Canada stands by Iraq, but remains leery of Iran: Baird

Canada will continue to stand by the people of Iraq, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird declared Wednesday during a surprise, security-shrouded visit to Baghdad that included two of his most prominent political rivals.

BAGHDAD — Canada will continue to stand by the people of Iraq, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird declared Wednesday during a surprise, security-shrouded visit to Baghdad that included two of his most prominent political rivals.

But while he was supportive of Iraq, he was not ready to cut any slack for neighbouring Iran, despite its support against the extremist Islamic State in the Levant, or ISIL. Canada still lists Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism.

“Obviously we have a very different view when it comes to the government of Tehran,” Baird told reporters. “It could suspend its considerable support to terrorist organizations not just around the region but around the world.”

A meeting with Iraqi President Fuad Masoum was first on Baird’s packed agenda as the Canadian delegation, including opposition MPs, donned flak jackets for a high-speed dash in an armoured convoy to the presidential palace.

“We are many — all Canadians in government — deeply concerned with the security threat,” Baird told the president.

“We wanted to come here to show our solidarity with the Iraqi people. We want to congratulate you on your nomination as president.”

Baird also met Foreign Affairs Minister Hoshyar Zebari, but didn’t have time to see prime minister-designate Haider al-Abadi.

“I’m here in Iraq to demonstrate Canada’s commitment to Iraq’s stability, security, and prosperity,” he said of his whirlwind trip.

He condemned what he called the “barbaric” ISIL beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

“It just horrifies anyone who learns of it,” he said of the killings. “At the same time we should be very mindful that there have been hundreds even thousands of Iraqis, men women and children, who have met similar fates.

“That’s why we want to obviously see central government, regional government in the north to be able to provide for the safety, security and protection of all their people including not just religious minorities, not just innocent civilians but every citizen of Iraq.”

Baird promised $15 million to support security measures, including $10 million to provide equipment helmets, body armour and logistics support vehicles to Iraqi forces fighting ISIL, an al-Qaida splinter group wreaking havoc across Syria and northern and western Iraq.

The other $5 million will support regional efforts to limit the movement of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria.

The full scope of the violence has come into sharper focus in recent days, in part because of a new Amnesty International report accusing ISIL of ethnic cleansing against religious minorities, including thousands of members of the Yazidi faith.

“Canada will not stand idly by while ISIL continues to murder innocent civilians, including members of ethnic and religious minorities,” Baird said.

The incoming Iraqi prime minister succeeds Nouri al-Maliki, who stepped down last month under strong political pressure after eight years in office.

Al-Maliki was widely accused of promoting a pro-Shiite agenda that alienated Iraq’s Sunni minority — a political path that many say led to the rise of ISIL.

Baird urged the Iraqi leadership to come together and govern for all Iraqis, regardless of religious or ethnic background.

“We want to be able to see the government here stand on its two feet and fight terrorism.”

Baird’s unity message was reinforced by opposition MPs Paul Dewar and Marc Garneau, the NDP and Liberal foreign affairs critics, who accompanied Baird to Baghdad at his request in a show of non-partisan political solidarity.

The Canadian delegation wants al-Abadi to build a strong cabinet that believes in tolerance.

“It will have to be more than one-face change,” said Dewar. “A new prime minister needs to have a team around him that is going to include all minorities, particularly including the Sunnis.”

Al-Maliki was unable to unite Sunnis, Shiites, Christian minorities and other groups, said Garneau. “And this is one of the reasons that the Islamic State has been able to implant itself vigorously in Iraq.”

Baird’s latest visit — his second to Iraq in almost 18 months — came after a major battlefield breakthrough in the fight against ISIL.

On Sunday, Iraqi security forces and Shia militias ended the Islamic State siege of the town of Amirli, where about 15,000 Shia Turkmens had been trapped for the last two months.

Iraq received support from Iran after thousands of Shiite militias answered the exhortation of Iraq-based Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to direct their fire at Sunni insurgents.

The U.S. has played down the role of Iran, America’s sworn enemy since its Islamic revolution more than 30 years ago. Tehran’s apparent good-guy posture also has foreign policy implications for the Harper government, which severed diplomatic relations with Iran in 2012.

Dewar said it is time for Canada to reconsider this hard line. “Diplomacy is talking to people you find it difficult to talk to. That’s why it’s important to have a presence anywhere you can.”

Added Garneau: “It’s a delicate thing to manoeuvre because Canada has a certain position with respect to Iran on a number of issues — some very serious issues including human rights.”

At the request of Iraq and the U.S., Canada, France and Italy have joined Britain and Australia by helping transport guns, mortars and ammunition to Iraqi forces.

Canada has contributed two military transport planes to the region, a CC-130J Hercules as well as a CC-177 Globemaster, which last week successfully delivered weapons donated by Albania.