Canadian special forces came under mortar fire and Canadian commandos tried to save the life of a mortally wounded Kurdish general in the battle for villages near Mosul in Iraq.
Fighting started Sunday as more than 5,000 Kurdish troops began their offensive against the Islamic State to seize a series of villages located about 20 km east of Mosul.
The Canadian base, located on the outskirts of the village of Hassan Shami, was a key location for U.S. and Canadian special forces, along with Kurdish troops, preparing to take part in the operation.
The Canadian military has refused to acknowledge that its special forces are playing a role in the latest fighting, insisting that the commandos are only in Iraq to train, assist and advise Kurdish troops. But their involvement in the battle raises questions about the Liberal government’s claims that Canada is not involved in combat.
Special forces from both the U.S. and Canada were seen early Sunday loading vehicles with heavy machine-guns and anti-tank missiles.
Over a three-hour period, Kurdish positions near the Canadian base came under mortar fire. One round slammed into a Kurdish vehicle near the Canadian base, which is located in a large fortified building, according to Kurds on the scene. Two Kurdish soldiers were reportedly killed in the barrage.
|SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty ImagesSmoke billows on the front line as Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters hold a position near Hasan Sham village during an operation aimed at retaking areas from ISIL, on May 29, 2016.|
The first wounded Kurd was taken to the Canadian base and photos provided to Postmedia show Canadian special forces soldiers trying to administer medical aid. Another pickup truck arrived carrying the wounded Agha but the Canadians could not save the senior officer. The photos show the soldiers wearing Canadian flags on their uniforms.
Special forces were also shown in a photo launching a small drone from the back of a pickup truck but it is unclear whether they are American or Canadian.
The mortar attacks continued in the area throughout the day.
The soldiers are from the Canadian Special Operations Regiment from CFB Petawawa in the Ottawa Valley.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said the Canadian special forces, who are also directing air strikes, are not on a combat mission.
Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jon Vance has backed up this position. Vance has noted that Canadian special forces might be attacked by Islamic State forces, return fire, and could 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 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 and increased the number of troops to 200.
In mid-May, the Canadian military sent three helicopters to northern Iraq to support its special forces. The Griffon helicopters, operated by 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron from CFB Petawawa, are to be used to move the commandos around the battlefield as well as transport the wounded for medical treatment.
One Canadian special forces soldier has been killed during the Iraq mission and three others wounded. In March 2015, Sgt. Andrew Joseph Doiron was killed when he and his three fellow soldiers from Petawawa were gunned down by Kurdish troops at a checkpoint in northern Iraq. The shooting was described as a friendly fire incident but the Kurds blamed the Canadians for not properly following procedures. The Canadian military, however, said all proper procedures were followed.
Kurdish government officials say this latest offensive is to set the stage for the retaking of Mosul from the Islamic State.
The Kurdistan Region Security Council said in a statement that its forces had recaptured four villages. Coalition aircraft as well as U.S. Apache helicopters joined in on the attacks against Islamic State forces.
Canada has a refuelling aircraft and Aurora surveillance planes assigned to the Iraq coalition but it is unclear whether they are involved in the offensive around Mosul.
Mosul is the largest Iraqi city under control of the Islamic State. Islamic State forces captured the city in 2014 and have since turned the centre into a fortress.