Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Canada in Iraq: CAF to Train and Arm Peshmerga

Written by: Lee Berthiaume, The Ottawa Citizen "NP Section"

Peshmerga fighters from Iraq take part in a training session with German troops last week. Canada’s top soldier says Canadians will train a battalion of Kurdish troops.

Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance made the comments during an appearance before the Senate defence committee on Monday, where he also acknowledged that ISIL has chemical weapons, which represents a “huge concern.”

The Trudeau government announced last month that Canada would be tripling the number of military personnel working alongside the Kurdish peshmerga in northern Iraq to 200, as well as providing “lethal aid” to the Kurds.

The move coincided with the Liberals ending Canadian airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq and Syria.

Vance told senators that Canada does not have a specific number of peshmerga fighters it wants to train over the next year.

Most of those being trained are average citizens who volunteer to man the front line against ISIL for a few days before going back to their jobs and families, he said.

“We’re not building an army,” he said. “We’re building an effect that will last as along as it needs to last.”

But Vance said Canada is also looking at training some “discrete forces” as part of its new mission.

“One of the programs will be a program to try and take conventional forces and give them a bit more focused training,” he said. “That is where we’re going to equip people. So try to take roughly … 300 to 400 (Kurds), give them training for months (and) equip them so they have a stronger core of more professional fighters.”

The hope is to have such a force ready to help retake Mosul. Iraqi and Kurdish forces have been building up for an attack on the country’s second-largest city for months.

The assault is expected to be difficult and bloody, as ISIL has thousands of fighters and is holding up to one million residents as human shields.

Meanwhile, Vance confirmed ISIL has access to chemical weapons. He described the mustard and chlorine gas weapons as “rudimentary” and “smallscale,” and said Canadian troops on the ground are well protected against such attacks.

However, he acknowledged fears that ISIL’s capabilities will grow either in size or with the addition of nerve agents.

“We don’t have indication of that right now,” he said. “But it is a huge concern. It’s also, if you can imagine, a concern because of the impact it could have on a civilian populace.”

The U. S. State Department said Thursday ISIL is believed to have used the deadly chemical in an attack near the town of Makhmur last August. Approximately 35 Kurdish peshmerga fighters were affected by the gas, which causes severe burns to the skin, eyes and respiratory tract.

Makhmur is about 100 kilometres south of Mosul and the Kurdish capital, Erbil. Canadian special forces have been training and accompanying Kurdish forces around those two cities, and to the north of them, since September 2014.

National Defence said it did not believe Canadian troops have been directly exposed to mustard gas, which was previously used by the Iraqi military against Kurds in Iran and Iraq in the 1980s.

Vance also said Canada is not technically at war, noting the legal definition is an armed conflict between two states. “The word ‘war’ doesn’t enter the lexicon, and it doesn’t necessarily matter from my perspective. It doesn’t change the status of my forces. … It doesn’t alter the benefits and allowances that the soldiers get.”