Politics

Northern Iraq airbase targeted by Iran has been key in Canadian fight against ISIS

There was a time when the sounds of war were a daily occurrence at the sprawling airbase in Erbil, in northern Iraq. That was in the fall of 2014, when Canadian special forces troops arrived to help Kurdish fighters to repulse what seemed, at the time, to be the unstoppable onslaught of Islamic State extremists. The sounds of battle returned in the early hours Wednesday with an Iranian ballistic missile attack — one of two in Iraq.

Canadian troops were sent to Iraq as part of a coalition effort to beat back ISIS

A Canadian Forces soldier walks towards a Griffon helicopter near Erbil in northern Iraq in 2016. An airbase in Erbil used by Canadian Forces and other members of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS came under missile attack from Iran late Tuesday, along with another base near Baghdad. No casualties have been reported. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

There was a time — not so very long ago — when the sounds of war were a daily occurrence at the sprawling airbase in Erbil, in northern Iraq.

That was in the fall of 2014, when a contingent of Canada's elite special forces troops arrived on the ground and helped Kurdish fighters dig trenches and fill sandbags to repulse what seemed, at the time, to be the unstoppable onslaught of Islamic State extremists.

Both the airbase and the city remained on the knife's edge for weeks until the Kurdish Peshmerga pushed back ISIS in a long, painfully slow campaign that marked the beginning of the end of the terrorist organization.

The sounds and the fury of battle returned early Wednesday (late Tuesday night, Eastern time) with an Iranian ballistic missile attack — one of two in Iraq — that struck the airbase at Erbil, which has been the hub of Canadian military operations against ISIS for more than five years.

The attack, in retaliation for the targeted killing last week of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike, was aimed at U.S. and coalition forces.

Canada has had about 500 troops in Iraq.

About half of them provide support to the NATO training mission, while other half — mostly based in Erbil — are involved in the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition. The base has hosted Canada's special forces soldiers, intelligence officers and helicopters.

The Canadian military will not say what sort of contingent may have been at the base, but the country's top military commander moved swiftly to reassure families of those serving in Iraq that there were no casualties.

"I can assure you that all deployed CAF personnel are safe [and] accounted for following missile attacks in Iraq," Gen. Jonathan Vance said in a tweet. "We remain vigilant."

During those long, hard months, as nearby Mosul was liberated from the grip of ISIS, the Kurds in Erbil formed a special bond with the Canadian troops.

"We believed the Canadian people sent good soldiers," Peshmerga Maj.-Gen Aziz Weisi told CBC News as the campaign to expel extremists kicked into high gear in late 2016. "Good people build good relations."

The bonds have reportedly held strong, even after the U.S abandoned Syrian Kurds in the face of a Turkish military incursion in northern Syria last year.

In a year-end interview with CBC News, prior to the killing of Soleimani and the rising tensions with Iran, the Canadian military's operations commander, Lt.-Gen. Mike Rouleau, said the ties have remained strong.

"I think what we built with the Kurdish partners we had in northern Iraq is something that is deeper than the latest crisis," said Rouleau, referring to the politics surrounding the strain in relations between the Kurds and the Americans.

At one point during the height of the bloody battle to retake Mosul, wounded Kurdish fighters were brought to a Canadian Role 2 military hospital.

The busy airbase also hosted Canadian surveillance planes which were used to spot targets coalition airstrikes and keep tabs on the movements of retreating ISIS fighters.

Canadian Armed Forces medical personnel take part in a simulated patient training exercise at the Role 2 hospital in Erbil, Iraq in 2017. The hospital has since been dismantled. (DND Combat Camera/Sgt. Josephine Carlson, US Army)

The field hospital and the surveillance planes have long since returned home, pieces in the ever-moving chessboard of military assets and personnel that have characterized Canada's war against the Islamic State.

The defeat of ISIS on the battlefield did not see the end of the presence in Erbil.

Special forces troops, specially trained in counter-terrorism operations, have been advising Iraqi forces troops on how best to hunt down the remaining ISIS holdouts in the barren, semi-mountainous region of northern Iraq and along the border with Syria.

Iran has launched 'more than a dozen' missiles at two military bases in Iraq that house U.S. and coalition forces, the Pentagon confirmed Tuesday. (CBC News)

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.