern Iraq.

Senior military officers, speaking to The Globe and Mail on condition of anonymity Friday, offered unprecedented detail on the role that 69 Canadian special forces soldiers are playing in northern Iraq as advisers to Kurdish fighters battling the Islamic State extremists. This work has largely been overshadowed to date by the focus on Canada's air combat mission where CF-18 fighter planes are directly attacking jihadi targets in Iraq.

Canada's advise-and-assist training takes place on the outskirts of Erbil, at a bit of a distance from the front line between peshmerga and Islamic State forces.

The military says it's offering hands-on training to peshmerga fighters in six categories with the goal of raising the combatants' level of proficiency from "high school graduate" to "bachelor's degree."

The program includes training in marksmanship, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, sniper techniques, global positioning systems, mortars and disabling homemade bombs, known as "improvised explosive devices" (IEDs). The weapons at the Kurds' disposal include heavy machine guns to AK-47 assault rifles to sniper gear.

The Canadian military says it has been able to extend the effective range of Kurdish snipers.

One senior military officer said Canada's weapons training is yielding fruit. Islamic State combatants in a significant number of cases had been using their higher ground to direct "harassing fire" at the peshmerga to drain their energy and lower morale.

Not as much any more, the military says.

"The peshmerga have now been able to neutralize [this] because of some of the enhanced capabilities we've been able to provide."

The Canadian Armed Forces are reluctant to discuss in detail the training given to Kurds in dismantling bombs but said that Islamic State fighters have access to extremely complex explosive device technology that was honed during past conflicts between U.S. forces and insurgents in Iraq.

"If you go back to Iraq, traditionally, it was some of the most complex IEDs … much more so than Afghanistan, for example," the same officer said.

He said Canadians are giving the Kurds more "breadth and scope" of skill to deal with bombs that Islamic State fighters have left planted as they abandoned territory.

While many peshmerga are battle-hardened warriors, whom a senior Canadian military officer describes as among the "the most capable soldiers" they've ever advised, there is in fact a spectrum of combatants, including more occasional fighters.

"There are a number of tiers of capability," the senior officer said. "There are doctors and lawyers on the front line who grabbed their AK-47 and they have come for their two weeks on the front line defending their homeland."

Kurdish soldiers often leave the front line to be tutored by the Canadians, or the Americans, or British, and then return to the battle.

Canadian special forces soldiers are also working in Kurdish operations centres where peshmerga plan defensive or offensive measures. The troops offer advice on planning operations and also help co-ordinate air power from the U.S.-led coalition that can assist the Kurds.

The military says it's not aware of Canadian special forces soldiers coming under fire in Iraq, and officers say none has been injured on the job.

U.S. and U.K. soldiers are also serving as military advisers but the senior Canadian military officer said the work exceeds the total number of allied forces available to help.

"The number of people [in] hands-on advise and assist – there's probably room for more," said the officer, who nevertheless adds that the Canadian contingent is "right-sized for the mission we have at the present time."

Separately, the Canadian government is leaving the door open to extending the Iraq air combat mission beyond the mandated six-month deployment, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson said as he conducted a day-and-a-half-long tour of Canada's staging bases in Kuwait.

Mr. Nicholson, whose visit was kept secret until he left Kuwait on Friday, said Ottawa is solely focused on the mission right now and "any decisions on [an extension] would be made at a later time."

It's been more than two months since the governing Conservatives voted in the House of Commons to deploy six CF-18 fighters, two surveillance planes and a refuelling aircraft for half a year to help a U.S.-led coalition beat back Islamic State militants in Iraq.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned this week "it will be years, not months" before Islamic State forces, which have wreaked havoc in Syria and Iraq, are defeated, adding the coalition has a "moral duty" and "profound international security interest" to finish the job.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe