Sgt. Andrew Doiron's death likely due to Kurdish fighter fatigue, general says

Canadian special forces trainers will likely be advised to stay away from the front in northern Iraq after major Kurdish operations as it appears battle fatigue among peshmerga fighters was the likely cause of last month's fatal friendly fire incident.

Special forces soldier gunned down accidentally March 6 in northern Iraq

Sgt. Andrew Doiron's shooting in Iraq has been described as a case of mistaken identity when the elite Canadian trainers stopped to check on an isolated Kurdish unit.

Canadian special forces trainers will likely be advised to stay away from the front in northern Iraq after major Kurdish operations as it appears battle fatigue among peshmerga fighters was the likely cause of last month's friendly fire incident, the country's top military commander said Sunday.

Gen. Tom Lawson, the chief of defence staff, made the remarks following a speech by Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the fighter base in Kuwait which launches many of the U.S.-led coalition's attacks on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Sgt. Andrew Doiron was gunned down accidentally on March 6, at night, near an observation post along the front lines west of Erbil, in northern Iraq.

The Harper government hasn't been briefed on the contents of three separate investigations into the tragedy, but that will happen soon, possibly within a month, Lawson said.

Recommendations will also be made to prevent a repeat of the shooting, which has been described as a case of mistaken identity when the elite Canadian trainers stopped to check on an isolated Kurdish unit.

"What we have to mitigate is things like fatigue," Lawson said, suggesting that special forces would avoid areas where there had been recent battles. "You'll see many of the mitigation steps we recommend will have to do with that area."

When asked if the weariness among the under-trained fighters was a factor, the defence chief said: "I think we'll see the fatigue of the soldiers who were at the front, the peshmerga at the front, would have played a part."

The Kurdish forces had fought a series of pitched battles with extremists in the days leading up to the tragedy.

Sanitized summary of investigations

Canadian military officials, who were not authorized to speak publicly, suggested on Saturday that visits to the front by special forces trainers have ceased since the accident, something Lawson would not confirm.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper eats breakfast with soldiers at the Camp Canada section of a military base in Kuwait on Sunday. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Whether any peshmerga fighters face punishment is an open question. And in a sign of how far the fledgling force is willing to go to appease its new mentors, Lawson says local commanders have told him that the Kurds' investigation will be based on the Canadian investigation.

"The steps they take will be the steps they take," he said.

Lawson committed to releasing a sanitized summary of the findings of the three investigations — a military police criminal investigation, a technical investigation by special forces, and a U.S. special forces evaluation.

Harper left the Middle East late Sunday en route to the Netherlands for the 70th anniversary celebration of the end of the Second World War.

Throughout Harper's whirlwind tour of Iraq and Kuwait, there were persistent questions about Doiron's death — something the prime minister said he hoped wouldn't detract from the peshmerga's well-earned reputation for bravery and halting ISIS in its tracks.

He capped the trip with a speech to the aircrews and maintainers carrying out the bombing campaign against ISIS, and delivered it with an election-style flourish, complete with references to the national anthem.

"You stand on guard between the civilization we enjoy and the savagery that seeks to come to our shores," Harper said, standing in front of two CF-18 fighters and a giant Canadian flag.

Perfect photo-op moment

Harper spoke at Camp Patrice Vincent, west of Kuwait city, a base named after the soldier murdered by an ISIS-inspired killer last October.

It was another perfect photo-op moment, one of several over the last two days. The Conservative party was already tweeting photos Harper at the front on Sunday.

A Kurdish soldier sits in the background as Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Minister of Defence Jason Kenney visit members of the Advise and Assist mission, approximately 6 kilometres away from active ISIS fighting positions, 40 kilometres west of Erbil, Iraq, on Saturday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The usual cloak of secrecy that surrounds special forces missions was partially dropped as Harper — with the media in tow — went within kilometres of the front line, west of Erbil, to view the training mission and was photographed looking out toward extremist trenches.

The prohibition of media from air bases in Kuwait was relaxed for Sunday's event, which military officials described as a "one off" and something that required the direct intervention of the Prime Minister's Office with the Kuwaiti government that apparently said "no" to previous requests for access.

Even still, the attention was kept squarely focused on Harper, and reporters were not allowed to view Canadian military operations or talk with the aircrews conducting the war.

Campaign-style stops

Harper also made a pair of stops in Erbil on Saturday that had a definite campaign-style feel.

At Melwood Geometrix Ltd., a Montreal concrete prefabrication maker with an office in the Kurdish capital, the prime minister met the company manager, was handed a Montreal hockey sweater, and was treated to an explanation of the company's operations.

And all of it was carried out before the cameras — much like a campaign stop.

During his speech to the military, Harper even managed to get in a plug for Bill C-51, the government's anti-terror legislation, telling the assembled crowd that it will give security agencies greater powers to thwart terrorist plans.

"On the home front, we're working to give our security agencies the whole range of modern tools necessary, to identify terrorists and to thwart their plans, including greater ability to stem the recruitment and the flow of home-grown fighters," he said.

Harper also met briefly Sunday with the Emir of Kuwait, who is hosting the Canadian air contingent along with other nations that are part of the U.S.-led coalition.


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