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Former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton delivers a speech during a Canada2020 event in Ottawa on Oct. 6, 2014.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Military intervention against Islamic State militants is "essential" to prevent the group from grabbing more territory in Syria and Iraq, former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton says.

Speaking in Ottawa on Monday, Ms. Clinton said the Islamic State, which now controls large areas of Syria and Iraq, is more expansionist than other terrorist organizations and combatting the group will be a long-term undertaking. She made the comments as Canada's House of Commons debated a Conservative government plan to join the U.S.-led combat mission in Iraq.

The luncheon event was organized by the Canada2020 think tank.

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Ms. Clinton's speech was attended by a number of Canadian MPs, including Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who on Friday declared that his party would not support a government motion to join U.S. air strikes in Syria. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said Canada will commit fighter planes, surveillance aircraft and military personnel to battle the Islamic State for up to six months, a plan the opposition NDP also opposes.

"I think military action is critical, in fact I would say essential, to try to prevent [the Islamic State's] further advance and their holding of more territory," Ms. Clinton told an audience in Ottawa. "Because by holding territory they both gain weapons and they gain revenues."

Ms. Clinton said other terrorist groups, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Islamist groups in the Philippines, have not attempted to expand their reach in the same way Islamic State militants have. The evidence is convincing, she added, that the group would try to pick up where Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan left off.

"This kind of jihadist extremism is expansionary. It is not satisfied with holding, you know, towns and villages that straddle the border between Syria and Iraq," she said. "They believe that it is part of their mission to launch attacks, to infiltrate through foreign fighters into Western societies."

In a parliamentary debate on Monday, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said his party is concerned about the possibility that Canada could end up aligning itself with the Syrian government and called for a greater focus on humanitarian aid. The Liberals also called for more humanitarian aid and said Canada should look for other, non-combat ways to intervene.

Ms. Clinton, a former secretary of state, senator and first lady, is seen as a likely Democratic contender for the U.S. presidential race in 2016, but so far she has declined to say publicly whether she will run. Asked about her intentions during her appearance in Ottawa, she joked that she had been "dodging" the question and would continue to do so.

Ms. Clinton said thereis bipartisan agreement in the U.S. on the goal of defeating Islamic State militants, even if there is also a debate about how to address the threat the group represents. She pointed to Canada's contribution to the U.S.-led battle against the Islamic State, including the decision to send 26 troops to northern Iraq last month to advise Kurdish security forces that are fighting the militants.

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"I know that your parliament is now debating a plan to do even more, including dispatching fighter jets and other material," Ms. Clinton said. "The United States, I'm sure, will welcome and respect whatever level of support Canada decides is appropriate to help meet this shared challenge."

While initial Canadian air strikes would be focused on Iraq, the government has said, the combat mission could expand to Syria if Ottawa has the "clear support" of that country's government.

During her comments on Monday, Ms. Clinton noted that the U.S. and others would need to consider the "incredible dilemma" posed by going after Islamic State militants in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad had earlier suggested that all opposition groups in the country were terrorists. "That was not true then. It's not even true now, although there are a lot more terrorist groups than there were when the rebellion against Assad started," she said.

Ms. Clinton added that the fight against violent extremism will need to be waged with "many tools" beyond military force, including going after the financing and recruitment of terrorist networks.

With a report from Daniel Leblanc.

Editor's note: an earlier version of this story did not mention the location of Hillary Clinton's speech. She was speaking at a luncheon event organized by the Canada2020 think tank.

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