Canada's top military commander met privately this week with Kurdistan government officials in northern Iraq, where he was lobbied for military aid to bolster the fight against Islamic State militants.
General Tom Lawson, Chief of the Defence Staff, paid a visit Sunday to Masrour Barzani, chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council and son of Kurdistan Region president Masoud Barzani. It's infrequent but not unprecedented for a Canadian military official – instead of, say, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird – to take the lead in meetings with a civilian government in another country.
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The meeting took place in Erbil, northern Iraq, the same area where Canadian special-forces soldiers are playing an increasingly active role in helping Kurdish fighters battle Islamic State jihadis.
In recent weeks, Canada's soldiers have begun directing air strikes on ground targets and have found themselves drawn into front-line firefights with the extremists.
The Kurds, who wish to retain autonomy in Iraq, reportedly pressed Gen. Lawson for arms and military aid, arguing that without more Western armaments they could be thwarted in their advance on Islamic State forces and risk losing territorial gains they've already made.
One request is for armoured vehicles to help Kurdish fighters and other Iraqi security forces navigate a battlefront where jihadis have planted bombs, according to BasNews, a news agency in Erbil that covered the Canadian general's visit.
The Harper government has so far avoided supplying any weapons to the Kurds. It has shipped them arms on behalf of other countries, and Gen. Lawson brought 6,000 pieces of winterized and wet-weather gear for the Kurdish peshmerga when he visited Iraq on Sunday.
On Tuesday, Canada also delivered to the Kurdish regional government a number of remotely operated vehicles that will enable them to detect and detonate bombs from a distance. This is funded through $10-million in non-lethal assistance from Canada that will help Kurdish peshmerga fighters clear improvised explosive devices from territory abandoned by Islamic State militants.
Canada's military had kept Gen. Lawson's trip secret and did not publicize the Iraq meetings until two days later. Even Tuesday, they would only say he met "regional officials" there to exchange information, and to "update them on Canada's ongoing contributions to the advise and assist mission."
The Canadian government publicly shies away from identifying the fighters they're allied with as Kurds because Ottawa does not want to be perceived as supporting Kurdish ambitions for more sovereignty. Canada normally refers to them as Iraqi security forces.
Earlier on this same trip, Gen. Lawson also visited the nearly 70 special forces soldiers serving as military advisers in northern Iraq as well as Kuwait, where about 600 troops support Canadian jet fighters, surveillance planes and a refuelling tanker that are part of the air-strike campaign against Islamic State militants.
According to BasNews, Mr. Barzani told Gen. Lawson that Kurdish peshmerga have taken control of the "strategically vital area of Kasike" that connects cities such as Mosul, still held by the Islamic State, to the Syrian border.
Shafaq News, a Kurdish media outlet, quoted a statement from Mr. Barzani saying the General "confirmed that Canada understands the importance of peshmerga forces in this war, and they admire their capabilities and has strong relationships with peshmerga, noting that the two sides were in agreement on the need to strengthen military support to Kurdistan Region."
A spokesman for Gen. Lawson's office said that any Kurdish request for military aid would have to be handled by the Canadian government rather than the Chief of the Defence Staff.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, meanwhile, dismissed accusations by NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair that the Conservatives misled Canadians about the extent of the fighting that this country's military advisers will be doing in northern Iraq.
"Guess what? If fired upon, they are going to shoot back; and if they kill some of the ISIL terrorists, Canadians are going to support that, no matter what the New Democrats think," he said.
The United States and Iraq have started preparing for an offensive by summer to recapture the Iraqi city of Mosul, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.