Canada’s troops are eager to get back to work training Iraqi security forces, but it won’t happen unless Canada is certain of their safety and Iraq invites them to return, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said on Monday.
Mr. Champagne was in Kuwait with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for a surprise visit to bring greetings and show appreciation for Canada’s troops at the Ali Al-salem Air Base. Some of them were relocated there last month as tensions escalated following a targeted U.S. drone strike that killed a top Iranian general in Baghdad.
“You’ve all had a volatile few weeks in this part of the world,” Mr. Trudeau said, speaking to more than 100 Canadian soldiers in “Camp Canada” on the base, about 40 kilometres east of the Iraq border. “It’s been a complex start to 2020.”
Camp Canada is the centre for Operation Impact, a Canadian Armed Forces mission with operations in Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait and Iraq. About 250 of the 850 Canadians deployed in Operation Impact were part of a NATO mission in Iraq to train national security forces and build up military education institutions with the goal of preventing the return of the Islamic State group, sometimes referred to as Daesh.
Canada suspended that training and began moving the troops based in Iraq to Kuwait, as unrest and tension grew following the death of General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force. The attack also killed Iraqi paramilitary commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and led to concerns about Iranian retaliation, as well as rioting and protests in Iraq.
Two days after the drone attack, Iraq’s parliament passed a resolution asking the government to expel all foreign troops.
Canada’s forces began to move to Kuwait just hours before Iran launched missiles at two Iraqi bases, one of them housing Canadians, in retaliation for Gen. Soleimani’s killing. No Canadians were injured, though 50 Americans suffered concussions and other brain injuries in the attacks.
As some of those relocated troops mingled around him and chatted and posed for photos with the Prime Minister, Mr. Champagne told reporters he has spoken with Salim al-Jabouri, the Speaker of the Iraqi parliament, twice in the past few weeks to reiterate to him why Canada had troops in his country. Mr. Champagne said he wanted Mr. al-Jabouri to understand Canada was there to support Iraq’s democratic and economic reforms, at Iraq’s request.
The Canadian Armed Forces say some “mission-critical activities such as air sustainment operations” (that is, flights carrying equipment and supplies) have resumed in Iraq already, but the remainder of the Joint Task Force Impact troops are still on pause.
Mr. Champagne said the ongoing discussion about when they might return to Iraq is a “dynamic” situation.
“What you hear from the troops here is they are quite eager to go back,” he said. “They want to help, they want to be going back to their normal duties. But, obviously, this needs to be done in a safe environment and at the invitation of the host nation, which is Iraq.”
The prime ministerial stop in Kuwait comes in the middle of Mr. Trudeau’s extended trip to Africa, but was kept off the public itinerary until Sunday afternoon for security purposes. Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Champagne received a classified briefing upon arrival at the base, before Mr. Trudeau addressed the troops. He spoke alongside Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri, who is travelling as part of the delegation.
Mr. Ujiri gave all the military members Raptors championship T-shirts, though he joked he should have brought sweatshirts because it was an unusually cold day in Kuwait.
Mr. Trudeau said as the tensions rose in the Middle East in January, many Canadians needed to be reminded why Canada has soldiers in the region.
“We have been, as a country, essential in the efforts to defeat Daesh,” Mr. Trudeau said over the roar of jet engines at the air base.
“Essential to the efforts in rebuilding and providing a level of stability for Iraq that will allow us to move forward and not just have a more stable and prosperous region, but indeed reduce the impacts of terrorism around the world.”
And he told them he was extremely grateful to be able to say thank you in person.
“You represent the very best of who we are as Canadians,” he said.
“You step up, you step up every day far from your loved ones, far from your families, because you believe in the values that Canada stands for and you know we need to work hard and, yes, fight to ensure that those values find purchase elsewhere around the world where people want the same kinds of things that we do: safety, security for their families, opportunities to grow up in a peaceful community and country.”
Mr. Trudeau also met with Kuwait’s Prime Minister Sabah Al-Khalid Al-Sabah on Monday evening at Bayan Palace, the main palace of the emir of Kuwait.
On Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau is to travel to Dakar, Senegal, for an official visit. On Friday, he will attend a security conference in Munich before returning to Canada on the weekend.
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