Canada’s Kurdish allies in northern Iraq are anxious and impatient for the Trudeau government to deliver on a promise to supply weapons to carry on the fight against Islamic State militants.
Peshmerga senior commanders tell CBC News they have given Canadian officials all of the assurances they require that the arms will be used in accordance with international law.
The promise to provide small arms, ammunition and optical sights to Peshmerga fighters was made when the Liberals retooled the mission last February.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Canada’s top military commander, Gen. Jonathan Vance, asked Kurdish officials, both political and military, last spring to urgently draw up lists of what they required.
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Since then, there has been silence, much to the frustration of the Peshmerga who are locked, along with Iraqi security forces and Shia militias, in a bitter, bloody struggle to liberate Mosul from ISIS control.
“I’m pretty sure of one thing: Your military knows how much we are in need of those weapons,” Maj.-Gen Aziz Weisi, a senior Peshmerga commander, told CBC News in an interview arranged by the Canadian military and conducted with the aid of a translator.
He hinted that the complicated politics between the Iraqi government, led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and Kurdish authorities in the self-governing, semi-autonomous Kurdish region, are at play.
The Kurds have made no secret of their desire for independence and have proposed a referendum.
“We understand the reason, but again, we’re still asking for the support of the Canadian people,” Weisi said in an interview at a special forces patrol base near the front.
“It might be because of Canadian [arms export] law. But secondly, maybe it’s because we’re not a free nation yet, an independent nation. Everything has got to come through Baghdad.”
Concerns over Kurdish independence
Canadian officials suggested a few months ago that one of the reasons for the hesitation was concern the Kurds might use the weapons in a war of independence, following the defeat of the Islamic State.
An official with the Foreign Affairs Department, speaking at a media briefing in Ottawa on Wednesday, said the request has been made to the Iraqi central government in Baghdad, but so far there’s been no resolution to the impasse.
“What we do is in consultation and with the consent of the government of Iraq,” said Sean Boyd, the department’s director of strategic policy for the Middle East. “At this point, Iraqi officials have not provided to the Canadian government that consent.”
Weisi says they have repeatedly assured the Canadians, and other coalition partners, that they only have the enemy in mind, and that fears Canadian weapons might be used in potential violations of the laws of war are unreasonable.
“Who are we going to use them for? They know we’re going to use them against Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
Human rights groups have raised concerns that Kurdish forces, in the liberation of some villages in the lead-up to the Mosul offensive, have been destroying homes belonging to Sunni Arabs.
Weisi denied the accusations, saying the homes were collateral damage of the fighting and that the claims are coming from people who supported extremists and facilitated the ISIS occupation.
Brig.-Gen. Galel Azad, another senior member of the Peshmerga command, said other coalition nations, notably the U.S., have faced similar obstacles in dealing with Baghdad, and the result has been the Kurds don’t see the weapons they need.
Billions of dollars is being spent to equip the Iraqi forces, but the Kurdish defence forces, which are legally permitted under the country’s constitution, see only a tiny fraction of that aid, Azad told CBC News in an interview, through a translator.
A ‘political’ decision
The Kurds are asking for an extensive list of heavy weapons, over and above what the Canadian government is prepared to offer.
Specifically, they are looking for armoured patrol vehicles and anti-tank weapons.
Canadian special forces soldiers have been forced to use their own armour-piercing rockets to destroy ISIS suicide truck bombs, which they have used to blow holes in the front lines.
The Canadians have used them on at least three occasions since the offensive to retake Mosul started last month, military officials said Wednesday.
Asked to comment on whether the Kurds should be supplied with such heavy weapons, Canada’s overseas commander, Lt.-Gen. Steve Bowes, said it is a “political” decision.
The Canadian military attempted to downplay its involvement in the fighting alongside Kurds. It was revealed this week by Canadian military officials in northern Iraq that Canadian soldiers have fired pre-emptively at ISIS forces on a numbers of occasions.
Department of National Defence officials pointed to remarks last spring by the chief of defence staff, who told a parliamentary committee that forces had a mandate to shoot first if they detect a threat.
But that mandate has turned into reality in the battle for Mosul, with the commander of special forces acknowledging Wednesday they have pre-emptively fired “several dozen times” in recent weeks.