Trudeau confirms Canadian military personnel were at airbase hit by Iranian missiles

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed today that Canadian troops were in harm's way when Iranian ballistic missiles slammed into a military base in northern Iraq early Wednesday, but he declined to condone — or criticize — the U.S. actions which precipitated the strike.

PM says all Canadian personnel are safe, refuses to comment on U.S. drone strike that precipitated the attack

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to reporters with, left to right, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance and Deputy Minister of National Defence Jody Thomas at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed today that Canadian troops were in harm's way when Iranian ballistic missiles slammed into a military base in northern Iraq early Wednesday, but he declined to condone — or criticize — the U.S. actions which precipitated the strike.

Speaking to reporters in Ottawa after a separate deadly air crash in Tehran claimed the lives of dozens of Canadians and those with ties to the country, the prime minister said Canada condemns the Iranian attack on the base.

"I am relieved, as are all Canadians, that all personnel deployed in Iraq are safe," Trudeau said.

He expressed admiration for the professionalism of the soldiers under fire but also repeatedly emphasized the importance of staying the course in the ongoing effort to eradicate the remnants of the Islamic State.

That message, according to government insiders, was the main focus of Canada's diplomatic efforts Wednesday, conducted through a flurry of telephone calls to world leaders.

Drone strike was Washington's call: Trudeau

Keeping the anti-Islamic State coalition together and focused has taken precedence over pressing the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump for evidence justifying the American drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad.

"It was a threat assessment the U.S. made," said Trudeau. "It was a threat assessment the U.S. was tasked with making and made."

The Trump administration has insisted since Friday's drone strike that Soleimani represented an imminent threat to American lives — but the language it's used to support that claim has changed over the last few days, with more emphasis being placed on the general's role in creating mayhem and bloodshed in the region with the secretive Quod Force branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

Iranians gesture as they gather to mourn Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, who was killed by an American drone strike last week. (Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA/Reuters)

In some respects, Trudeau's remarks mirror the careful language being used by other world leaders — including NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who on Monday deflected questions about whether the allies were troubled by the extraordinary decision to kill Soleimani.

NATO ambassadors were given a briefing by the U.S. State Department and military members on Monday, and apparently were given a sense of the intelligence the Americans were acting on when they ordered the drone strike. Trudeau did not say today whether Canada was convinced by that briefing, or whether he brought up the subject in a telephone call with President Trump on Wednesday.

'It opens the Pandora's Box'

Roland Paris, a former foreign policy adviser to Trudeau and a University of Ottawa professor, said Democrats in the U.S. have been doing a good job of demanding an explanation for the killing. He also emphasized the extraordinary nature of the United States targeting a foreign official for death, in legal and foreign policy terms.

"It opens the Pandora's Box and it might be one of the longer term consequences," said Paris, noting that it's largely unprecedented for a western country to kill an adversary's general outside of a state of war.

The focus of U.S. allies, including Canada, appears to be "stabilizing this situation, which is explosive," he said.

Trudeau said Canada is prepared to continue the "extremely important" anti-ISIS NATO training mission in Iraq.

"NATO has a significant role in the training mission that we're moving forward with — but there are always going to be more reflections on what are the next steps to take, given the current circumstances," the prime minister said.

Keeping the anti-ISIS mission alive

Canada has about 500 troops in Iraq, some of whom were moved out earlier this week as a precaution. Military assistance operations and most activities outside of heavily fortified compounds have been suspended until the security situation improves.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said today he could not state when, or if, the assistance might resume.

Paris said it's vital that both the NATO training mission and the more direct U.S.-led military coalition hunting ISIS holdouts resume their work.

"We have a clear interest in sustaining those missions and building up the capacity of the Iraqi government to hold the country together and to be countering any revival of ISIS," said Paris.

Less than two years after the American troops left Iraq following the 2003 invasion, the Iraqi army collapsed in the face of the threat from ISIS.

"It was not only horrifying in terms of ISIS's actions, but it threatened our security," said Paris. "Canada [and] the rest of our allies have a very clear interest in preventing a resurgence of the Islamic State."

Former top Canadian commander Tom Lawson, who first ordered special forces into Iraq, said that given the current tension between Iran and the U.S. — and even within the Iraqi government in Baghdad — restarting both missions could be tough.

"It's difficult to see a scenario that has [Canadian troops] return happily to supporting the Kurds in the north, and just as tough to figure out what kind of scenario could return the NATO mission out of Baghdad," the retired general told CBC's Power and Politics Wednesday night.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, 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.

With files from Tyler Buist