OTTAWA - Canada's bombing campaign against Islamist insurgents could eventually lead to an Afghan-style mission to train the Iraqi army, but it's an open question whether the Harper government will commit to such a venture.
Canadian fighter-bombers and surveillance aircraft will be in the region by the end of the month, ready to conduct bombing missions against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant by early November, senior military commanders said Friday.
And no effort will be spared to prevent civilian casualties on the ground, said Gen. Tom Lawson, Canada's chief of the defence staff, and Lt.-Gen. Jonathan Vance, the officer in overall charge of Canadian forces overseas.
Published reports in the U.S. indicate Washington has asked NATO to organize a mission to train Iraqi soldiers, many of whom — despite years of American training and billions of dollars worth of military gear — performed poorly during last summer's Islamic State offensive.
A handful of Canadian special forces troops are already conducting an advisory mission with mostly Kurdish forces in northern Iraq, but what the Obama administration is apparently proposing is much wider and more ambitious.
"Simply bringing airstrike power to bear will not deal with the ISIL problem," Lawson told a briefing Friday.
"There is broad recognition that it will be Iraqi forces who will be putting the pressure on ISIL components in coming months, and there is a requirement to bring them to a level of readiness to be able to do that."
Vance acknowledged a need "to get Iraqi security forces on their feet and be able to conduct ground operations" against enemy militants.
"And this indeed will take an effort — a training effort. That the U.S. is looking to trusted partners — amongst whom are NATO — to consider this is not unexpected."
Canada recently ended a three-year deployment in the Afghanistan capital of Kabul, where it was the second-biggest contributor to NATO's effort to train Afghan security forces. As a result, it has considerable field expertise.
The problem is, a large-scale training mission would require conventional ground forces — something the Harper government explicitly ruled out in the parliamentary motion that gave life to the current combat mission.
Lawson wouldn't speculate on anything Canada might do beyond the six-month window approved by Parliament, but suggested the fight against ISIL would last more than a year. He said it hasn't been determined at the international level which countries might contribute to an Iraqi training mission.
The Opposition New Democrats would oppose seeing Canada play a role in such a mission, said defence critic Jack Harris.
The country's on a slippery slope, Harris warned, noting that what began as an initial 30-day deployment of special forces has now morphed into a six-month bombing campaign.
"We've gone from mission creep to mission leap," he said, parroting a favourite NDP tagline.
When the fighters begin their combat mission out of Kuwait, they will take day-to-day targeting instruction from the U.S. coalition headquarters, based in Qatar. But Canadian commanders and officials back in Ottawa will remain in overall command, with a veto over questionable strike missions. The pilots will follow Canadian rules of engagement.
One of the important qualfications to prevent civilian casualties will be the requirement to have "eyes on" the target through the use of CP-140 Aurora surveillance planes, said Vance.
The pilots — through their targeting pods — will also have a view of their targets, and the final decision to open fire will rest entirely with them, he added.
"The discretion of the pilot is absolute and they can exercise that discretion 100 per cent of the time."
The aircraft flying over Iraq will face the threat of light ground fire, in the form of possible shoulder-launched missles and light anti-aircraft machine guns, Vance added.
But the fighters and the surveillance planes possess counter-measures to confuse incoming missiles and can fly higher than the machine gun fire.