On the front lines of Canadian assistance in Iraq

The town lies 65 kilometres south of the city where an Iraqi-led operation to root out the Islamic State has now, as of late December, entered its tenth week. An Iraqi commander instructs the convoy to hurry as it snakes its way through narrow streets, and, pointing toward buildings a few kilometres away, warns that snipers might still be lying low.

Iraqi forces had already retaken Qayarra back in August. In the months before that, ISIS militants set ablaze 19 oil wells in this area. It was a symbolic as well as economic blow that would cost millions of dollars in lost revenue. When the oil-producing region was recaptured, Iraqi forces hailed the event as an early triumph in the long anticipated battle for Mosul, which began on Oct. 17. The international community and media initially hailed advances in the area as successes — especially in early November when the recapture of Mosul looked imminent. But for residents still living here, the atmosphere is far from celebratory.

Four months since they were retaken, the oil fields in Qayyara are still burning within metres of homes, coating the ground with a thick layer of tar. Acrid black soot rains down on residents; it cakes the soles of their shoes, stains their shirts and is inevitably spit out in coughing fits. A nearby medical centre checked in nearly 500 people complaining of breathing problems. In the town’s devastated hospital building — looted by ISIS members before being targeted by coalition airstrikes — Omar, a Qayyara resident, is among dozens of volunteers working to restore the first level of the emergency room so it can take in local patients.

“The ash is everywhere, we have to clean the walls every single day,” he says, and asks, “Can Canada can help us put out the wells?”

Iraqi efforts to extinguish the burning fields have been slow, as the process has proven to be dangerous and complex. For the people living here, the fumes serve as an eerie reminder that the struggle to restore normalcy in Iraq will be just as arduous, if not more so, as it was to defeat the Islamic State in Qayyara.

Expectations that the fight for Mosul would be an easy win were dispelled within the first week of the offensive. As 30,000 Kurdish and Iraqi forces inched toward the city from the north, east and south in a bid to encircle Mosul, they were surprised to encounter the complex asymmetrical fighting tactics of ISIS militants. As Iraqi forces make the glacial push westward in Mosul, ISIS has drawn them into bitter street-to-street warfare in densely populated neighbourhoods, with civilians still hiding in their homes. The consensus is the road to victory will be long and hard-won.

Canada’s involvement in Iraq is more visible in certain areas than others, but in almost every instance more questions are raised than Liberal officials are able to answer.

Canadian Special Forces soldiers may not be knee-deep in soot, extinguishing oil fires, but they have over the course of two years helped modernize the Zeravani, a key component of the Peshmerga, the Kurdish armed forces. Whether these efforts will backfire and be employed in ways not intended by Ottawa will likely be a contentious issue in the future for Canadian-Iraqi relations (particularly with regards to the Iraqi Kurds’ state-building goals). Canada is also supporting the enormous humanitarian effort underway through financial assistance and an ambitious (yet still vague) plan to resettle Yazidi refugees formerly held captive by ISIS.

But more than two years since the Harper government launched Operation Impact, and one year after the current Trudeau government announced it would no longer take part in the bombing attacks on ISIS, what do we know so far about Canada’s efforts in Iraq?

“The areas we liberated are ours,” Said Hajjar, a commander of the Canada-assisted Zeravani unit of the Peshmerga, said in his Erbil office one November morning. Referring to territory retaken from the Islamic State that formally falls under the jurisdiction of the central Baghdad government, his statement underscores dormant tensions between Iraqis and Kurds — relating specifically to the latter’s territorial expansion goals — that will need to be addressed once Mosul is liberated. How will ethnic fault lines change? For Canada, it speaks to the uncertainty around the extent that Canadian military assistance benefits Kurdish fighters.

Canada’s Joint Task Force 2 Special Forces soldiers have acted as military advisors to the Zeravani since the fall of 2014. With the election of the Liberal government in 2015, the training mission was ramped up from 69 to more than 200 troops on the ground. At the same time, the government withdrew six CF-18 jets from the U.S. coalition, effectively ending Canada’s fighting mission. On the ground, however, Canadian Special Forces soldiers began direct participation in fighting, at times even firing first at Islamic State fighters. This has led opposition parties in Ottawa to accuse the Trudeau government of misleading the public about the scope of the Iraq assignment. “The Liberal government… continues to mislead Canadians by insisting we are in a non-combat role,” Conservative defence critic James Bezan said during Question Period on Nov. 15.

Outside of Mosul, support for Canadian troops is easily found. Hajjar pulled up a picture of a group of Canadian Special Forces soldiers on his mobile phone. “They are our friends, cooperating with us, fighting with us on the frontlines,” he said.

Assistance has also come in the form of military training, intelligence gathering, first aid and a field hospital run by Canadian medics in Khazer. Canadians also provided tools to build enemy lines. “When our weapons break, they fix them for us,” added Hajjar. Perhaps most critically, Canadian soldiers taught Kurdish troops how to wear down the enemy by attrition and keep the casualty count low in the process.

It is not insignificant considering the Zeravani, administratively supported by the Kurdish Interior Ministry and closely tied to the powerful Barzani family there, has led countless frontline battles and played an instrumental role in the fight for Mosul. With 286 casualties in the first week of November, it has also lost the most fighters relative to other units, according to Hajjar.

But the Zeravani are still waiting for one Canadian pledge to be fulfilled: “They promised to give us weapons and ammunition, but it has been months now,” said Hajjar.

Anti-tank and armoured vehicles, machine guns and thermal binoculars are in need, he explained. Canadian officials have said they are still waiting for Baghdad to sign off on the arms shipment, the latest in many holdups by the central Iraqi government vis-à-vis Canadian military support for Kurds.

It’s a sign of the friction to come now that the Peshmerga have halted their advance — as part of an agreement with Baghdad — in the north and east of Iraq in territory beyond the ethnic fault lines that separates the Kurdish autonomous region from the Arab-Iraqi south.

Since 2014, the Kurds have increased their territory by around 40 percent, often forcing Arabs from their homes, all with the — inadvertent — help of Canadians and other coalition forces. Human Rights Watch has accused the Kurds of war crimes for destroying Arab buildings and homes in 17 villages and towns in the oil-rich Kirkuk area and four in the Ninevah governorate, calling on their Western allies, such as Canada, to speak out against the violations.

Now, as the Kurds eye the possibility of independence from Iraq, they have been explicit in their expectation that Canadian military assistance will continue. Apart from reiterating talking points calling for a “unified Iraq,” the Liberals have yet to formulate a clear policy on the subject of Kurdish independence post-ISIS.

When asked what he foresees relations with the Iraqi central government might be like once Mosul is liberated, Hajjar said the Kurds considered their Iraqi Arab neighbours as brothers, with a caveat. “If anyone tries to cross our lines or wants to use us or hurt us, then we will fight.”