By David Ljunggren
OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada on Thursday denied it was being sucked into combat operations against Islamic State militants after its troops in Iraq shot and killed rebels who fired on them.
Canada said in October that it would join the U.S.-led bombing campaign in Iraq for six months. It also has about 70 special forces on the ground that Ottawa said would advise and assist Iraqi troops but not engage in combat.
Military officials on Monday revealed for the first time that the forces were helping target Islamic State fighters. They also said Canadian soldiers had recently shot militants who had fired on them with machine guns and mortars.
"We haven't done anything that we shouldn't be doing," Defense Minister Rob Nicholson told reporters on a conference call. "If you're talking about Canadian forces being fired upon, we have a long tradition ... of returning fire."
The government and legislators have approved of the "advise and assist role," he added.
The topic is sensitive for the Conservative government, which is trailing in the polls ahead of an October election. Canadians' appetite for foreign military missions has dropped after 10 years of involvement in Afghanistan up to 2011, during which 158 soldiers were killed.
Justin Trudeau, whose opposition Liberals are leading in the polls, said on Tuesday that Prime Minister Stephen Harper had not been telling the truth last year when he assured legislators Canadian forces would not be involved in combat.
Separately, the chief of the Canadian defense staff said the situation on the ground in Iraq had changed since last October.
"We have increased our assistance with respect to targeting air strikes in direct correlation with an increased threat encountered by the Iraqi Security Forces," General Tom Lawson said in a statement.
"Our special operations forces personnel are not seeking to directly engage the enemy, but we are providing assistance to forces that are in combat."
(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)