In what is believed to be the first confirmed ground clashes between Western troops and Islamic State fighters in Iraq, Canada's military acknowledged on Monday that members of its special forces had exchanged gunfire with the militant terror group in Iraq sometime within the past week.
Elite soldiers embedded in the Middle East nation to train local forces as part of Operation IMPACT — Canada's official mission against the Islamic State — came under attack from militant mortars and machine-gun fire while instructing Iraqi security forces near the front lines.
The Canadians and Iraqi forces hit back with sniper fire to "neutralize both threats," according to remarks by Brigadier General Michael Rouleau, commander of Canada's Special Operations Forces Command, at the second media briefing on IMPACT since the mission began in October. The firefight occurred sometime within "the last seven days," he said.
There were no casualties or injuries reported.
Rouleau said that the incident was "the first time we've taken fire and returned fire" with the Sunni extremist group, which now controls more than a third of Iraq since it launched a bloody land grab across the country from neighboring Syria last summer.
"My troops had completed a planning session with senior Iraqi leaders several kilometers behind the front lines," Rouleau said. "When they moved forward to confirm the planning at the front lines in order to visualize what they had discussed over a map, they came under immediate and effective mortar and machine gun fire."
The US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State has so far held back Western troops from active combat in Iraq and Syria. President Barack Obama had earlier promised that operations in the region would "not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil."
While the US has no appetite for another active ground incursion in Iraq, it does have 3,000 soldiers currently building local military capacity there. Canada has sent 600 personnel, including 69 special forces members advising Iraqi troops and missions.
The mission's scope includes training mortar and sniper teams to shoot farther and more accurately, coaching Iraqi operators on heavy machine-gun fire, rocket-propelled grenade training, and showing troops how to quickly patch up wounded comrades.
The focus on training and instruction is a key tactical component of the West's fight against the militants, most of which takes place "well behind front lines," Rouleau said.
Canada also plays a role in assisting with coalition airstrikes, which began last August in Iraq and a month later in Syria, targeting key Islamic State positions, the group's heavy weaponry, and armament storage facilities.
Authorization for the Canadian mission is set to expire in April, but forces will stay put if parliament votes to extend the six-month deployment.
"We are prepared and preparing to extend [the mission] if we are told to. We are prepared to return if we are told to," Lt.-Gen. Jon Vance said at the briefing on Monday.
In response to news of the ground battle, opposition politicians were skeptical of the Canadian government's continued claims that it would not "deploy troops in ground combat operations" in Iraq and Syria.
"If we're at the front lines and calling in air strikes, and we're engaged in firefights because we're subject to machine-gun fire, that's not what Canadians were told," New Democrat MP Jack Harris said.
But Rouleau downplayed the incident, adamantly insisting that it didn't represent an increased combat role in Iraq. He said that the threat level for Canadian forces on the ground is "low," and compared the exchange to Canadian peacekeepers defending themselves in Bosnia in the 1990s.