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World Canadian Forces to school Kurds on ‘art and science’ of air strikes

In this file photo taken Monday, June 23, 2014, fighters from the Islamic State parade in a commandeered Iraqi security forces armoured vehicle in Mosul.

AP

The roughly 70 special forces soldiers Canada is deploying to Iraq have yet to start their mission, but these elite troops would be able to teach Kurdish fighters everything from marking targets for air strikes to operating high-tech communications gear.

Stephen Harper has committed Canadian soldiers to Iraq for a 30-day assignment, although it is widely believed Ottawa will ultimately extend what the government insists is not a combat mission. Canadians will operate in northern Iraq as military advisers to Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State militants who are wreaking havoc there.

Canadian special forces soldiers are not yet fighting in Iraq, but soldiers are already on the ground to conduct advance planning and determine what equipment troops need to bring.

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Military sources say one benefit of sending members of the Canadian Special Operations Regiment rather than regular forces is efficiency: these troops are largely self-reliant and can operate without significant support staff.

The government has been occupied in recent days obtaining visas for the soldiers and hammering out a "status-of-forces agreement" with Iraq, the sovereign authority in the region. This agreement will be part of diplomatic notes exchanged between Ottawa and Baghdad and defines what legal protections and rules – Canadian military law or Iraqi law – will cover Canadian troops in various scenarios.

The government has not detailed what sort of military advice Canadians might offer the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, except to say it would include instruction on conventional warfare techniques. The Canadian Special Operations Regiment regularly works with foreign military and security forces.

"People keep saying Peshmergas don't need instructions on how to fight. But that's not what Canada would bring to the mix," said an official with the Canadian military who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Marking targets for air strikes is an example of aid special forces soldiers could provide the Kurds, the official said.

"Planning for, co-ordinating and organizing air strikes is an art and science."

The United States has been attacking Islamic State forces from the air, and Britain has not ruled out air strikes as allies ramp up their efforts to degrade and destroy the militia.

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Other lessons Canadian soldiers could impart include instructing the Kurds on using more sophisticated communications equipment, global positioning system gear and infrared beacons that reduce the chances allied aircraft will mistakenly attack them, and help troops avoid shooting each other at night.

"They're not used to operating in a coalition and with air cover," the official said.

Canada's special forces soldiers might also offer instruction in sophisticated battlefield first aid that, with medical advances in the past decade, makes it more likely injured soldiers will survive.

It is not clear what equipment Canadian soldiers might ship with them to Iraq to help the Kurds. Asked earlier this week whether Canada might bring Chinook helicopters or drones to Iraq, General Tom Lawson, the Chief of the Defence Staff, told reporters troops would bring neither.

The Canadians will work alongside U.S. military advisers, but will remain under Canada's direction and control, the government says. U.S. President Barack Obama recently announced he would deploy 475 more soldiers to assist forces in Iraq fighting the Islamic State, bringing the total number of U.S. soldiers sent there to about 1,600.

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