ISIS mission: Rob Nicholson quietly meets officials in Iraq
Asked about extension, minister says Canada 'is not a country that stands on the sidelines'
Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson has completed a secret trip to Iraq, but he's not saying exactly what he discussed when he was there.
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Nicholson travelled to Baghdad and northern Iraq's capital of Erbil for meetings with Kurdish leaders this week.
In an interview with CBC News afterwards, Nicholson said that the battle against ISIS militants is making progress, with signs that the Islamic State has been contained by Iraqi fighters, working with Iranian ground troops and other support from Western trainers and air forces.
During a conference call from neighbouring Jordan, he told reporters that the threat of ISIS dominated his conversations in the Middle East.
While in Baghdad, Nicholson said he discussed the ongoing fight against the Islamic State.
"I took the opportunity to express Canada's support for political reform and good governance," Nicholson said.
"I commended the Iraqi government for the progress they've been making to date, though I recognized that much remains to be done for the Iraqi people to gain the freedom, security and stability that they deserve."
Devastation in Erbil 'truly appalling'
In Erbil, he said he "saw first-hand the devastation brought on by [ISIS]," which he described as "truly appalling."
But he declined to provide additional details on the possibility of Canada extending its air mission, which is set to expire April 7.
"One of the reasons that I am here is to get information with respect to all aspects of our contribution," he said. "The government will be making a decision on this in the next few weeks."
Nicholson said the government is "looking at ways that we have contributed, and what is available for the future."
"Canada is not a country that stands on the sidelines," he said. "We are in this for the longer term to make sure we do what we can to help."
He added that so far, the feedback he got on the ground was that Canada's support "has been very helpful and very much appreciated."
Nicholson also travelled to the United Arab Emirates this week after a previously-publicized stop in Paris.
He told reporters that global security was at the top of the agenda during his visit to Paris.
Forces prepared for extension
In a briefing for reporters in Ottawa Thursday, the defence department said Canadian fighter jets have now completed 372 bombing runs over northern Iraq. On Feb. 24, a CF-18 took out three ISIS fighting positions.
The Canadian military believes that senior ISIS leaders have been lost over the last four months, and fighters are deserting the ISIS ranks. Reporters also were told radicalized Western youth were being used as suicide bombers or sent to front lines without training.
"From a material, equipment, training and personnel standpoint, good to go, if you will," said the mission spokesman.
"I think if the government of Canada was to expand the mandate into Syria, we're already operating in the area and so it's not a stretch to say that it would not be that difficult to adapt to the Syrian environment."
In a possible sign the military expects to continue the mission, photos released by the Canadian Forces last week show new construction and other improvements being made to the camp Canadian forces are using.
With files from The Canadian Press