As U.S. airstrike ramps up threat of war, about 500 Canadian Forces personnel are serving in Iraq

Canada has a significant presence in Iraq, both as part of the anti-ISIS Operation Impact and as the nation commanding NATO's mission in Iraq.

A source at National Defence HQ told CBC News there are probably about 500 Canadian military personnel in the country, which accounts for most of the Canadians now in Iraq in an official capacity.

Canada's military mission in Iraq began in August 2014, with the first air strike against the ISIS terror group taking place in November of that year.

That bombing mission, which was later expanded to include ISIS targets in Syria, came to an end in March 2016. 

But although the Trudeau government withdrew Canada's CF-188 Hornets, as it had promised in its 2015 election campaign, it felt compelled to sign up for other missions to replace it. ISIS terrorists launched deadly attacks in Paris nine days after Trudeau assumed office, killing 131 people.

Just two months after Canada withdrew its fighter aircraft from Iraq, it sent three CH-146 Griffon helicopters to northern Iraq to form a Tactical Aviation Detachment.

Canadian Hercules, Polaris and Aurora aircraft continued to operate in Iraq in airlift, air refuelling and aerial surveillance missions.

Numbers rise, then fall 

Canada also tripled the number of special forces deployed to northern Iraq on an advise-and-assist mission. Their job was to help Kurdish peshmerga forces recover terrain lost to ISIS during its crushing 2014 offensive, which saw Mosul, Fallujah, Ramadi and other important Iraqi cities fall under jihadist control.

Canadian Forces also set up an intelligence centre and hospital in northern Iraq. In 2016, the Trudeau government oversaw an increase in the number of Canadian military personnel in the country, from about 650 to about 830.

Ryan Remiorz/The Associated Press

Since then, the numbers have declined somewhat. The medical, air refuelling and aerial surveillance missions have ended. The tactical airlift (helicopter) mission in Erbil continues. The strategic airlift (Hercules) mission continues but is now based out of Kuwait.

One officer at National Defence Headquarters told CBC news that the actual number of Canadian Forces members within Iraq at the moment probably doesn't exceed 500.

Those with Operation Impact are more likely to be in Kurdish northern Iraq — well removed from the protests and street battles that have convulsed Baghdad in recent weeks.

But the 580 members of NATO Mission Iraq, commanded by Canadian  Maj.-Gen. Jennie Carignan since the start of December, are stationed much closer to the disturbances in Baghdad and its satellite cities Taji and Besmaya.

Bram Janssen/Associated Press

Canada has long played a leading role in that operation. Prior to  Maj.-Gen. Carignan, the NATO training mission was led by another Canadian:  Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin. As many as 250 of the members of that NATO mission — almost half its total — are Canadians.

Friction with Baghdad

Although Canadian Forces are in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government, tensions with that government have complicated the mission in the past. Some of them involve the same pro-Iranian militias that led the siege-like protest at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

Throughout 2015 and 2016, Canadian soldiers worked closely with Kurdish forces that answered to local Kurdish authorities, rather than the central government in Baghdad.

As long as Iraq's Shia-dominated government was fighting for its survival — and needed Kurdish help to defeat ISIS — that situation was tolerated.

But as the Kurds began to prepare to hold a referendum on independence in the Fall of 2017, the relationship with Baghdad soured.

By the end of 2017, there were armed clashes between Kurdish forces and pro-Tehran Shia militias. 

Those militias, organized from Shia mosques in 2014 as ISIS forces appeared poised to reach Baghdad, were essential to the Iraqi government counter-offensive that eventually drove Islamic State out of the territory it had conquered in Iraq. But they also lent that war a more sectarian character — and many militias were led by Iraqi politicians with ties to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Those Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs) have been hostile to the U.S. and NATO presence in Iraq.

A 'No-PMFs' policy

Canadian trainers, who have had to reduce their direct assistance to the Kurds under pressure from Baghdad, are also careful not to work with PMFs, according to Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance.

"It's very clear that Iran is an actor. It's an interested party and, in some cases, a malign agent in Iraq," Vance told a parliamentary committee in December 2018.

"That said, the PMF and Shia militia forces did help with the destruction of Daesh (ISIS). We never worked with them, and I gave orders that we would be entirely de-conflicted with anything that they were involved with. We don't do any train, advise and assist. We did no fire support. We did nothing with those forces. That said, it is up to the Government of Iraq, sir, to decide on its go-ahead relationship. It's not up to us.

"We train, advise and assist in the NATO mission, and in the current mission we're in, in Erbil, we are dealing with vetted, approved Iraqi security forces. I want to assure you of that. These are not PMF forces. They are not Shia militia. They are bona fide, enrolled, recruited Iraqi security forces."

NATO

But the fact remains that the PMFs have enormous power in Iraq, and within the Baghdad government. The country's prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, comes from a pro-Khomeini party that was formed by Iraqi exiles in Tehran in 1982.

Moreover, Iraq has taken several steps to bring the PMFs within the fold of its lawful security forces, granting PMF members wages and access to government training facilities — even as western allies have expressed the concern that the PMFs are coordinating actions with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commanded (until his assassination by American air strike overnight) by Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

Diplomatic skeleton crew

Canada does maintain an embassy in Baghdad's Green Zone, under Ambassador Ulric Sheldon, and there is also a Canadian diplomatic office in Erbil in the Kurdish north of Iraq.

But the Baghdad embassy is a skeleton operation due to the security situation and does not provide in-person consular services to Canadian citizens. Trade matters are handled through the Canadian embassy in Amman, Jordan.

The embassy's website now warns Canadians not to try to visit it in person.

Global Affairs Canada released an updated travel advisory on Friday, encouraging Canadians currently in Iraq to leave by commercial means if it's safe to do so.

"The security situation could worsen with little warning," the advisory reads. "There is an increased threat of attacks against Western interests and of terrorist attacks in general."