TORONTO (AP) — Canadian special forces in northern Iraq have been helping Kurdish peshmerga fighters by directing coalition airstrikes against Islamic State extremists — work generally considered risky because it means they are close to the battle against the group.
The Canadians' efforts complement those of the United States, which has conducted the vast majority of the airstrikes against the Islamic State group. But in their new role, the Canadians are performing a task that so far the U.S. has been unwilling to do.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has repeatedly said the U.S. would consider directing attacks from the ground but that it has not done so.
Brig. Gen. Mike Rouleau, the commander of Canadian special forces, said his soldiers have directed 13 strikes.
Canada has 69 special forces soldiers in Iraq in what the Canadian government has called an advising and training role. Rouleau said they do about 80 percent of their training and advising well behind the front lines and about 20 percent right at the front lines.
In what was apparently the first ground firefight between Western troops and the Islamic State group, Canadian soldiers engaged in a gun battle with militants after coming under a mortar and machine gun attack while at the front lines conducting training over the last week. Rouleau said Monday the Canadian sniper fire "neutralized" the machine gun and mortar without taking any casualties in what he called an act of self-defense. Two senior officials with the coalition said clashes took place in Kurdish territory near the Mosul Dam. The troops were not directing air strikes at the time, Rouleau said.
Rouleau said that directing air strikes does not mean Canada has escalated its mission. He said his troops are doing it because the Iraqis cannot, which has the added benefit of giving commanders confidence that the targets are legitimate. Rouleau said that kind of assurance ultimately makes the process faster and safer not only for local troops, but civilians as well.
Canadian Lt. Gen. Jonathan Vance said it's not clear how long it will be before Iraqi forces are able to call in coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State group without Canada's help. Vance said he wasn't sure when that specialized training will be provided, but he expects that "down the road the Iraqi air force and army will be able to bring in and guide" airstrikes.
When asked whether directing air strikes would be considered combat and whether Canadian soldiers are doing more than U.S. soldiers in directing air strikes, Julie Di Mambro, a spokeswoman for Canada's defense minister, said the "international jihadist movement has declared war on Canada and its Allies. We must confront this threat head on, which is exactly what this government is doing. While I can't speak for the activities of other countries, I will say that we are tremendously proud of the great work that our Canadian Armed Forces are doing fighting the terrorist threat from (the Islamic State group) in Iraq and we stand 100 percent behind them."
Opposition parties accused Harper's government on Tuesday of dragging Canada farther into direct combat operations, contrary to what the Harper government has promised.
Canada also has six CF-18 fighter jets, a refueling tanker aircraft and two surveillance planes in Iraq as part of the air combat mission.
There are currently 2,350 U.S. troops in Iraq, including 1,550 who are training and advising Iraqi forces and supporting that mission, and 800 that are providing security. The U.S. has also been waging a broad and persistent airstrike campaign against Islamic State insurgents, conducting the vast majority of the coalition strikes.
As of Jan. 19, the U.S. had struck 765 locations in Iraq and nearly 800 in Syria. The 11 other coalition nations, which includes Canada, have launched strikes on about 360 locations.
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and Vivian Salama in Baghdad contributed to this report