Canada will assume command of a NATO training mission in Iraq for its first year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Wednesday.
At the urging of the U.S., the Western military alliance will conduct what’s known as a “train the trainer” mission to better develop the skills of the Iraqi army to stabilize the country and prevent the re-emergence of groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The mission will involve up to 250 Canadian troops deployed to Baghdad and the surrounding area, as well as up to four Griffon helicopters.
It will be commanded by a Canadian major-general, and Canadian troops will provide the bulk of the headquarters staff. The force will protect the hundreds of other NATO trainers who are expected to begin their work in July.
The decision addresses two vexing political problems for the Liberal government.
It had committed to keeping Canadian troops in Iraq until 2019, but since the battlefield defeat of ISIS, there have been questions about what they will do.
Canadian special forces troops were training both Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Iraqi army soldiers in the country’s north, but that program was put on hold following an outbreak of violence last fall when the Kurds voted overwhelmingly for independence.
Ammunition to rebut Trump
Leading the training mission in Iraq — along with a NATO battle group in Latvia — also gives Trudeau ammunition to rebut criticism levelled by U.S. President Donald Trump, who has been insisting allies pay more and meet the alliance’s defence spending targets.
Canada has had a small contingent of combat engineers in Iraq under the NATO flag, instructing Iraqi forces on how to clear unexploded bombs and booby traps.
Trump has insisted NATO do more to counter militants, but European members of the alliance have been reluctant to undertake a larger role following the decade-long, open-ended commitment in Afghanistan, which included both a combat and training mission for local forces.
There has been considerable debate at the defence ministers’ level about which country would protect the trainers and provide transport.
Canada has had helicopters in Iraq as part of its existing mission. Those aircraft will stay to assist the new NATO initiative.