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Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, the Commander of NATO Mission Iraq, speaks during an interview in Baghdad on Nov. 17, 2019.

SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images

Violent anti-government protests in Iraq have forced the NATO mission to curtail some of its activities and movements, says the outgoing Canadian commander.

Major-General Dany Fortin says the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is still able to do its work in Iraq, but has had to rearrange meetings with senior officials who are focused on the demonstrations and make adjustments to avoid any security threats posed by the protests.

“Some activities I had to curtail because some of those senior [Iraqi] leaders were not available to meet or some of the activities were going to be in a location where that’s just too close to where some of the security forces positioned themselves,” Maj.-Gen. Fortin said in an interview with The Globe and Mail on Tuesday.

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“Largely speaking, it was conducted unaffected.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi announced on Friday he was resigning after weeks of demonstrations calling for an overhaul of the government. Nearly 400 protesters have died since Oct. 1, when Iraq’s biggest wave of anti-government demonstrations in decades broke out. Protesters accuse the government of corruption and oppose Iran’s influence in Iraqi affairs.

Maj.-Gen. Fortin said he was “a little bit disappointed” when aspects of the mission were affected by the demonstrations, but told his team to reschedule meetings and stay focused on the mission’s mandate.

"I kept telling my team, keep your foot on the gas,” he said.

“We need to continue to … gently push Iraqis to move forward on those important initiatives that we all think are necessary.”

Maj.-Gen. Fortin recently wrapped up a 13-month tour commanding the NATO mission, where he oversaw the setup of the operation that involves about 580 troops from allied countries. The troops are training Iraqi security forces so they can prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State terrorist group that seized entire cities five years ago. Up to 250 Canadian troops are deployed as a part of the mission, where they are offering specialized training in areas such as bomb disposal.

The mission is seeing “results” on many fronts, said Maj.-Gen. Fortin. For instance, he said the next cohort of Canadian troops will oversee the Iraqis as they train their colleagues in bomb disposal. Canadian soldiers, with the help of three Griffon helicopters, are also helping transport people and equipment around the Baghdad area.

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Maj.-Gen. Fortin said it has been rewarding to see senior Iraqi officials adopt some of the NATO mission’s terminology.

“It’s very encouraging when you hear senior leaders throw back at you words that you may have used in the past. ‘We want to become self-sufficient. We want increased operational capability. And rule of law is important,’ ” he said, citing what Iraqi officials have told him.

Maj.-Gen. Fortin said the goal of the mission is to establish a long-term partnership between NATO and Iraq so the country can leverage the alliance’s network to attend conferences and training opportunities.

NATO leaders are meeting in London this week, one month after French President Emmanuel Macron questioned the effectiveness of the alliance. In an interview with The Economist late October, Mr. Macron warned that NATO faces “brain death” because the United States can no longer be counted on to co-operate with the other members.

Maj.-Gen. Fortin said he was aware of Mr. Macron’s remarks, but did not comment on them specifically. He defended NATO’s work in Iraq, where he says the alliance is "certainly making a difference.”

“I could feel the entire alliance was behind me on this mission," Maj.-Gen. Fortin said.

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Over the summer, the government announced that Canada would continue to command the NATO mission in Iraq until November 2020. In a ceremony last month, Maj.-Gen. Fortin transferred command of the mission to Maj.-Gen. Jennie Carignan.

Maj.-Gen. Fortin arrived back in Canada on Friday and is spending some time with his family before returning as commander of the 1st Canadian Division Headquarters in Kingston. He says the NATO mission was the “highlight" of his career.

“I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to lead this mission and command quality people from across the alliance and a great team of Canadians.”

With a report from Reuters

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