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Canadian special forces shooting first at ISIS to protect civilians, allies

Canadian special forces soldiers in Iraq have occasionally opened fire without warning on Islamic State extremists in order to protect civilians and their Kurdish allies, military officials say.

They have also been deeply and routinely involved in evacuating casualties from the front in the months leading up to the offensive to liberate the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.  

Military officials revealed the information on Monday, saying they want the Canadian public to have a better understanding of the soldiers’ mission to train and advise Peshmerga fighters.

The Liberal government has insisted the elite soldiers are not involved in combat and that they shoot back when they’re attacked.​

Commanders have in the past hinted about troops taking preventive action, but officials speaking on background in Iraq removed all doubt.

Later during a tour of the front line in northern Iraq — coming within 15 kilometres and earshot of the raging battle in Mosul — Lt.-Col. Steven Hunter pointed to several specific incidents.

He says his troops have sometimes been the first ones to spot the enemy, and when it’s clear the Peshmerga can’t respond, the Canadians have shot first.

“Because they have demonstrated hostile intent, we’re able, through our rules of engagement, to use our own weapons systems to engage that kind of threat,” said Hunter, the commanding officer of the Canadian Special Operations Regiment.

It’s happened in instances where ISIS fighters were rallying behind massive suicide bomb trucks and when civilians were being threatened.

How and when Canada engages ISIS2:41

As an illustration for one battle, Hunter used the rocky, sloping, barbwire-stitched side of Zardek Mountain, a long-time Peshmerga redoubt northeast of Erbil.

For security reasons, the accounts from the battle have been scrubbed of any details that ISIS commanders might find useful. It is impossible to corroborate the details.

The troops have helped man casualty clearing stations directly behind the front lines during Kurdish operations last summer that liberated a series of towns on the road to Mosul.

Some of the stories, told by officials, were stark.

At one station, 450 patients went through in the space of a few weeks.

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Peshmerga Brig.-Gen. Weisi dismisses reports that Kurdish units have deliberately demolished Sunni Arab villages. A report by Human Rights Watch criticized the Kurds. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

Both Hunter and Brig.-Gen. Peter Dawe, the deputy commander of the entire special forces branch, praised the working relationship with the Kurds and said the trust that has been built up comes largely because Canadians were willing to share the danger.

It has also afforded them the opportunity to keep a close look on their allies.

Over the weekend, a Human Rights Watch report accused the Peshmerga of deliberately destroying Sunni villages.

Brig.-Gen. Weisi, the commander of Peshmerga forces of the district Zerevani, dismissed the allegations as being manufactured by disgruntled Sunnis.

“Of course there are some people over there who are ISIS supporters,” Weisi told CBC News in an interview. “They provided information to ISIS. They worked with ISIS.”

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A CH-146 Griffon lands in a field northwest of Erbil. The helicopter detachment is a recent addition to Canada’s mission in Iraq. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

He later suggested the village had been caught in the crossfire.

The U.S.-led coalition command released a statement, taking note of the controversy.

“We are aware of the reports, but cannot confirm the accuracy of the accounts,” officials said.

The Liberal government in Ottawa has yet to formally respond.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has sought to play up Canada’s humanitarian involvement in Iraq.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced last summer a military hospital would be deployed to Erbil for the Mosul offensive.

The four-bed facility finally opened last week after numerous customs delays in Baghdad, where the central government has been keeping a wary eye on the relationships of the independence-minded Kurds.

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Unidentified doctors and a nurse work on a patient during a casualty simulation exercise. After long delays, a Canadian military hospital began operating last week in Erbil. It will treat casualties from the offensive against ISIS in Mosul. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

The officer in charge of the centre, Lt.-Col. Richard Morin, served as a doctor during the Canadian combat mission in Kandahar. Bracing for casualties from the Mosul offensive caused him to reflect.

“When you do come to these kinds of deployments you realize how lucky we are; how privileged we are to bring our skills to this kind of environment,” he said.

The Liberals also approved the deployment of a tactical helicopter detachment, which is now up and running. The CH-146 Griffons are meant to transport special forces soldiers and act as backup medical lift aircraft to evacuate wounded from the battlefield.

After reshaping the mission last year and ending an aerial bombing campaign against ISIS by CF-18s, the Trudeau government has been mum on whether Canada will participate beyond next spring in the aftermath of the expected defeat of ISIS in Mosul.

Despite that, National Defence has poured $37.5 million into the construction of a special forces camp in Erbil.

Major construction only started in June and some barracks just opened last week.