OTTAWA - In helping Kurdish fighters direct air strikes against Islamic State forces in Iraq, the Canadian military may have put itself out front of even its closest ally.
The U.S. military is not using its special forces operators in front line positions, an American spokesman confirmed Tuesday.
President Barack Obama has been under pressure from Republicans, defence experts and high-profile advisers to loosen restrictions on the roughly 3,100 U.S. troops who are conducting an advise-and-assist mission similar to the one authorized for Canada by the Harper government.
Maj. Curtis Kellogg, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, which oversees the allied coalition, said there has been no change in American policy, which has its soldiers running training missions on bases.
Defence experts argue that the operation needs forward air controllers to pinpoint targets for air attacks.
"Our policy has been that we are not providing that type of forward air support control from the front lines," Kellogg said.
U.S. commanders have, in the past, defended the policy of allowing Iraqi and Kurdish fighters to suggest targets, which are then checked out by coalition surveillance drones — or aircraft, such as Canada's CP-140 Auroras.
Canada's commander of special forces, who says his troops have directed air strikes on 13 occasions, says their work gives the coalition confidence that the targets are legitimate.
Brig.-Gen. Mike Rouleau also said that confidence made the process faster and safer not only for Iraqi and Kurdish troops, but civilians as well.
Foreign policy expert Roland Paris of the University of Ottawa said it's fascinating that Canada is potentially further ahead of the U.S. when it comes to prosecuting this aspect of the war.
"The Americans could be doing it covertly. You just don't know what you're not being told," said Paris, who pointed out that no other allies, including Britain, France and Australia, have acknowledged carrying out similar front-line duties.
"Based on what's been revealed to date, Canada seems to be more directly engaged in the ground war in Iraq than even the U.S. That's unexpected and striking."
Paris said he could only speculate on why the situation has evolved that way. It is possible, he said, that American commanders — feeling hamstrung by administration policy — asked allies to help. It is also conceivable that Canadian commanders took the initiative.
Rouleau said his troops are doing something the Iraqis cannot. Paris wonders what happens when local forces go on the offensive later this year to retake territory from extremists, particularly Mosul, Iraq's second largest city.
Urban combat is much more fluid and tricky than fighting in relatively static positions, the way the campaign is conducted now.
When asked on Monday when the Iraqis will be able to direct air strikes on their own, Canada's top operations commander Lt.-Gen. Jonathan Vance said he expects that "down the road, the Iraqi air force and army will be able to bring in, and guide on" air strikes.
The revelations sparked heated political debate Tuesday, as opposition parties pointed to earlier assurances from both the government and top military commanders that the special forces were only engaged in training.
Speaking in Toronto, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said Monday's news contradicts Prime Minister Stephen Harper's promise that the special forces would not go into battle.
"Canadian soldiers are not accompanying the Iraqi forces into combat," Harper told the Commons on Sept. 30.
Mulcair said the lack of transparency on the part of the government is shocking.
"The prime minister has not been honest with Canadians on this issue," Mulcair said. "He has to come clean and he has to do it quickly. Every time he was asked, he said, 'No, they would not be involved in combat.' And every time they were involved in combat, we asked and they said, 'No, it is not a combat mission.'
"And Canadians deserve better than word games from their prime minister."
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said he has no problem with troops defending themselves, referring to a recent incident where Canadian trainers came under fire while visiting the front line and shot back.
The issue of guiding air strikes is totally separate, Trudeau said, and Harper has not been "open and frank" with Canadians since the beginning.