New NATO commander confident war criminals, militia will be screened out of Iraq training program

NATO is confident its screening procedures will keep suspected war criminals and militia members out of its new training program in Iraq, says the new Canadian commander.

Canada to lead Alliance training mission with initial deployment to Baghdad by the end of October

Maj-Gen. Dany Fortin, pictured while he was a colonel, salutes the flags as part of a National Day of Honour ceremony at CFB Valcartier, May 9, 2014. (Cpl. Nathan Moulton/Canadian Forces Combat Camera)

The Canadian commander of NATO's new training mission in Iraq expressed confidence Wednesday that the alliance will be able to screen out potential war criminals and hard-core militia members from being instructors in the troubled country's rebuilt army.

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, in a round of media interviews, said the system has worked well so far for the limited amount of training the western allies are already doing.

The expanded mission, numbering 580 troops, and Canada's leadership of it was formally announced at the recent alliance summit in Brussels.

It involves training Iraqi instructors to school their own soldiers in skills such as bomb disposal, combat medicine and armoured vehicle maintenance.

Fortin said NATO will only be working with troops that are "under the direct and effective control of the government of Iraq only."

It is a crucial point given the political and human rights mishmash that make up sectarian militias — known as popular mobilization forces — some of which have been enshrined as distinct entities under the Iraqi defence ministry.

The Shiite militias, for example, played a crucial role in augmenting the Iraqi army in its campaign to rid the country of Islamic State extremists, but they have become a source of political tension, especially among Sunnis and Kurds.

Finding quality people

Separately, last year, Human Rights Watch accused the U.S.-trained Iraqi 16th Division of extra-judicial killings and other abuses during the battle to retake Mosul, the country's second largest city, from ISIS.

Concern about who NATO would be working with has been a recurring question. It burst into public view last fall when the Iraqi army briefly battled with its erstwhile ally the Kurdish Peshmerga in the wake of an independence referendum. 

(Photo: Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

The security environment in Iraq is "extremely complex," said Fortin.

"I think we have a pretty good vetting process in place to screen out those potential instructors to ensure we have quality people, that they — the Iraqi government — feel confident with."

Canada is providing the headquarters staff, helicopters and up to 250 soldiers who will be the framework for the mission and provide security.

The NATO training commitment has been about two years in the making. There was considerable debate among defence ministers about which country would protect the trainers and provide transport. That debate was settled with Canada's acceptance of responsibility for the mission.

The mission will operate out of Baghdad and two small villages near the capital.

Canadian special forces soldiers, left and right, speak with Peshmerga fighters at an observation post, Monday, Feb. 20, 2017 in northern Iraq. The federal government says the Canadian military will remain in Iraq for at least two more years as part of an international coalition. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Fortin said he and his team at headquarters will be in place by October and it will be the new year before the rest of the training force is established. He would not say which other NATO countries will contribute troops.

"We're very early on here," Fortin said, noting that the Iraqis have yet to form a national government.

Two weeks ago Iraqi political parties protested the results of a nationwide election recount, with claims of corruption.

Influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's political coalition won the majority of the seats in that parliamentary election and the recount upheld the result. 

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.