Canadian troops watching for human rights abuses as battle for Mosul rages

Canadian special forces troops have been told to keep an eye out for possible human rights abuses and sectarian score-settling as the battle to liberate Iraq’s second largest city continues to unfold.

About 40,000 anti-ISIS forces are fighting for the Iraqi city — uneasy allies who could quickly turn enemies

Four Canadian aircrew who fly one of the country's CP140 surveillance planes, targeting ISIS positions in Iraq, leave the flight line at an unidentified coalition airbase in Kuwait. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

Canadian special forces troops have been told to keep an eye out for possible human rights abuses and sectarian score-settling as the battle to liberate Iraq's second largest city from the Islamic State continues to unfold.

The assertion came on the same day a leading U.S.-based rights group accused Kurdish forces of practising a scorched earth policy — routinely destroying Arab homes, but leaving Kurdish ones intact, in areas cleared of ISIS control.

Mosul is the last ISIS stronghold in Iraq and the extremists there have been waging a deliberate campaign of terror meant to incite sectarian tensions.

A coalition of some 40,000 anti-ISIS forces is fighting for the city — a medley of fighters that includes Iraqi army units, militarized police, special forces, Kurdish troops and Iranian-backed Shia militias.

That means the campaign to evict ISIS from Mosul — which has been going on for almost a month — is being waged by uneasy allies who could quickly turn into enemies.

Keeping an eye on allies

There's concern that the Iranian-backed Shia militias — operating west of the mostly Sunni city, with the consent of the Iraqi government — could take revenge on suspected Sunni collaborators.

Kurdish forces, whom Canadians have been training for the past two years, are also wary.

There were reports over the last week that some Sunnis who have fled the fighting were expelled from Kirkuk, a city further south, by Kurdish security, over fears they might be sleeper agents.

It is something the U.S.-led coalition has been keeping a wary eye on, Canadian officials said Sunday.

"It is a concern," said Christina Marcotte, a civilian policy adviser with the Canadian task force headquartered in Kuwait.

Canadian role to advise

"Certainly from the point of view of the government of Canada, we expect our military members who are up there right now to report any incidents. To date there have been no reports of such incidents."

It was revealed last month that Canadian troops were spending more time at the front lines as the anti-ISIS campaign shifted from defence to offence. There are approximately 200 Canadian special forces members in Iraq, mostly advising the Kurds and assisting by observing the battles and helping call in airstrikes.

The mission has been billed as "non-combat," though the government says they can shoot in self-defence.

Brig.-Gen. Shane Brennan, commander of Canada's Joint Task Force in Iraq, speaks at a media briefing Sunday at an unidentified coalition airbase in Kuwait. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

A senior Canadian representative with the multinational coalition said the Iraqi government will not tolerate the kind of sectarian blood-letting that has been a horrific feature of life in that country since the U.S. occupation.

Brig.-Gen Greg Smith, who serves as the chief of staff to the coalition land headquarters, said Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi made it clear that those committing atrocities will be held accountable under the laws of armed conflict.

"This is not a group of fighters going around waging war against the population," Smith said via video conference from Baghdad. 

He paraphrased an old quote, saying the cleanliness of the war will determine the cleanliness of the peace that follows.

"In a multi-ethnic country with a lot of history, like Iraq, they're very sensitive to that in particular,"  Smith said.

Battle could take a long time

He wouldn't, however, speculate on how long it will take for the Iraqis and Kurds to recapture the city, which fell to the Islamic State in 2014. Coalition commanders have previously predicted the Mosul campaign could last months.

Iraqi special forces come under fire from ISIS fighters while running across an intersection Sunday as they try to push forward in the Karkukli neighbourhood of Mosul. (Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images)

The battle is slow going. In many cases, it's now going street by street, block by block.

The Kurds have made strong progress in the east and have entered the outskirts of the city. The Shia militias just recently began their push in the west. 

Some analysts suggest the campaign is being held up by the inexperience of Iraqi troops, who are pushing in from the south. 

The commander of the Canadian task force urged patience.

"I don't necessarily agree with the words 'held up.' What we have got underway right now is a complex battle in urban terrain," said Brig.-Gen. Shane Brennan. "In the urban battleground, everything is slow, i.e. it's close."

The Iraqis and Kurds have suffered roughly 200 dead and over 1,000 wounded in the campaign thus far — casualties that will put further strain on already frayed relationships.


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.