As government considers extension, Nicholson says Canada in Iraq for long term

The Harper government is laying the groundwork for what has all the appearances of an extension of Canada’s combat mission against the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

OTTAWA — The Harper government is laying the groundwork for what has all the appearances of an extension of Canada’s combat mission against the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

At the end of this week’s whirlwind trip to Iraq and other allied countries this week, Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson dropped strong hints that an extension is in the offing when the current Canadian Forces combat mission expires April 7.

A decision will be made in the next two weeks by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabinet, Nicholson said Thursday, peppering his comments with rhetoric about how Canada doesn’t stand “on the sidelines” and leave the heavy lifting to others.

“We’re in this for the longer term to make sure that we do what we can to help,” he said in a conference call from Amman in neighbouring Jordan.

Nicholson travelled to Baghdad to meet the country’s leadership and moved on to northern Iraq’s capital of Irbil for meetings with Kurdish leaders. He said the trip would help the government assess whether to extend its six-month military commitment to the coalition fighting Islamic State militants.

Progress is being made, but more needs to be done, said Nicholson, who visited some of the 69 Canadian special forces commandos who are advising Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.

Canada has also contributed a half dozen CF-18 fighter jets to the international coalition that is trying to diminish ISIL’s strength.

The special forces troops have been involved in firefights with militants, but Nicholson said he wasn’t aware of any new incidents.

The minister also visited an internally displaced person’s camp in northern Iraq and lauded the efforts of aid workers, including Canadians.

“It gives you a good feeling about what our country is doing but it doesn’t change the fact that there is devastation is being inflicted on the people of this area by ISIL, and this is something the world can’t tolerate.”

In Baghdad, Nicholson met his Iraqi counterpart Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi.

In the Kurdish north, he held talks with Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani.

“There was a recognition that this is not just a military operation, that it’s much more complex than that, and that they will need that continued support and help. Canada is very interested in continuing that kind of support,” Nicholson said.

“Being in this for the long term — it’s similar to what we did in Afghanistan, for instance. We were in Afghanistan but we indicated we would continue our assistance, and we have in Afghanistan.”

Nicholson’s itinerary was essentially the same one his predecessor John Baird travelled in September — just before the Harper government declared its intention to join the coalition in Iraq.

Baird was barely out of Iraq last September when news emerged that Canada would be contributing special forces to the military effort.

Both trips were conducted under a shroud of secrecy because of security concerns. However, Nicholson did not take any opposition MPs with him, as Baird did.

On Thursday, Iraqi security officials said at least eight people were killed and more than a dozen were wounded in separate attacks in Baghdad.

Nicholson also visited the United Arab Emirates this week after a previously publicized stop in Paris. It was the new foreign minister’s first international trip since Baird’s sudden resignation last month.

In all his stops, Nicholson said he emphasized that the government is dedicated to the fight against ISIL because the group is a direct threat to Canada.

“We want to bring assistance in that area but we believe we’re helping ourselves as well because of the threat to our nation.”