Special forces troops involved in two more firefights with ISIL fighters

There have been two more firefights between Canadian special forces troops and Islamic extremists in Iraq, events that will add fuel to an already burning political debate as parliament resumed sitting.

OTTAWA — There have been two more firefights between Canadian special forces troops and Islamic extremists in Iraq, events that will add fuel to an already burning political debate as parliament resumed sitting.

The elite troops were helping Kurdish commanders plan for an upcoming operation and twice came under direct fire while visiting the largely static front lines near Irbil, the military revealed on Monday.

In both cases the Canadian troops returned fire and “neutralized” the threats, said navy Capt. Paul Forget in a weekly technical briefing at National Defence headquarters.

“They were acting in self defence,” he said.

New Democrats fired their own political volley Monday, calling on the speaker of the House of Commons to convene an emergency debate on the “growing expansion of this mission.”

The latest gun battles are in addition to an incident outlined last week by the commander of special forces, Brig.-Gen. Michael Rouleau, whose acknowledgment of the firefight jumpstarted the dormant political debate in Ottawa. Operations involving the highly-trained soldiers, who were deployed to advise and assist Iraqi forces last September, are usually covered by a blanket of secrecy.

Rouleau also acknowledged at the time that his troops had on 13 occasions helped direct U.S-led coalition air strikes to targets near the front line in what opposition parties say is an escalation of Canada’s combat involvement in the war-torn country.

Canadians have not directed any further bombing missions since the last update, the military said.

Forget, like Rouleau the week before him, insisted on Monday that the nature of the operation was “evolving” and that special forces trainers were at the front to supervise Iraqis as they put their instruction to practise.

During the Kandahar combat mission, Canadian troops would accompany Afghan soldiers, whom they were mentoring, into combat. It was a dangerous exercise that sometimes led to casualties.

Both the Conservative government and the military ruled out a similar scheme when it deployed the special forces into Iraq.

Despite the firefights, Forget says the risk assessment for trainers remains low. But he was unable to say whether they are spending more time at the front as Iraqi forces prepare for an offensive to retake territory. The Islamic State conquered a vast region in the north and western regions of the country and fought almost to the gates of Baghdad.

Air strikes, meant to soften up the ground for that offensive, have continued and they included 12 bombing missions by Canadian CF-18s during the last week, Forget said.

Most of the bombs were dropped northwest of Mosul, the country’s second largest city. The Iraqis have been conducting a localized offensive in the region near Tal Afar in an attempt to cut extremist supply lines coming in from Syria.

The U.S. Central Command, which is overseeing the campaign, reported Monday that air strikes in that region have taken out mortar positions, suicide car bombers and armoured vehicles, pickup trucks and a check point.

The growing political debate in Canada came on the same day as the Islamic State released an audio recording encouraging Muslims living in Western countries to carry out more attacks.

Abu Mohammed al-Adnani said any loyalist who has the opportunity to “shed a drop of blood” should do so.

He praised recent attacks in Australia, Belgium and France, where gunmen killed 12 people in an assault on the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo magazine.

The spokesman pointed to the gunman who shot and killed a soldier in October at Canada’s national war memorial and then stormed the parliament building before being killed by security forces, saying, “You all saw what one Muslim did in Canada and its infidel parliament.”