Canadian troops safe after Iraqi, Kurdish allies open fire on each other | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Canadian troops safe after Iraqi, Kurdish allies open fire on each other

October 16, 2017 - 2:26 PM

OTTAWA - All Canadian military personnel in Iraq are safe, defence officials confirmed Monday after allied Iraqi and Kurdish forces opened fire on each other near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

Some Canadian troops had been operating in the area earlier this month, but a military spokesman said they left nearly two weeks ago after the region was liberated from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

"No Canadian Armed Forces were caught in any crossfires in Iraq," Capt. Vincent Bouchard said in an email. "All Canadian Armed Forces personnel are safe and accounted for."

The eruption of violence has nonetheless raised questions about the future of Canada's military mission in Iraq, which has involved training both Kurdish and Iraqi forces to fight Islamic State militants.

It has also sparked new concerns about the future of Iraq, which one senior Kurdish official says could be on the verge of civil war unless Canada and others speak up more forcefully.

And it has confirmed the fears of many who worried that the international community wasn't doing enough to keep the Iraqis and Kurds from turning on each other after enemy militants were beaten back.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan refused to take sides Monday, nor would he say how — or even whether — the fighting could impact Canada's mission in Iraq.

He instead urged both the Iraqis and Kurds to focus on defeating ISIL, which is on its last legs in the country.

"Great work has been done with all parties of the coalition and the Iraqi security forces, and we want to continue with that," Sajjan said outside the House of Commons.

"So we're encouraging all parties to focus on the main threat itself, and we're hoping that all parties can resolve the situation quickly and peacefully."

Global Affairs Canada issued its own statement calling for calm and urging the two sides to peacefully resolve their differences, including Kurdish aspirations for independence.

But Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurds' top diplomat in Washington, said her people "feel abandoned," and that a stronger response was required to stop the violence from getting worse.

"We are on the brink of all-out war," Rahman told The Canadian Press. "We need our partners — the United States, Canada, Britain, France, others — to say very clearly, very loudly, and I really mean very clearly, that this is unacceptable."

The comments followed the Iraqi military, with support from Shiite militia groups, wresting control of key positions around Kirkuk from Kurdish peshmerga forces early in the day before taking the city centre.

The Iraqi Kurds have their own regional government in the north of Iraq that is largely autonomous from the rest of the country, and which claimed ownership of Kirkuk after liberating it in 2015.

But a turning point came when, against Baghdad's wishes, they included the city in a controversial independence referendum last month in which the vast majority of Kurds voted to form their own country.

In a statement on Facebook, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi pointed to the referendum being held in Kirkuk as the reason he ordered Iraqi forces to take the city Monday.

The U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIL, which has trained and equipped both Iraqi and Kurdish forces over the past three years, played down the extent of the fighting between the two one-time partners.

But local media reported heavy gunfire and even artillery exchanges, while thousands of civilians were seen fleeing as Iraqi forces advanced on the city.

Canadian diplomats actually warned Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a briefing note in November 2015 about possible fighting between Kurds and non-Kurds in Iraq after ISIL, including for ownership of Kirkuk.

Baghdad, the note said, would have to contend with a range of land disputes with "strengthened Iraqi Kurdish forces, which have received training and equipment from coalition members, including Canada."

The Liberal government responded by increasing Canada's support to the Kurds, tripling the number of Canadian military trainers and promising to provide them with weapons.

Bessma Momani, a Middle East expert at the University of Waterloo, said Canada bears part of the responsibility for the current crisis by essentially ignoring the issue until it was too late.

"It's almost like they hoped nothing would happen, but didn't lay the groundwork to make sure nothing happened," she said.

"We really did ignore it."

— Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter

News from © The Canadian Press, 2017
The Canadian Press

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