As Kurdish and Iraqi troops battle their way toward ISIS-held Mosul, Canada’s work to train the Kurds for the pivotal fight will finally be put to the test.
Approximately 200 highly trained soldiers with the Canadian Special Operations Forces have taught strategy and battlefield first aid to Kurdish Peshmerga troops in Iraq. The specialized Canadian soldiers have also travelled to battlefield frontlines to provide real-time tactical advice on how to defeat ISIS.
The operation to reclaim Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, is considered a key moment in fight against the ISIS, which has maintained a firm grip on the city of 1 million people since 2014. The offensive is the biggest ground operation in Iraq since Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003.
Canada’s efforts in Iraq have been described as “non-combat,” although the government has said that Canadian soldiers are permitted to shoot in self-defence scenarios.
Speaking of Canada’s work in Iraq, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said Tuesday that he was “proud” of the troops. He added that certain precautions are being taken.
“We put in all the equipment necessary, all the requirements, but for example, including helicopters as well, to mitigate any type of risk that may come,” Sajjan said.
The battle to free Mosul comes a few weeks after the deputy commander of the Canadian Special Operations Forces revealed that Canadian soldiers have exchanged gunfire with ISIS in Iraq during missions to the frontline.
“The risk has increased to our troops, simply by virtue of time spent at the line and the work we’re doing right now in a more dynamic and fluid environment,” said Brig.-Gen. Peter Dawe.
Such confrontations pose real dangers to Canadian forces in the line of fire, but a former Canadian Special Operations Forces commander says that the troops are well trained for such situations.
“Absolutely the risk is enhanced, but this is why you have special operations on the ground,” said Steve Day. “They are optimized to operate in that threat environment.”
Coalition forces, including U.S. and French commandos, have provided similar support roles.
“The Iraqis have the momentum. They know it, and they want to get there as quickly as they can,” said U.S. Maj.-Gen. Gary Volesky.
According to local media reports, several villages have been freed by Kurdish forces on the road to Mosul. At least six Kurds died and 16 others were injured in the first day of fighting.
The long-awaited assault against ISIS-held Mosul began on the outskirts of the city on Monday. The U.S.-led coalition launched airstrikes and artillery attacks on villages in the Nineveh plain, located east of Mosul.
Troops have managed to get within 30 kilometres of the city, but it’s unclear how long it will take to reach Mosul itself. More than 25,000 troops have been mobilized for the crucial battle, which is estimated to take weeks or even months.
The charge toward Mosul slowed on Tuesday, according to commanders stationed in the region, as the Peshmerga encountered civilian populations in some larger villages to the east and south of the city.
The battle to reclaim Mosul could lead to a massive wave of new refugees fleeing Iraq, with more than 1 million civilians from Mosul and surrounding villages added to the humanitarian crisis.
With a report from CTV’s Mercedes Stephenson and files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press