De­fence min­is­ter lauds Iraq’s ap­proval of ex­panded NATO mis­sion

Edmonton Journal - - CITY -

De­fence Min­is­ter Har­jit Sa­j­jan was hail­ing Thurs­day the Iraqi gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion to let NATO stay in the coun­try even as many Cana­dian troops re­mained on lock­down.

The min­is­ter’s com­ments fol­lowed news the Iraqi gov­ern­ment had agreed to let NATO’S Canada-led training mis­sion con­tinue, weeks af­ter the coun­try’s par­lia­ment passed a res­o­lu­tion de­mand­ing all for­eign troops leave.

The non-bind­ing de­mand fol­lowed the U.S. killing of Ira­nian Maj.- Gen. Qassem Soleimani near the Bagh­dad air­port. It cast un­cer­tainty over the fu­ture of not only the NATO mis­sion, but the en­tire in­ter­na­tional ef­fort against the Is­lamic State of Iraq and the Le­vant.

“As you know, we from the be­gin­ning stated that we wanted a re­sump­tion of the mis­sion as quickly as pos­si­ble be­cause we felt that was ex­tremely important,” Sa­j­jan told The Cana­dian Press in an in­ter­view from Brus­sels. “This is obviously a pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ment.”

Yet ques­tions abound as to what comes next, in­clud­ing when the NATO mis­sion will re­sume. The mis­sion was sus­pended due to se­cu­rity con­cerns af­ter Soleimani’s death, with some Cana­dian troops moved to neigh­bour­ing Kuwait.

Sa­j­jan sug­gested the mis­sion re­mains sus­pended over se­cu­rity wor­ries and po­lit­i­cal un­cer­tainty, and that dis­cus­sions are un­der­way to de­ter­mine when the training mis­sion, which in­cludes 250 Cana­dian sol­diers, can re­sume.

In an­nounc­ing the Iraqi gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion on Thurs­day, NATO Sec­re­tary-gen­eral Jens Stoltenber­g also re­vealed the al­liance had agreed to ex­pand its ef­forts in Iraq. The ex­pan­sion fol­lows U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s call for NATO to do more in the Mid­dle East.

While the plan now is to move hun­dreds of train­ers work­ing with the U.s.-led coali­tion fight­ing ISIL over to the Cana­dian-led NATO mis­sion, Stoltenber­g and Sa­j­jan were ex­tremely vague on de­tails as dis­cus­sions among the var­i­ous par­ties are still on­go­ing.

Un­like the U.s.-led coali­tion mis­sion, NATO’S training ef­fort does not in­volve com­bat.

Sa­j­jan did in­di­cate that a group of mil­i­tary engi­neers who have been training Iraqi forces on how to dis­arm ex­plo­sives through the U.s.-led coali­tion could be rolled into the NATO mis­sion. But he would not spec­u­late on the fu­ture of the roughly 200 Cana­dian spe­cial forces sol­diers in Iraq.

The min­is­ter did sug­gest, how­ever, that the size and scope of Canada’s over­all ef­forts in Iraq will re­main largely un­changed.

“The way we have set up our mis­sion, we make de­ci­sions based on the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion on the ground. And we were do­ing quite a bit based on the needs. So even if we were to go down with NATO tak­ing on greater ca­pac­ity-build­ing roles, the needs are still the same.”

When asked Thurs­day if he had re­ceived pledges from other NATO al­lies to do more so the U.S. could re­duce its per­son­nel in Iraq, U.S. De­fence Sec­re­tary Mark Esper said “the short an­swer is yes.” He de­clined to pro­vide de­tails.

Stoltenber­g also pro­vided no de­tails about how many troops might be added to the training force or what new ac­tiv­i­ties they might even­tu­ally un­der­take. More could be made pub­lic af­ter he meets top of­fi­cials in the anti-is coali­tion in Mu­nich Fri­day.

Of­fi­cials have said “a cou­ple of hun­dred” troops would change roles. The first step would be to ex­pand the training at three bases in cen­tral Iraq. A sec­ond step, pos­si­bly over the sum­mer, would see the mis­sion’s man­date changed to take over more ac­tiv­i­ties cur­rently han­dled by the coali­tion.

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