UNITED NATIONS - Prime Minister Stephen Harper sought details from the U.S. on how Canada could play a more muscular role in Syria and Iraq, an offer that led to the American letter for military assistance, according to U.S. and Canadian officials.
Pentagon officials confirmed to the Star Thursday the Canadians were willing partners who approached them.
Harper appeared to suggest Wednesday it was the U.S. who took the initiative via a letter of request he received in the “last couple of days.”
Harper told a New York audience Wednesday that Washington sought more help from Canada on top of the 69 Canadian military advisors already on the ground in Iraq.
“The United States just recently in the last couple of days has asked for some additional contribution and . . . we’re weighing our response to that this,” Harper said Wednesday, suggesting because it was a U.S. letter, it was up to the U.S. Administration to release it.
However, a Pentagon official on Thursday said it was actually the Canadian government that came knocking.
“What I can tell you is that the Canadians requested additional details on what they could do to contribute to coalition efforts to aid the Government of Iraq in countering ISIL and (the Department of Defence) sent a letter describing areas where their contributions would be helpful,” Cdr. Bill Urban, a press officer with the U.S. Department of Defence, said in an email.
Harper spokesperson Jason MacDonald denied there was any contradiction. He said Canada’s outreach to Washington was simply part of ongoing discussions between the two governments on Canada’s role in the Islamic State fight.
“What we have said is, ‘We’re prepared to provide additional assistance but we need to understand what it is you would need in terms of additional assistance, so outlining that would give us something we can take to cabinet that we can discuss,’ ” said MacDonald.
“That is what we have received in the form of a letter that the prime minister mentioned yesterday. It’s that simple.”
MacDonald insisted the prime minister has been publicly clear all along since deploying 69 military advisers to aid Kurdish forces that in Iraq that Canada was in ongoing discussions with allies, could make further contributions, and never downplayed what was at stake.
The late-day revelation prompted outrage from New Democrats, who accused Harper and his government of keeping Canadians in the dark about the evolving mission.
“It doesn’t pass the smell test . . . . The story we were told doesn’t seem to be true,” NDP MP Paul Dewar said in an interview.
“I just wish we would have the prime minister come clean, tell us what he actually said, what he wants to do and give us the straight facts . . . especially when we’re talking about going into a theatre of war,” said Dewar, the NDP’s foreign affairs critic.
Dewar recently accompanied Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird on a fact-finding trip to the region but was kept in the dark about the deployment of Canadian military advisers to aid the Peshmerga in northern Iraq.
“We don’t trust the Conservatives on this,” Dewar told the Star. “We’ve gone from mission vagueness . . . to mission creep to mission leap.”
Because the U.S. is leading the response to the Islamic State, it is best placed to know what assets and resources are needed, MacDonald said in an interview with the Star Thursday. He compared it to discussions with NATO over Canada’s participation in Baltic patrols.
Baird said cabinet would discuss the U.S. requests and would not detail exactly what the U.S. says it needs, however he told reporters at the UN he would “absolutely” consider Canadian participation in air strikes a combat mission that would be brought to a vote in Parliament.
Harper expressed support of air strikes Wednesday, backing efforts to strike Islamic State operating bases in northern Syria and Iraq to prevent a “terrorist caliphate” from spreading. “A lot of that can be done from the air,” Harper said.
But MacDonald declined to discuss “what we may or may not do, what we may or may not have been asked to do.”
Harper barely touched on the turmoil in Iraq and Syria in only his third address in eight years to the UN’s annual meeting of global leaders. It was a speech that contrasted sharply with his first 2006 address that was a call to aid Afghanistan in its fight against ousted Taliban forces.
This year, Harper made only passing reference to the threats to global security that “deserve our urgent attention.”
He said Canada “has always been ready and willing to join with other civilized peoples and to challenge affronts to the international order, affronts to human dignity itself, such as are today present in Eastern Europe, particularly Ukraine, the Middle East, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, and many parts of Africa.”
“We will continue to contribute to the extent to which we are able in assisting our friends and allies in the international community to deal with these grave challenges.”
He devoted much of his evening address to a call to global leaders. “Saving the lives of vulnerable mothers, infants and children must remain a top global priority.” He called it the issue “closest to my heart.”
Earlier Harper announced Canada would spend $100 million to jumpstart a new international fund housed at the World Bank to encourage private donors and developing countries to finance concrete steps to boost maternal, newborn and child health. He also announced another $100 million specifically for projects will register vital statistics in poor countries.
Norway and the U.S. also kicked in to an investment strategy meant to leverage an ultimate pool of $4 billion from other governments, private sector partners, and countries who might benefit from the spending.
Harper said registering births and deaths around the world will be the new development priority for his government.
Dr. Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization, lauded Harper as one of two “fathers of accountability” in the global effort to accelerate progress on this front.