Battle brewing as Canada mulls Iraq mission

Battle brewing as Canada mulls Iraq mission

OTTAWA — As the federal government considers the future of Canada’s military mission against Islamic State militants, there are growing concerns about a new battle brewing in Iraq.

The feared new conflagration revolves around the question of Kurdish independence, which has been bubbling for years but appears ready to boil over.

Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government announced earlier this month that after years of promising a referendum on independence, it would finally hold a vote on Sept. 25.

Planning is now underway despite fierce objections from Iraq’s central government in Baghdad, as well as opposition from the U.S., some European countries and most of Iraq’s neighbours.

Canada has taken a decidedly low-key approach to the referendum.

Global Affairs Canada spokeswoman Jocelyn Sweet referred in a statement on Monday to Canada’s long-standing commitment “to the unity and diversity” of Iraq, as well as its “territorial integrity.”

But she did not specifically mention the planned referendum, and a government official confirmed that Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has not raised it with Kurdish officials.

The plan to hold a referendum comes as the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant appears to be receding, in part thanks to significant western military aid to the Kurds.

Canada is one of those who partnered with the Kurds, deploying hundreds of special forces troops over the past three years to train, advise and assist them in the fight against ISIL.

But officials warned Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a secret briefing note in November 2015 that Canada’s military support to the Kurds could contribute to long-term instability in Iraq.

“Should the (ISIL) threat recede,” they wrote, “Baghdad will have to contend with a range of land disputes with the KRG, as well as strengthened Iraqi Kurdish forces, which have received training and equipment from coalition members, including Canada.”

The Liberals responded a few months later by tripling the number of Canadian troops assisting Kurdish forces, and promising to supply the peshmerga with weapons.

Now one of the main concerns voiced by Baghdad and others is that the referendum will include Iraq’s so-called disputed territories, which are claimed by both Kurds and central government.

Those territories include Kirkuk, where tensions between Kurdish forces and Shia militia groups loyal to Baghdad have erupted in gunfire on several occasions since ISIL was chased from the oil-rich city.

Kurdish officials say they want a peaceful divorce from the rest of Iraq, but that they have no intention of giving up the disputed territories and will fight to hold onto them if necessary.

Bessma Momani, a Middle East expert at the University of Waterloo, said it is understandable that Canada, with its own history of independence in Quebec, is reluctant to take a side in Iraq.

But she urged the government to get involved as an “honest broker” and help mediate any potential conflicts between the Kurds and Baghdad as the referendum moves ahead.

“This is exactly the time where we can punch above our weight, where we can be diplomatically useful,” she said. “And obviously with our past, we’ve definitely got experience with a referendum.”

Canada has about 200 special forces operating in northern Iraq, including inside Mosul, supported by a combat hospital, a helicopter detachment, a surveillance plane and an air-to-air refuelling aircraft.

The mission’s current mandate is slated to end this week, though the Liberals have said Canada will remain involved in Iraq and the fight against ISIL in some form for the foreseeable future.

— Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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