OTTAWA — Prime Minister Stephen Harper misled Canadians when he vowed that soldiers in Iraq would not be engaged in combat, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said Tuesday after revelations that troops have been directing airstrikes and even fired on extremists.
“He told Canadians they would not be involved in combat. He did not tell the truth,” Mulcair said.
The NDP leader was reacting to a Monday update by the Canadian Armed Forces that an elite team of soldiers on a training mission in Iraq have been calling in airstrikes by fighter jets on Islamic State targets and one occasion, exchanged fire with extremists themselves.
This even though the soldiers were dispatched to northern Iraq last September on a mission to train Iraqi and Kurdish fighters with the pledge that they would not be involved in combat themselves.
Brig.-Gen Michael Rouleau, commander of Canadian Special Operations Forces Command, told a briefing that Canadian soldiers have helped guide fighter jets to bomb targets, including using a laser to “designate” the target to ensure a precise hit.
“We are enabling coalition airstrikes within our area of operations,” Rouleau told a briefing Monday.
He denied that this role blurred the line of their non-combat mandate, saying the job of directing airstrikes was within their “advise and assist” role.
And he said the soldiers were forced to fire on extremists after being attacked during a visit to front-line areas.
Harper announced in September that a small team of 69 soldiers was being sent to Iraq for the non-combat mission. In October, the government extended that 30-day mission to six months and deployed aircraft to join the aerial combat mission.
But the government pledged that the ground troops were there as trainers and would not be involved in combat.
“There will however be no ground combat mission, which is explicitly ruled out in the resolution,” Harper said in the House of Commons on Oct. 3 as MPs prepared to vote on the mission.
Mulcair suggested Tuesday that Canadian troops had crossed the line, given assurances by Harper.
“Mr. Harper cannot get away with telling Canadians there will be no combat by our troops and then try to explain away the fact that they of course are being involved in combat.
“Mr. Harper has not been honest with Canadians,” Mulcair said during a visit to Toronto.
“In answer to substantive questions on this in September, he denied that we would be involved in any way, shape or form in a combat mission. That wasn’t true. Canadians deserve better,” he said.
Liberal MP Dominic Leblanc said the revelations raise questions the government’s transparency on the mission.
“We’re not surprised first of all that Mr. Harper wasn’t transparent with Parliament and Canadians when he embarked on this military combat mission,” Leblanc said during a meeting of the Liberal caucus in London, Ont.
“We’re used Mr. Harper giving half truths, not answering questions, pretending it’s something that it’s not,” he said.
He said the comments by the military commanders raise questions whether the military mission has changed, and if so, he wants clarification when Parliament resumes sitting next week after the holiday break.
“The government asked Parliament for a mandate for one sort of mission and if they’ve decided now to do a different kind of mission they should at least have the decency to come back and force their own MPs to vote in favour of the change in the mission,” Leblanc said.
The Liberals and New Democrats opposed the Iraq mission in a parliamentary vote last fall.
A statement from Harper’s office did not address the questions about the potential combat role for the troops but highlighted the Conservatives’ rationale for joining the multinational fight against the extremists.
“As the Prime Minister has said, the international jihadist movement has declared war on Canada and its Allies. We must confront this threat head on, which is exactly what this government is doing,” Harper spokesperson Jason MacDonald said in a statement.
“Unlike the Liberals and the NDP, who would prefer Canada sit on the sidelines while others do our fighting for us, we will continue supporting the international coalition in the fight against ISIL,” he said.