Canada sends bomb-clearing engineers to Iraq as ISIS retreat leaves country littered with IEDs

Canadian combat engineers will train the Iraqi army in bomb disposal over the next six months, the military announced. It is the latest reconfiguration of Canada's mission in the war-torn country.

There are between 1,500 and 3,000 ISIS fighters still at large in Iraq and Syria, commander says

Canadian special forces troops launch into a mission from a base in Erbil, Iraq, on Nov. 14, 2016. In October, the federal government put a halt to its special forces' training of Iraqi and Kurdish forces in the wake of fighting between the two factions. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

Canada is sending 20 combat engineers to train Iraqi troops to dismantle roadside bombs and booby traps left behind by retreating ISIS fighters, the Canadian military announced Friday.

The announcement comes as the overall advise and assist mission involving 200 elite Canadian special forces troops remains on hold because of tensions between the central government in Baghdad and the independence-minded Kurdish region.

The defeat of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria fighters in the northern Iraq city of Mosul a few months ago has left behind tangled ruins littered with improvised explosives.

"There are areas that are heavily polluted by explosive remnants," Brig.-Gen. Dan MacIsaac told CBC News in an interview. "It is appalling. There are vast quantities, and they're intermixed with rubble. The Iraqi people, the Iraqi security forces continue to suffer casualties as there are attempts to resettle people and people attempt to get back to their homes."

The Canadian bomb disposal training, to be conducted in conjunction with other NATO countries, will occur at a base in Besmaya, Iraq, about 45 kilometres from the capital.

It will be carried out, both in the classroom and the field, until the spring next year, MacIsaac said.

The addition of the combat engineers, whose home unit is in Camp Petawawa, Ont., is the latest reconfiguring of Canada's mission in the war-torn country, which began in the fall of 2014 when ISIS extremists overran vast swaths of Syria and northern Iraq.

Mission status

The military also announced Friday that the last CP-140 Aurora surveillance plane will be brought home next month.

Originally two aircraft had been deployed to provide surveillance and targeting locations of ISIS fighters and equipment for warplanes involved in the U.S.-led coalition.

Parliament is on a weeklong break following Remembrance Day, but this latest development is likely to renew questions about the status of the mission involving special forces, which suspended their training of Iraqi and Kurdish forces in the wake of fighting between the two factions.

Iraqi army troops, Iranian-backed paramilitaries and Kurdish fighters had been uneasy allies in the campaign to defeat ISIS, but the alliance has faltered in the aftermath of a resounding independence vote by the semi-autonomous Kurdish regional authority in September.

Ongoing suspension

Canada's special forces do not fall under MacIsaac's command and questions about their mission were referred to the Defence Department, which declined an interview.

The suspension, however, remains in effect, officials confirmed.

"Once more clarity exists regarding the interrelationships of Iraqi security forces, and the key priorities and tasks going forward, the Task Force will resume activities," Dan Le Bouthillier, a spokesperson at National Defence, said in an email.

"In the interim, they will continue to monitor the situation and plan for the next potential phases of operational activity."

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said the bomb disposal training is "a need that was identified some time ago," before violence flared between the various factions.

"We're disappointed solidarity didn't remain until [ISIS] was completely defeated," Sajjan told CBC Radio's The House on the sidelines of a security conference in Halifax.

Once the Iraqis and the Kurds "work out their internal issues," he said, "we will start our support."

Sajjan said he believes there has been good dialogue and Canada "looks forward to them resolving this as quickly as possible."

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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