In a military update today on Operation IMPACT—Canada's official mission against the Islamic State—Canadian military officials confirmed the country's top trained special operators were not engaging in attacks on militants, but rather, acting in support of Iraqi missions. They also denied the military is engaging in a direct "combat mission."
But today's update comes on the heels of an undisclosed incident involving Canadian soldiers receiving direct fire from ISIS militants for the first time, with the last official briefing coming in October.
Within the last seven days Canadian officials say there was an incident following a battle planning session with Iraqi forces. After Canadian operators approached the front lines to better understand the physical battle space, ISIS forces ambushed their convoy with "effective mortar and machine gun fire."
It's worth noting a recent controversial QMI story—vigorously denied by Canadian officials—quoting defence sources claiming special forces snipers were killing ISIS militants. If correct, the story would represent an escalation in Canada's combat role in Iraq, effectively putting dreaded "boots on the ground."
No more specifics were given on the incident, but Canadian officials were adamant it didn't represent an increased combat role in Iraq, maintaining the threat level for Canadian forces on the ground is "low" and comparing the mission to Canadian peacekeepers in the 90s.
That said, according to the military officials, those same soldiers engage in active targeting of enemy positions resulting in lethal force, training Iraqi security forces in various armed skill sets, and providing battle planning expertise.
Officials say one of its several support roles is to provide top-level military training to Iraqi security forces, improving their effectiveness on the battlefield. Eventually the plan is for those same forces to be capable of eliminating the Islamic State in coordination with coalition bombing campaigns.
That includes training valuable mortar teams to make their "accuracy manifestly better," training Iraqi operators on heavy machine gun fire, rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) training, and how to immediately deal with wounded comrades.
So far, officials say ISIS gains have been stunted in northern Iraq.
The real success Canadian defence officials tout is the training of Iraqi snipers, reportedly enabling them to "effectively shoot four times further" than before the Canadian mission began. Officials remarked on a "tenfold increase" in Iraqi sniper activity against ISIS.
During the update Canadian military officials disclosed photos taken by Canadian special operators during a surveillance and targeting mission on ISIS forces.
Close-up images of two armed militants were shown, with coalition forces successfully dropping precision munitions on those same enemy positions shortly after the photos were taken by Canadian operators.
The same Canadian officials cautioned on drawing conclusions from the proximity of the photo, stating military "optics are quite good" for bomb assessment. That kind of military operation was among 13 other occasions involving the "high end military skill set" of Canadian soldiers making sure "targets are legitimate."
It's not clear who exactly comprises the Canadian military ground force advising the Iraqi national army, but officials did say it was a composite task force made up of various special operations units.
That likely means soldiers from Canada Joint Task Force Two (JTF2)—Canada's equivalent of Delta Force—and operators from the Canadian Special Operations Regiment, were among the units attached to Iraqi forces.
Officials were mum on whether or not Operation IMPACT will stretch beyond the current six month commitment, but they did indicate they were prepared to remain in the deserts of northern Iraq.
"We are prepared and preparing to extend [the mission] if we are told to. We are prepared to return if we are told to," said Lt.-Gen. Jon Vance at the briefing.
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