The allegation that Canadian warplanes killed civilians during a Jan. 21 air strike against Islamic State forces – information the military kept under wraps for seven months – came from Canada's Kurdish allies in Iraq, documents show.
Newly released Pentagon records are shedding more light on an accusation against CF-18 fighter pilots first reported by The Globe and Mail last month. The Canadian military says it never investigated the matter because coalition forces found no evidence to support the charge.
An English-speaking Peshmerga soldier told the U.S. military that as many as 27 civilians died during aerial bombardment by Canadian pilots, American military documents show.
However, the Canadian military made it clear to the United States shortly after the alleged incident that it felt no obligation under the Geneva Conventions to probe what happened, the Pentagon records show. "It should be noted that Canadian Joint Operations Command [legal advisers] opinion is that, under the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) there are no obligations for the Canadian Armed Forces to conduct an investigation," the documents say.
These records were obtained from the Pentagon through a freedom-of-information request made by the military blogging website War is Boring. The documents track allegations of civilian deaths resulting from air strikes by the U.S.-led coalition, which is bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria.
The Canadian Armed Forces is refusing to discuss the details of the alleged civilian casualties and is playing down the matter, saying that "the source of this allegation had himself heard of these potential casualties through a second-hand account" and that nobody could corroborate it.
The Globe has learned that Canada's military is unhappy that the Pentagon has released information that recounts what it told its American ally in confidence.
The precise allegation in the documents is that a Jan. 21, 2015, air strike killed between "six and 27" civilians in Kisik Junction northwest of Mosul, Iraq, according to the U.S. military documents. "A Canadian strike struck an ISIL sniper/heavy machine gun position on the roof of a building within an ISIL-occupied compound, which correlates" with the allegation, the documents say.
Canada has been bombing militants with the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, since last November as part of a Conservative government effort to help fight the terrorist group. The U.S.-led air bombing campaign is being waged to help Iraqi ground forces recapture their country from extremists who have seized large swaths of territory.
The Canadian Armed Forces have advertised since the beginning of the aerial combat mission that they have a no-civilian-casualty policy when selecting targets – and that this approach had limited their choice of sorties.
Canada also began air strikes in Syria last April, after the Conservative-dominated House of Commons voted to expand the bombing campaign.
While the Canadian military will not discuss the details of the alleged civilian deaths, it is defending its decision to tell American allies that it felt no obligation to investigate the alleged incident. The responsibility to probe the matter was left to the U.S.-led coalition headquarters.
"The Law of Armed Conflict, as embodied in the Geneva Conventions and the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions, does not create a positive duty to investigate," Forces spokesman Ashley Lemire said in a statement provided to The Globe.
"The attack on the ISIL fighting position in January, 2015, was conducted in response to ISIL firing on friendly forces from that position. The fighting position's status as a legitimate military target has been confirmed by a thorough review process," Ms. Lemire said.
"At no time has there been any assertion that the Law of Armed Conflict had been breached."
Both the NDP and the Liberals have opposed this combat mission and voted against it in the Commons.
The Forces first acknowledged this allegation in response to a question from The Globe in late August while defending their decision to withhold it from the public until then. The military has not sufficiently explained why it finally decided to make it public and whether this was related to the release of the information under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.
The military had been asked repeatedly since last fall whether Canadian CF-18 Hornets have inadvertently killed or injured civilians during the U.S.-led air war against Islamic State terrorists. A military spokesman neglected to mention the January allegation when asked directly, at a July media briefing, about possible civilian casualties.
It also came to light last week that the Canadian Armed Forces never informed Defence Minister Jason Kenney of the allegation about the air strike, which occurred less than three weeks before he took over the portfolio. The military's decision to keep him out of the loop meant that he was telling reporters as recently as early August that the government was unaware of "any claims of civilian casualties."
The review of the Jan. 21 bombing was conducted by the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve headquarters.