The head of Canada's Special Forces says the death of one of his commandos "was an accident" and a "a tragic case of mistaken identity."
Sergeant Andrew Doiron was killed in a friendly fire incident along the frontlines of the fight with the Islamic State (or ISIS) after two Peshmerga fighters opened fire on his unit.
To date, Doiron is the only NATO soldier killed since the joint bombing and training mission of Iraqi and Kurdish forces began against ISIS.
Brigadier-General Michael Rouleau, Commander of the Canadian Special Operations Forces (CANSOF), briefed the media on a highly-redacted report on Doiron's death in a press conference on Tuesday.
Canadian commandos are in the Kurdish region of Iraq to advise and train Peshmerga soldiers in various forms of warfare. The two Kurds who opened fire on Doiron's unit — one with a sidearm, the other with a mounted machine gun — had no night-vision goggles and were supposed to receive training from the Canadian Forces personnel on low-light engagements.
The controversial training mission, which has faced scrutiny from opposition parties in Canadian parliament, has led to exchanges of gunfire between ISIS fighters and the Special Operations Task Force (SOTF) personnel, but has not led to any other deaths.
According to an internal investigation, Doiron approached a Peshmerga fighting position with three other Canadian operators the night of March 6. The day before, Kurdish forces had engaged ISIS militants in the exact same location with heavy casualties reported on both sides.
The Kurds were anxious about new attacks from ISIS, said Rouleau, leading to a heightened state of "anxiety."
On top of that, the Peshmerga unit the Canadians were training during the day, the ones who knew the SOTF unit would be returning, were switched with new Kurdish soldiers who were unaware Doiron and his unit would be returning.
Just the same, as the unit drove towards the meeting spot, they had a Kurdish fighter radio ahead to alert the machine gun position.
After exiting their vehicle, a pack of wild dogs attacked, causing loud noises and increasing the tension in the area. Thinking ISIS militants were approaching, Kurdish soldiers suspected an ambush.
As the unit approached, the Peshmerga soldier raised his weapon. Doiron yelled, in English, but the soldier opened fire. From there, the mounted machine gun swiveled and fired.
The rest of the unit took cover, but did not return fire.
One of the main issues identified by the report is that no Canadian Forces personnel spoke Kurdish — they relied on English and, in some cases, Arabic.
"Informal interaction is conducted through a rudimentary system of Canadians speaking Kurdish, Peshmerga speaking English, and a combination of hand gestures used by all," the report reads. When more detail is needed, Canadians employ vetted translators. Other methods detailed by the report are redacted.
While the report reads that "conversations may occur in Arabic," which both the Kurds and SOTF operators speak, it appears that they decided not to. The explanation in the report is redacted.
Going forward, Rouleau said SOTF personnel will be accompanied with a Kurdish guide.
All four Canadian special operators were struck by Kurdish bullets and while Doiron was the only casualty, one other soldier had life threatening wounds. One returned to Canada, one is still in Iraq.
Following the release of the report, Defense Minister Jason Kenney confirmed that "additional protocols designed to mitigate the risk" to Canadian soldiers would be made.
The defense critic for the opposition NDP, Jack Harris, still had a list of questions.
"Why is it that they were there at 11 at night? Was that natural? Was that normal? Knowing that there's inherent dangers in travelling at night in a war zone, why didn't they have more protection?" Harris asked. "Why didn't they have escorts from the Kurds who were engaged in this? How is it they were travelling alone and without the proper support for this particular mission? Why were they so close to the front lines in any event?"
The Forces may have answers for all these questions, but they remain classified due to operational security. The opposition parties, however, still wonder whether this accident is proof that objectives of this mission are quite different than what the government is saying publicly.
"I mean it seems that, if this is a training mission, then that's not the kind of thing you'd do in the middle of the night on the front lines," Harris said.