Canada will withdraw forces if Iraq formalizes request for foreign troops to leave: Sajjan

If the Iraqi Parliament formally asks foreign troops to leave the country, Canada will withdraw its forces, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said today.

Defence minister says the U.S. has made no specific request of Canada for proposed expansion of NATO role

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says the United States has not made any specific request of Canada for a proposed expansion to the NATO mission in the Iraq region. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

If the Iraqi Parliament formally asks foreign troops to leave the country, Canada will withdraw its forces, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said today. 

"Ultimately, we are here at the request of the Iraqi government. Ultimately, it will be their decision," Sajjan said from the Middle East, where he is visiting Canadian forces.

"Just like we have a parliamentary process that we follow, they have their own as well. We are there at the request of the Iraqi government. If they were to change that, we do have to respect that."

Canada has about 500 military members in Iraq associated with two separate missions.

Canadians were part of the NATO mission to train Iraqi security and armed forces, and also took part in the U.S.-led coalition mission to hunt down remnants of the Islamic State, or ISIS.

Gen. Jonathan Vance, Canada's top military commander, halted both those missions earlier this month after the U.S. drone attack that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander Qassem Soleimani at the Baghdad airport increased the risk to foreign troops in the region.

The Department of National Defence said Thursday both missions remain on hold, although some supply missions have taken place.

In the wake of the Soleimani killing, Iraq's Parliament voted in favour of a non-binding resolution calling on the Iraqi government to expel foreign troops from the country. Adel Abdul Mahdi, now the caretaker prime minister since resigning in November, supported the call.

Sajjan said that discussions are taking place between the two countries as Canada looks to get its mission back on track.

"The current Iraqi leadership realizes why we came here in the first place, which is actually to help Iraq, to stop the scourge of Daesh, known as ISIS, from controlling the country," he said.

"Obviously the Iraqi government has concerns. We're listening to those concerns."

No specific request for expanded NATO role

Sajjan said that, for now, the priority of the Canadian mission in the region is to ensure the safety of Canadian Forces on the ground. He said no decision will be made on resuming either mission until the security situation improves.

"We are looking at all measures to get back, to continuing both our missions within the coalition but … we will only do so when the security situation is appropriate," Sajjan said.

Sajjan would not say how many Canadian soldiers are now in Iraq, or if any of the Canadian personnel who moved out of the country in the wake of the drone strike have returned.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo spoke with Foreign Affairs Minister François‑Philippe Champagne about the possibility of NATO expanding its role in the region.

According to a readout of the conversation from the U.S. Department of State, the two foreign ministers " … spoke about the Iranian regime's continued aggressive and destabilizing actions in the region and steps to contain it, specifically the opportunity for an expanded NATO force in Iraq and appropriate burden sharing."

Asked if the U.S. had made a specific request of Canada, Sajjan said that while Canadian participation in the missions was always intended to change as the situation on the ground changes, no formal request of Canada has yet been made.

"There are no asks based on one nation," Sajjan said. "This is about working together as part of a coalition because that's what good coalition partners do."


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