John Baird tours Kurdish front lines in ISIS fight in Iraq
Kurdish government asks for more weapons for 'long fight' ahead
Peshmerga Brig-Gen. Magdeed Haki motioned towards a dark blur on the horizon about a kilometre from his searing hot, windblown perch atop a sandbagged, orange-dirt bunker in northern Iraq.
Behind him, kilometres to the south, the key city of Erbil lies relatively unscathed, despite recent events. Just 40 kilometres northward, the city of Mosul is still held by the marauding Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, the al-Qaeda splinter group that has waged a relentless offensive across this region for months.
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The blur on the horizon, just a kilometre off, is part of that problem: about 150 ISIS fighters holed up in a village called Dash. Stalemate is in the air.
None of the 100-plus U.S. air strikes of the last month have been able to root them out and the fierce determination, bravery and skill of the legendary Peshmerga also are hamstrung by a grim reality.
"They (ISIS) take profit from the village and the mosques and the schools and these kinds of things," said Haki, a trim, wiry and clean-shaven soldier clad in crisp, green fatigues, wraparound sunglasses and baseball style cap.
"They go inside to hide themselves from our attacks. That's why they keep inside the village, they won't come out."
Canada and allies France, Italy, Britain and Australia are, at the request of the Iraqis and Americans, helping to airlift guns, mortars and ammunition to Iraqi forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga. But while some countries are supplying weapons, Canada is not.
Baird, MPs view front lines
Baird left impressed. He lauded the courage of the men manning the remote outpost, which lies about 200 metres from hundreds of white tents in neat rows — an abandoned displaced persons' camp that had to be vacated in the face of another recent ISIS advance.
"By offering safe haven to over 850,000 displaced persons internally and by engaging in direct combat with ISIS forces, the Kurdish people have shown the world their strength and their commitment to pluralism and peace," he said.
Hours later, a senior Kurdish official would use his podium next to Baird's at the minister's closing news conference in Erbil to make an urgent plea for heavy weaponry to fight the rampaging terrorist insurgency.
"We need more weapons ... It will be a long fight," said Faud Hussein, chief of staff to the president of the Kurdish Regional government. "We are fighting a terrorist state that has roots in various countries."
He said many ISIS fighters come from foreign countries, including Canada. What's more, said Hussein, they are armed with sophisticated U.S. weapons either taken from the Iraqi army or imported from Syria.
Non-lethal assistance for now
Kurdish fighters need tanks, helicopters and artillery, he said.
Baird politely deflected all talk of bolstering arms shipments to the Kurds, choosing instead to change the channel to his stated purpose for this trip — to encourage the development of a strong, new, inclusive central government in Baghdad.
He noted Canada's latest $15 million contribution: $10 million for helmets, body armour and logistics support for vehicles and $5 million to help staunch the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria.
He reiterated his Thursday announcement of another $7 million in humanitarian assistance for relief supplies, emergency shelter and health care for thousands of civilians displaced by the fighting in northern Iraq. That announcement pushed Canada's humanitarian assistance to $28 million this year.
Baird didn't close the door completely, saying Canada and its allies currently meeting at NATO would be discussing a co-ordinated military response to the ISIS crisis. "Like-minded friends and allies will be looking at what additional measures will be needed."
One thing was certain: hours earlier, Baird said his eyes had been opened after he climbed to the Peshmerga bunker north of Erbil, and surveyed the windswept position.
"It's not just an abstract problem taking place in a distant land; it's right in front of your eyes," Baird told reporters after leaving the dusty hill to rejoin his motorcade.
Looking to the distance, he added: "The horrifying thought is to see all these tents that came with all the families that were forced to leave their homes, the horrific circumstances to have to be here."
Church harbours internal refugees
Baird would soon come face-to-face with the human misery of some of those who fled. His first encounter with Iraq's internally displaced came in and around the grounds of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Erbil when he paid a call on its bishop and other clergy.
In the courtyard outside, Jambit Azo Atto described fleeing her village near Mosul recently with her four daughters and two sons.
"We got out with these clothes, no more," she said of her bright, red-patterned dress. She spoke near a dozen United Nations refugee tents which sat white and large in tidy rows under a sizzling morning sun.
Near her, young children ambled about, men languished or smoked in the shady overhangs of stone buildings and women peered out around tent flaps. An unattended, dark-haired boy toddled from between two tents, crying incessantly.
A few streets over, Baird was led to a hollowed-out, two-storey building, still under construction, that had become home to 100 displaced families. Last week, they baked in the open, but now, because of a new aid project, they were at least inside, where the temperature was still around 40 degrees.
Walled rooms, about five metres square without ceilings, were being raised to afford the fleeing families some measure of privacy.
Baird's large entourage squeezed through narrow, newly built corridors amid the pounding of hammers and the whine of saws. The minister paused periodically to chat with Iraqis who described their plight.
'A future ahead of them'
All of that was a warm-up for the Baharkha refugee camp, Baird's last stop before leaving Iraq.
Baird doffed his blue suit jacket and sat cross-legged and red-faced, crammed into a small room in what looked like a massive, unfinished stone airplane hangar. Dozens of white tents huddled in ranks under the concrete ceiling. In one, Baird listened to more animated Iraqi men and women.
Outside the building, under the blinding sun, more white tents bearing the United Nations refugee agency's logo stretched to the horizon, where several cranes perched like vultures.
Young girls and their mothers gathered around a pump, washing dishes and collecting water in white plastic jerry cans, as toddlers straggled aimlessly in the dusty tracts between the tents.
Wansa Ahmad found some shade under a low-slung awning. She said a dozen people she knew had been killed by ISIS. She fled her village after much "bombing and killing," which brought her and her 12 children to this camp.
Seated next to Baird a few hours earlier, Chaldean Bishop Bashar Maty Warda had explained the implications of the suffering that the minister was about to see and urged him to do what he could to help send these people back to their villages.
"It's getting too long for them, because they are living in very miserable situations," the bishop said. "It's not just about providing food and humanitarian aid; it's about just giving them the chance to think that there is a life, a future ahead of them.
"That's not the case now."