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The future of Canada’s military mission in Iraq is facing more turmoil after a U.S. general confirmed to Iraq’s government that American forces would leave over the coming days even as U.S. President Donald Trump said troops were going nowhere until Iraq pays billions of dollars.
The situation in Iraq, changing hour by hour, has sent Canadian Forces and the Department of National Defence planners scrambling. However, DND sources say the Canadian military’s response will be linked to whatever the U.S. decides.
More than 300 Canadian personnel are in Iraq, primarily working to train Iraqi forces.
Earlier Monday, Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said he spoke with NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the hope was that Canada and the alliance will be able to resume training Iraqi personnel “when the situation allows.”
But hours later a Jan. 6 letter sent by U.S. Brig.-Gen. William Seely to Iraq’s Ministry of Defence confirmed that as requested by Iraq’s parliament, U.S. troops were preparing to leave the country. “We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure,” the letter noted.
The Pentagon confirmed the letter is authentic but U.S. officials said it was a draft that should not have been released.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper later said no decision has been made to leave Iraq.
Iraq’s parliament voted on Sunday calling for the removal of all foreign troops from the country.
In response to the Iraqi parliament’s vote, Trump said he would punish Iraq, an American ally, with significant sanctions if foreign troops were given the boot. “It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame,” Trump said. The U.S. has already hit Iran with over 1,000 economic sanctions.
Trump also said he wants Iraq to repay the U.S. for its military presence in the country. “We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there. It cost billions of dollars to build. Long before my time. We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it,” Trump said.
The U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 claiming that the country’s then leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. That U.S. claim turned out to be a lie and Iraq has been in turmoil ever since, with various factions fighting each other as well as targeting American forces.
Iraq was a modern society before the U.S. invasion but much of its infrastructure has been destroyed over the years because of the fighting. The Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs in the U.S. estimates that over 182,000 Iraqi civilians have died since 2003 from direct war-related violence caused by the U.S., its allies, the Iraqi military and police, and opposition forces.
It could be increasingly difficult for Canada to continue its mission in Iraq now that country’s lawmakers have called for foreign troops to leave.
The Canadian Forces has temporarily suspended its training activities in Iraq as a result of an increase in tensions following the recent U.S. assassination of a top Iranian general in Baghdad. The temporary halt affects Canadian military personnel in Iraq involved in Operation Impact, including Canadian special forces involved in training Iraqi personnel. The move also includes Canadian military engineers who are training Iraqis on counter improvised explosive techniques. While there are at least 300 Canadian personnel in Iraq, the DND has not released exact details about the number of people in the country and assigned to Operation Impact.
The Canadians will now focus on their own security at the bases inside Iraq where they operate.
The U.S. killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, and a tactician who is credited with helping the Iraqis defeat the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, prompted Iraq’s parliament to call for U.S. and foreign troops to leave. Iraqis are worried they will be caught in a war between the U.S. and Iran, who has vowed to seek revenge for Soleimani’s killing.
Sajjan said in a statement Monday that Canada is “committed to a stable Iraq.”
Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said he talked to his Iraqi counterpart Mohammed Ali al-Hakim and reiterated Canada’s commitment to a stable and united Iraq and a de-escalation in tensions.
A stable Iraq and de-escalation in tensions, however, will be challenging in the months to come.
It is unclear how Iran will strike back against the U.S., but Canadian military personnel in Iraq could be caught in the crossfire.
Canadian Maj.-Gen. Jennie Carignan is in command of the NATO training mission in Iraq. NATO’s training activities are carried out at Iraqi military schools in the Baghdad areas Taji and Besmaya.
Iran has expanded its influence in Iraq by aiding that country in its fight against ISIL. In the summer of 2014, when ISIL rolled across northern Iraq, the U.S.-trained and funded Iraqi army collapsed. Iranian-backed militias stopped the ISIL advance and, while operating separately from U.S. forces, they played a significant role in pushing ISIL out of Iraq.
Soleimani played a key role in anti-ISIL operations, often being at the front lines directing Iranian-backed Iraqi forces against the extremist group.
In October 2014, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper committed Canadian fighter jets and military personnel to the war against ISIL.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau withdrew the jets but Canadian troops continue to remain in Iraq and the region. Canada has committed to lead the NATO training mission in Iraq until November 2020.
The U.S. continued Monday to ramp up its efforts to justify killing Soleimani. U.S. officials claimed Soleimani was planning attacks on U.S. facilities and staff in Iraq and other Middle East locations that would have killed hundreds. Trump said Soleimani was the “number-one terrorist anywhere in the world.”
But just months earlier another individual, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIL who died in a U.S. operation in Syria, was deemed to be that individual. “Last night the United States brought the world’s number one terrorist leader to justice,” Trump stated in his Oct. 27 speech. “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead.”
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