By: Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA — Despite the withdrawal of Canada's fighter jets from Iraq and Syria last spring, a senior officer says Canadian military aircraft are providing vital intelligence to allies for air strikes and other operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
The Liberal government announced in February that it was ending Canadian combat operations in Iraq by withdrawing six CF-18s that had been part of the U.S.-led bombing campaign against ISIL since October 2014.
But the Liberals left behind a Polaris air-to-air refueller and two Aurora surveillance aircraft. Those aircraft have continued to support the bombing campaign against ISIL, also known as Daesh, even as public attention has turned to the role of Canadian special forces operatives in northern Iraq.
National Defence says the Polaris has flown 544 missions and delivered more than 14,200 tonnes of fuel to allied aircraft over the last two years. The Auroras, meanwhile, have flown 575 reconnaissance missions over ISIL territory.
Brig.-Gen. Shane Brennan, commander of Canada's Joint Task Force-Iraq, says at the same time the number of Canadian intelligence officers assigned to the anti-ISIL effort has grown to 50. Their mission is to analyze the pictures taken by the Auroras so the coalition can plan air strikes and ground operations.
"What we do is gather the trends and the activities of what is happening with Daesh," Brennan said from the task force's headquarters in Kuwait. "That is used to support what you would call targeting, whether that's munitions-based or lethal targeting, or other types of targeting."
Brennan described the work of the Auroras and intelligence officers as a "critical contribution" to the fight against ISIL.
"In military operations, the planning and intelligence preparation is usually a key to success," he said. "In this way, we're actually feeding into the larger coalition process and making a significant difference."
U.S. and other coalition officials have credited the bombing campaign with helping to push ISIL back after it initially overran large swaths of Iraq and Syria in 2014. But there have also been concerns about civilian casualties, particularly following a series of U.S. strikes around the Syrian city of Manbij in July.
Brennan said the Auroras were not involved identifying targets in Manbij and have instead been flying over northern Iraq in support of the coming battle for the city of Mosul.
Preparations to liberate Mosul from ISIL have become the main focus for allied and Iraqi forces over the last few months, given that the city is the last major urban centre still controlled by the militant group in Iraq.
The approximately 2,000 Kurds trained by Canada over the last two years aren't expected to actually enter Mosul when the battle begins, but will instead secure territory to the north and east while the Iraqi military clears the city. At the same time, Brennan said Canada will be contributing in other ways.
An additional helicopter is being deployed into the area — bringing the total to four — to help transport troops and equipment. In addition, a field hospital is set to be deployed from Canadian Forces Base Petawawa.
But Brennan also acknowledged the many political challenges facing Iraq besides ISIL. Those include questions about the country's long-term stability, particularly given Kurdish desires for independence, and the surprise sacking of Iraq's minister of defence on corruption charges last month.
"It is a difficult time for the government of Iraq," he said. "Obviously there's all kinds of challenges that occur within a diverse country like that as well."
The good news, Brennan said, is that there are discussions between central Iraqi officials and the semi-autonomous Kurdish government in the north of the country. In addition, he said, the interim defence minister previously served with the Iraqi security forces.
"So we're very confident that we're not going to see this as a setback in the ongoing planning for Mosul. So there's good stability from that particular front," he said. "But all these things are of concern, that is true."
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Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press