Politics

Violence in Iraq isn't stopping Canada's training mission there, says general

The unrelenting tide of anti-government violence in Iraq — including targeted killings of protesters and gruesome reprisals — hasn't derailed Canadian and NATO military training missions in the country, but it has made them more challenging, a top Canadian general told CBC News.

Anti-government protests are distracting Iraqi officials and could be exploited by ISIS

Women sit by a wall covered with the names of anti-government protesters killed in ongoing protests in Baghdad, Iraq, on Dec. 12. (Khalid Mohammed/The Associated Press)

The unrelenting tide of anti-government violence in Iraq — including targeted killings of protesters and gruesome reprisals — hasn't derailed Canadian and NATO military training missions in the country, but it has made them more challenging, a top Canadian general told CBC News.

"I'm concerned about what has been happening in Iraq over the last number of weeks," said Lt.-Gen. Mike Rouleau, the head of Canada's overseas and domestic operations, in a year-end interview. "We'll be happy when the instability stops." 

Canada leads the NATO alliance mission to train instructors at three Iraqi military schools and advise the country's defence ministry. Separately, Canadian special forces are partnered with Iraqis in the north of the country, providing counterterrorism advice and assistance in the ongoing mission to hunt down remnants of the Islamic State.

Rouleau said that, while he's not "overly concerned" about the ability of the Canadian military to complete its mission, he acknowledges the violence and uncertainty has forced it to call off some meetings and activities with distracted Iraqi government officials.

Lt.-Gen. Mike Rouleau: 'The political instability doesn't hurt ISIS.' (CBC News)

"There have been a number of meetings and engagements that have had to be cancelled," he said. "The lion's share of the business proceeds apace."

Still, Rouleau said the crisis in Iraq has been the topic of conversations "every couple of days" between himself and his boss, Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of the defence staff.

Canadians face risk of 'indirect fire'

Reports published in the region quote Iraqi army sources saying two rockets were fired at a military base near the Baghdad airport housing U.S. troops on Thursday — the 10th such attack since late October, when the instability began.

The Canadian military has not reported a similar incident, but Rouleau said the threat of troops being hit by "indirect fire" worries him.

Still, Rouleau expressed confidence in the security measures put in place to protect Canadian troops.

The Liberal government has authorized the military to deploy up to 850 soldiers throughout the Middle East. Most of them have been assigned to the NATO mission and the separate U.S.-led counterterrorism campaign in Iraq.

Rouleau cautioned that social and political instability is something Islamic State extremists thrive on and could exploit.

Islamic State 'still a threat'

"While they have been severely set back, they are still a threat. The political instability doesn't hurt ISIS," he said, using another common name for the Islamic State. "It potentially gives them gaps and seams and vacuums and that's one of the reasons we need to stay focused on it.

"I can say with high confidence they will seek to exploit any gaps they find. The instability is not a particularly positive thing for the defeat-ISIS mission."

The spark that ignited the ongoing protests touches on some of the fundamental problems in Iraq the NATO training mission is trying to address.

The demotion of a prominent commander in the Iraqi counterterrorism service — known as the Golden Division — set off the recent unrest. Abdel-Wahab al-Saadi was relegated to a desk job in the country's defence ministry and it's believed nepotism was the reason for the order to sideline him.

Creating an impartial, merit-based Iraqi defence force is one of the key goals of an international community desperate to prevent a repeat of the disaster in 2014, when the country's army and police formations melted away in the face on an Islamic State onslaught out of Syria.

Continuing with the security sector reform is crucial, Rouleau said.

"We're not talking about training people to shoot rifles," he said. "We're talking about a pretty comprehensive effort to get a sustainable Iraqi defence enterprise on its feet."

The anti-government protests, which have grown in size and violence since October, have claimed over 400 lives and led to the recent resignation of the prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi.

Last week, demonstrators lynched a teenage male they accused of attacking a protest camp in Baghdad. The incident happened in Baghdad and the body of the youth was hung from a traffic light.

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