U.S. military officers say that Canadian special forces are on the frontlines of a new offensive in Iraq to retake villages from the Islamic State east of Mosul.
The coalition troops were spotted with Kurdish forces as they prepared for battle on Sunday.
As many as 5,500 Kurdish troops are attempting to seize villages located about 20 km east of Mosul. Heavy fighting was reported Sunday.
Soldiers with the Canadian Special Operations Regiment from CFB Petawawa in the Ottawa Valley are in northern Iraq to train and advise the Kurds.
A Reuters news agency correspondent saw coalition soldiers loading armored vehicles outside the village Hassan Shami, a few kilometres east of the frontline of the ongoing offensive. The soldiers spoke English and some had Maple Leaf insignia on their uniforms.
U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren, who speaks for the coalition, confirmed that “U.S. and coalition forces are conducting advise and assist operations to help Kurdish Peshmerga forces”.
He could not confirm which country the troops seen by Reuters were from.
“They may be Americans, they may be Canadians or from other nationalities,” he said.
A Canadian Forces spokeswoman said Sunday that Canadian troops do not conduct “offensive operations” but are continuing in “training, advising and assisting” security forces in Iraq. The location of such activities is not made public for security reasons, she added.
The Kurdistan Region Security Council issued a statement noting that the attacks on Sunday are designed to set the stage for the eventual retaking of Mosul from the Islamic State. “This is one of the many shaping operations expected to increase pressure on ISIL [Islamic State] in and around Mosul in preparation of an eventual assault on the city,” the council said in a statement.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said the train, advise and assist mission of Canadian special forces, including their role in directing air strikes, is not a combat mission.
Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jon Vance has also backed up this position. Vance has noted that Canadian special forces might be attacked by Islamic State forces, return fire, and be injured in fighting, but that he didn’t consider that to be a combat mission. “I’m the expert on what is combat and what is not,” Vance said earlier this year.
When in opposition the Liberals accused the Conservative government of running a combat mission with the deployment of 69 Canadian special forces in an advise and assist role in northern Iraq. The Liberal government has since taken on the same mission but have increased the number of troops to 200.
But now – under a Liberal government – this same mission is not considered combat, government officials have pointed out.
It also appears that Canadian special forces have reversed Vance’s decision to set aside some aspects of operational security for publicity reasons.
In late April, Vance took a tour of the front lines in northern Iraq with journalists in tow. He allowed Canadian special forces to be interviewed and have their faces photographed.
That was a reversal of the previous security measures which saw a prohibition of photos showing the faces of any Canadian military personnel taking part in the Iraq mission. Previously, official photos from the mission were issued only after the faces of mechanics, pilots and other military personnel were blurred out.
The Canadian Forces has argued that such strict security was needed to protect military personnel and their families in Canada from the threat of retaliation from the Islamic State.
But military sources say Vance wanted to help the Liberal government promote the mission and past operational security practices were set aside.
But on Sunday, the special forces on the front lines asked journalists not to take any photos of them.
When Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office inadvertently released a video showing the faces – albeit from a distance – of Canadian special forces the Liberals rose in the House of Commons and accused the Conservatives of putting Canadian lives at risk.
Harper’s office later issued an apology and removed the video imagery which was shot while the prime minister was visiting Canadian special forces in northern Iraq.