Politics·Exclusive

Liberals opt to keep combat hospital in Iraq until next year

A Canadian military hospital will remain in northern Iraq until next April. It had been anticipated the facility would come home following the liberation of Mosul, but the Liberal government recently authorized a six-month extension as fighting erupted between Iraqi and Kurdish forces.

Canadian doctors still needed to conduct 'life-saving surgery' after fall of Mosul, says hospital commander

Canadian Armed Forces medical personnel take part in a simulated patient training exercise at a military hospital in Erbil, Iraq, on January 23, 2017. The Liberal government has extended the deployment of the hospital until April 2018. (DND Combat Camera/Sgt. Josephine Carlson, US Army)

The Liberal government has authorized the Canadian military to keep a combat hospital in northern Iraq until next spring, CBC News has learned.

Originally deployed in the fall of 2016, the facility's mandate was up this month. It was anticipated the facility would pack up and come home following the battle for Mosul, which finished last summer.

A decision to keep the hospital in Erbil was approved before the Canadian army's special forces contingent suspended advising and assisting Kurdish and Iraqi forces, which have been involved in several violent clashes.

The temporary halt to that military assistance took place Friday and will remain in effect until it's clear the fighting between pro-independence Kurds and the central government in Baghdad is over.

In announcing the training suspension, a senior official at National Defence emphasized it would be business as usual for not only the hospital, but also a helicopter detachment and intelligence officers involved in the mission.

The officer commanding the hospital said the extension will mean some changes.

Lt.-Col. Dave Coker, in a telephone interview with CBC News, said the size of the facility will be pared down to 35 staff, from the current 50, for the remainder of the deployment.

"We still need that capability," he said. "We have to be ready to conduct that life-saving surgery for whatever comes through the door."

Simmering tension

The fighting between Kurdish and Iraqi troops and Shia militia has not touched the facility, nor has it treated any casualties from clashes which began Oct. 16.

"We're in very secure coalition infrastructure," said Coker, whose home base is the naval facility in Halifax.

The Kurds held an independence referendum last month and the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi responded by recapturing the city of Kirkuk and its surrounding, lucrative oil fields from Kurdish fighters.

Iraqi forces drive towards Kurdish Peshmerga positions on October 15, 2017, on the southern outskirts of Kirkuk. A temporary halt to Canadian military assistance will remain in effect until it's clear the fighting between pro-independence Kurds and the central government in Baghdad is over. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

On Friday, al-Abadi ordered a halt as the two sides negotiated the deployment of central government forces — on semi-autonomous Kurdish territory — along the border with Iran, Turkey and Syria. Those talks were extended on Sunday.

The president of the Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, announced Sunday he will step down when his term expires on Nov. 1.

The extension of the hospital's mandate until April 2018, the current status of special forces assistance, and the recent fighting between factions will likely raise more political questions about Canada's continued role on the ground.

Last June, the Trudeau government elected to keep the Canadian military in Iraq for another two years, but has been fuzzy about how the mission would change following the expulsion of ISIS.

Lots of work for doctors

Coker said there's still plenty for the hospital to do alongside the U.S.-led coalition

"They have defeated Daesh in Mosul, but that doesn't mean Daesh is defeated in Iraq," he said, noting that operations to root out extremists have taken place in the region of Rawa and al-Qaim along the Syrian border.

The vast majority of patients seen at the Canadian hospital come from other coalition countries, including the U.S., which has up to 5,200 soldiers in Iraq.

Coker said they have treated approximately 600 patients on the medical side and an equal number in the dental office.

The hospital has seen at least seven Canadian soldiers and even three captured ISIS fighters, according to a report by The Canadian Press earlier this year.

"It's always peaks and flows. Sometime you're busy. Sometimes you're not," said Coker.

"From my perspective, if we're not busy that means coalition soldiers are not getting injured."

Military personnel take part in a training exercise at the Canadian-run hospital in Erbil. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

During one incredible day last summer, the medical team was inundated and triaged 50 casualties, almost all of them Iraqi forces.

They had to decide who needed immediate care and surgery in their trauma centre, and who could be put on a casualty evacuation flight.

"It was pretty amazing to see," said Coker, who noted that the troops had already passed through front line aid stations before arriving by "various means," including helicopter and vehicles, at the Canadian compound in Erbil.

"It was definitely the day that will stand in memory for me and anyone else who was involved."

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.