OTTAWA — A group of Canadian soldiers had successfully passed several Kurdish checkpoints and were approaching an observation post exactly as discussed with local troops hours earlier when a nervous Kurd with a quick trigger finger opened fire on the patrol, the Toronto Star has learned.
The Canadians were less than 100 metres from the post when they were cut down by the friendly fire, according to a military source.
“The notion that we somehow ‘surprised’ them by being there is not accurate,” a military source said.
Sgt. Andrew Joseph Doiron, of the Petawawa-based Canadian Special Operations Regiment, was killed and three other Canadian soldiers were wounded.
Defence Minister Jason Kenney and Canadian military officials are casting doubt on Kurdish claims that the Peshmerga militia had been surprised by the approach of Canadian troops on Friday, prompting them to open fire.
“They had been there earlier in the day, and they were returning to the observation post ... when it was dark out, and apparently it was a case of mistaken identity,” Defence Minister Jason Kenney said on CTV’s Question Period Sunday.
“Our special operations forces in particular are some of the very best in the world. These are brave men who take every precaution and prudence,” Kenney said.
The death marks the first fatality for a group of 69 special operations forces soldiers who were sent to northern Iraq last fall on a noncombat mission to train and advise local Kurdish and Iraqi fighters in their battle against Islamic State extremists.
New details obtained by the Star about Friday’s deadly encounter challenge claims by Kurdish commanders that the Canadians had surprised them.
In fact, the Canadians had gone to the observation post earlier to make arrangements for their later visit, according to a military official familiar with the incident. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the official investigations now underway.
“Our troops had been there earlier in the day to arrange for that nighttime evolution ... right down to very specific details that were discussed on how to make that happen,” the official said.
“We had pre-clearance, if I could use that term,” he said.
As they returned that evening, the Canadians successfully moved past several Kurd checkpoints without difficulty on their way to the observation post.
“Certainly, the first couple of encounters we had with the Kurds didn’t surprise anybody. And I’m talking right proximate to the area where this happened,” the source said.
That clashes with the account given by Peshmerga spokesman Halgurd Hekmat. He told The Associated Press that when Canadians showed up in the village of Bashiq, near the city of Mosul, the Peshmerga challenged them to identify themselves.
“They answered in Arabic; that’s when Peshmerga started shooting. It was their fault,” Hekmat told The Associated Press.
Hekmat said he doesn’t know why the Canadians were there. “I consider it an improper action by the Canadians and illogical,” he said.
Yet, even if the Canadians had responded in Arabic, that alone was not justification to open fire, the military source said, noting that they had already moved through several Kurdish lines.
“What we had established was working well, but for one individual,” the source said.
Asked whether one of the Kurds got spooked by the appearance of the Canadians, the source said, “I think that’s a fair way to characterize it.”
After the Kurd opened fire on the Canadians, other Kurds opened fire as well, before frantic efforts succeeded in convincing them that their targets were on their side.
When the shooting stopped, four Canadians lay on the ground wounded. Without the high level of medical training given to special forces soldiers, the toll could have been worse, the source said.
“The training that the guys have ... probably contributed to saving a life,” the source said.
“The medical evacuation system that we have in place ... was very, very quick to react and the whole thing worked very, very well,” he said.
One of the wounded soldiers has been flown to a U.S. medical facility in Landstuhl, Germany, for treatment. The two others remain in Iraq. All remain in stable condition, the source said.
“No one fears for the lives of those three,” the source said.
Doiron’s body is expected to be returned to Canada early in the week.
Doiron, a 31-year-old native of Moncton, joined the Canadian Armed Forces in 2002. In a brief statement released by the military, Doiron’s family paid tribute and asked for privacy.
“Our son gave all and through his loss, we gave all. We’ve lost our beloved son and we kindly ask the media to give our family space and privacy to grieve,” the statement said.
-- With files from Tonda MacCharles