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A University of Basrah student wears a face mask as he takes part in an anti-government protest, in Basra, Iraq on Dec. 8, 2019.

ESSAM AL-SUDANI/Reuters

The new Canadian commander of the NATO mission in Iraq says recent protests that have led to more than 430 deaths demonstrate the need for the alliance’s training mission in the country.

Canadian Major-General Jennie Carignan took over command of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s mission in Iraq last month in the midst of instability in the country. Thousands of protesters accusing the government of corruption have taken to the streets since Oct. 1, marking the biggest wave of demonstrations in decades.

“We can see that there is some work to do on how [Iraqi officials] structure and organize themselves for crisis management," Maj.-Gen. Carignan said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

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Maj.-Gen. Carignan described the protests as a “tragedy." The demonstrations intensified last Friday night during a bloody attack by armed men near the main protest site in Baghdad, which left 23 people dead and nearly 130 wounded. The attack came one week after Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi announced he was resigning.

Under its non-combat mandate, the NATO mission is observing the demonstrations from the “outskirts” and cannot intervene, Maj.-Gen. Carignan said.

Aside from adapting movements on the ground and rescheduling some meetings, she said that the protests have not overly affected the mission’s work in and around Baghdad. The mission is based in the Green Zone, the high-security area in central Baghdad, where Iraqi government officials and some foreign embassies are housed.

About 580 troops from NATO and allied countries, including Australia, Sweden and Finland, are training Iraqi security forces so they can prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State terrorist group in Iraq that seized entire cities five years ago. Up to 250 Canadian troops are deployed as part of the mission, where they are offering specialized training in areas such as bomb disposal.

Maj.-Gen. Carignan took over command from her Canadian colleague, Major-General Dany Fortin, who set up the NATO operation over the past year. She said the mission is “well-grounded” now, allowing her to focus on working at a strategic level with Iraq’s ministry of defence. Under her leadership, she hopes the NATO operation can help Iraqi military better plan for the future.

“Making sure that their personnel are at the right place, at the right time, with the right equipment," Maj.-Gen. Carignan said.

The mission will also provide training at the institutional level, focusing on anti-corruption efforts and gender equality.

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Although military and political power is held mostly by men in Iraq, Maj.-Gen. Carignan said she has felt welcome by senior Iraqi officials. For instance, she recounted how, during a transition meeting with Maj.-Gen. Fortin, a senior Iraqi official did not hesitate to give her a hug.

“He gave a hug to General Fortin and then he gave me the same hug after that," she said. “It was done as if it was a man.”

The only place she has encountered Iraqi women in a military capacity is at the medical school, where NATO troops are providing training. She said female troops wanted a selfie with her when she visited the school recently.

Asked about the example she is setting for Iraqi women, Maj.-Gen. Carignan said, “I don’t really need to talk about it."

"They just see it.”

With reports from Reuters

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