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On the front lines of Canadian assistance in Iraq

With the Canadian government vague on details, journalist Samya Kullab visits northern Iraq to find out how Canadian military and humanitarian efforts are impacting the region, and what work still needs to be done.

By: /
23 December, 2016
Boys play with a ball in front of oilfields burned by Islamic State fighters in Qayyara, south of Mosul, Iraq November 23, 2016. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
By: Samya Kullab

Journalist based in the Middle East covering security, refugees and politics

The columns of smoke emerge suddenly from the distance, billowing into the air and turning the sky from blue to ominous grey. A sign greets our convoy as it approaches the entrance of the town: This is Qayyara, key in the liberation of Mosul. 

The town lies 65 kilometres south of the city where an Iraqi-led operation to root out the Islamic State has now, as of late December, entered its tenth week. An Iraqi commander instructs the convoy to hurry as it snakes its way through narrow streets, and, pointing toward buildings a few kilometres away, warns that snipers might still be lying low.

Iraqi forces had already retaken Qayarra back in August. In the months before that, ISIS militants set ablaze 19 oil wells in this area. It was a symbolic as well as economic blow that would cost millions of dollars in lost revenue. When the oil-producing region was recaptured, Iraqi forces hailed the event as an early triumph in the long anticipated battle for Mosul, which began on Oct. 17. The international community and media initially hailed advances in the area as successes — especially in early November when the recapture of Mosul looked imminent. But for residents still living here, the atmosphere is far from celebratory.

Four months since they were retaken, the oil fields in Qayyara are still burning within metres of homes, coating the ground with a thick layer of tar. Acrid black soot rains down on residents; it cakes the soles of their shoes, stains their shirts and is inevitably spit out in coughing fits. A nearby medical centre checked in nearly 500 people complaining of breathing problems. In the town’s devastated hospital building — looted by ISIS members before being targeted by coalition airstrikes — Omar, a Qayyara resident, is among dozens of volunteers working to restore the first level of the emergency room so it can take in local patients.

“The ash is everywhere, we have to clean the walls every single day,” he says, and asks, “Can Canada can help us put out the wells?”

Iraqi efforts to extinguish the burning fields have been slow, as the process has proven to be dangerous and complex. For the people living here, the fumes serve as an eerie reminder that the struggle to restore normalcy in Iraq will be just as arduous, if not more so, as it was to defeat the Islamic State in Qayyara.

Expectations that the fight for Mosul would be an easy win were dispelled within the first week of the offensive. As 30,000 Kurdish and Iraqi forces inched toward the city from the north, east and south in a bid to encircle Mosul, they were surprised to encounter the complex asymmetrical fighting tactics of ISIS militants. As Iraqi forces make the glacial push westward in Mosul, ISIS has drawn them into bitter street-to-street warfare in densely populated neighbourhoods, with civilians still hiding in their homes. The consensus is the road to victory will be long and hard-won.

Canada’s involvement in Iraq is more visible in certain areas than others, but in almost every instance more questions are raised than Liberal officials are able to answer.

Canadian Special Forces soldiers may not be knee-deep in soot, extinguishing oil fires, but they have over the course of two years helped modernize the Zeravani, a key component of the Peshmerga, the Kurdish armed forces. Whether these efforts will backfire and be employed in ways not intended by Ottawa will likely be a contentious issue in the future for Canadian-Iraqi relations (particularly with regards to the Iraqi Kurds’ state-building goals). Canada is also supporting the enormous humanitarian effort underway through financial assistance and an ambitious (yet still vague) plan to resettle Yazidi refugees formerly held captive by ISIS.

But more than two years since the Harper government launched Operation Impact, and one year after the current Trudeau government announced it would no longer take part in the bombing attacks on ISIS, what do we know so far about Canada’s efforts in Iraq?

The First Front: Military assistance

Peshmerga forces inspect a tunnel used by Islamic State militants in the town of Bashiqa, after it was recaptured from the Islamic State, east of Mosul, Iraq, Nov. 12, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari

“The areas we liberated are ours,” Said Hajjar, a commander of the Canada-assisted Zeravani unit of the Peshmerga, said in his Erbil office one November morning. Referring to territory retaken from the Islamic State that formally falls under the jurisdiction of the central Baghdad government, his statement underscores dormant tensions between Iraqis and Kurds — relating specifically to the latter’s territorial expansion goals — that will need to be addressed once Mosul is liberated. How will ethnic fault lines change? For Canada, it speaks to the uncertainty around the extent that Canadian military assistance benefits Kurdish fighters.

Soldiers with the Canadian Special Operations Regiment have acted as military advisors to the Zeravani since the fall of 2014. With the election of the Liberal government in 2015, the training mission was ramped up from 69 to more than 200 troops on the ground. At the same time, the government withdrew six CF-18 jets from the U.S. coalition, effectively ending Canada’s fighting mission. On the ground, however, Canadian Special Forces soldiers began direct participation in fighting, at times even firing first at Islamic State fighters. This has led opposition parties in Ottawa to accuse the Trudeau government of misleading the public about the scope of the Iraq assignment. “The Liberal government… continues to mislead Canadians by insisting we are in a non-combat role,” Conservative defence critic James Bezan said during Question Period on Nov. 15.  

Outside of Mosul, support for Canadian troops is easily found. Hajjar pulled up a picture of a group of Canadian Special Forces soldiers on his mobile phone. “They are our friends, cooperating with us, fighting with us on the frontlines,” he said. 

Assistance has also come in the form of military training, intelligence gathering, first aid and a field hospital run by Canadian medics in Khazer. Canadians also provided tools to build enemy lines. “When our weapons break, they fix them for us,” added Hajjar. Perhaps most critically, Canadian soldiers taught Kurdish troops how to wear down the enemy by attrition and keep the casualty count low in the process.

It is not insignificant considering the Zeravani, administratively supported by the Kurdish Interior Ministry and closely tied to the powerful Barzani family there, has led countless frontline battles and played an instrumental role in the fight for Mosul. With 286 casualties in the first week of November, it has also lost the most fighters relative to other units, according to Hajjar.

“They promised to give us weapons and ammunition.”

But the Zeravani are still waiting for one Canadian pledge to be fulfilled: “They promised to give us weapons and ammunition, but it has been months now,” said Hajjar.

Anti-tank and armoured vehicles, machine guns and thermal binoculars are in need, he explained. Canadian officials have confirmed Baghdad signed off on the arms shipment, but as of December said the transfer of equipment had not yet been made. 

It’s a sign of the friction to come now that the Peshmerga have halted their advance — as part of an agreement with Baghdad — in the north and east of Iraq in territory beyond the ethnic fault lines that separates the Kurdish autonomous region from the Arab-Iraqi south.

Since 2014, the Kurds have increased their territory by around 40 percent, often forcing Arabs from their homes, all with the — inadvertent — help of Canadians and other coalition forces. Human Rights Watch has accused the Kurds of war crimes for destroying Arab buildings and homes in 17 villages and towns in the oil-rich Kirkuk area and four in the Ninevah governorate, calling on their Western allies, such as Canada, to speak out against the violations.

Now, as the Kurds eye the possibility of independence from Iraq, they have been explicit in their expectation that Canadian military assistance will continue. Apart from reiterating talking points calling for a “unified Iraq,” the Liberals have yet to formulate a clear policy on the subject of Kurdish independence post-ISIS.

When asked what he foresees relations with the Iraqi central government might be like once Mosul is liberated, Hajjar said the Kurds considered their Iraqi Arab neighbours as brothers, with a caveat. “If anyone tries to cross our lines or wants to use us or hurt us, then we will fight.”

The Second Front: Humanitarian aid

Iraq displaced
Displaced Iraqi people, who fled the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul are seen at Debaga camp for the displaced on the outskirts of Erbil, Iraq, Dec. 1, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

Months before Iraqi forces began their push for Mosul, in the anticipation of millions in need of shelter and huge population outflows, humanitarian organizations warned that liberating the city would cause the largest humanitarian crisis of the year.

Then, days before the offensive, UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq Lise Grande painted an alarming picture of what to expect: 1.2 to 1.5 million civilians inside the city impacted, a colossal health crisis owing to chemical attacks, the mass expulsion of hundreds of thousands of people, and civilians used as human shields by the Islamic State.

The UN had requested US$861 million for humanitarian operations in all of Iraq, of which just US$584 million has been received. In addition, the UN launched an emergency appeal earlier this year of US$284 million to fund the Mosul response, of which US$196 million has so far been received. Though the exodus has not been as dire as initial UN projections 10 weeks into the offensive, with 107,304 displaced and thousands more expected, aid organizations are leading an unpredictable humanitarian effort that depends largely on the capricious movements of the frontlines. 

“With all these variables at play, we’re still planning for a worst-case scenario of up to 700,000 people displaced, which accords with the UN’s plan,” a senior U.S. administration official said during a media briefing by teleconference in November.

Canada gave approximately US$3.7 million last December to cover Iraq projects specifically for 2016, according to Andreas Needham, UNHCR spokesperson in Iraq. This was primarily for the Syrian refugee response in Iraq and not for displaced Iraqis. Since, the UN also received US$20,000 in funds from private Canadian donors, and another US$16 million from the government in unrestricted and regional funds.

In July, Canada pledged CAN$158 million for humanitarian assistance to all of Iraq, however, it is unclear how much of the funds have been received.

“I thought the camps would be better, but we feel like we are stuck.”

With winter just beginning, 80 percent of the displaced have sought accommodation in refugee camps erected by the Iraqi government and the UN; many to the east and north of Mosul, such as Khazer, Hasansham and Zelikan, are already at full capacity. Aid groups are working to construct additional plots for 452,382 more people by the end of the year.

In the overflowing Debaga camp, on the outskirts of Erbil, men and women, along with children, are separated in a mosque and school respectively, until permanent accommodation can be found. “We climbed mountains and walked for 11 hours without water or food to come here,” said Saja Hamid, who fled the ISIS-held town of Hawija with her husband and young son. “I thought the camps would be better, but we feel like we are stuck. They told us we would be moved to our own tent, but we don’t know when.”

As many as one million people are holed up inside Mosul and other ISIS-controlled areas, and are beyond the reach of aid groups. The limited supplies of food and water are running out. It is often up to families to weigh the risks of fleeing their homes to seek out assistance; mortar and gunfire continue to claim many civilian lives. 

The focus on emergency aid, which prioritizes basic needs such as food, water and shelter, often eclipses other long-term services. Education programs for the many traumatized children fleeing ISIS-held areas, for example, are currently just 10 percent funded. In Jadah Camp, 60 kilometres south of Mosul, children are seen idling away playing a game of bottle caps; most have been out of school for two years. “A lot of parents preferred to keep children at home rather than send them to the militarized schools run by ISIS,” said Alun Mcdonald, a spokesperson for Save the Children. “Getting them back in classrooms is very important.”

The Third Front: Resettling the displaced

A displaced woman from the minority Yazidi sect, who was kidnapped by Islamic State militants of Tal Afar but managed to escape, stands in a house in Duhok province, northern Iraq, Nov. 24, 2016. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

On Oct. 25, just days into the Mosul offensive, Canada’s House of Commons voted unanimously to adopt a Conservative motion to recognize the persecution of Yazidis at the hands of the Islamic State as genocide and called on the government to help resettle Yazidi women and girls fleeing violence within 120 days. At the time, interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose pressed the Liberal government for a concrete plan to help the Yazidis, suggesting a quota of at least 1,000.

The Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking ethnic minority residing mainly in northern Iraq, were uniquely targeted by the Islamic State after the capture of Sinjar region in August 2014. Men were killed en masse while thousands of women were abducted, systematically raped and forced into sexual slavery. They were exchanged between fighters multiple times, deprived of food and forced to cook and clean for their captors. A UN Human Rights panel concluded the Islamic State’s persecution of the group amounted to genocide.

Many women and girls who escaped or were freed after a payment of ransom by their families now dwell in grim conditions in underfunded and overcrowded camps or remain destitute in the outskirts of Dohuk governorate. With no existing system to assess the needs of Yazidi refugees, a report by Amnesty International in October called on the international community to do more to support those who survived ISIS captivity and help them rebuild their lives. 

Talal Murad, an elderly Yazidi man from Tel Afar district now living in Dohuk, recounted how he had been unable to pay the smuggler who offered to buy his daughters from ISIS slave markets for US$10,000. They are still believed to be among the 3,000 Yazidis inside Islamic State territory. He hesitated when asked if he would be willing to see them brought to Canada if the opportunity arose. “It depends, if it is safe in our homes, I would rather go back,” he said.

While some are apparently profiting by rescuing Yazidis, others inside Islamic State territory are risking their lives to save them. “So many women and children were saved by Sunni neighbours in Sinjar, who hid them and smuggled them out,” said Francesco Motta, director of the UN Office for Human Rights in Iraq. “Others are buying them in the market because they can’t stand what is happening, a number of people did that. This was their resistance; if ISIS realized they were buying to free them they would be killed.”

“It is imperative that we consider the next steps very carefully.”

As the three-month deadline set in late October looms, the Canadian government has yet to reveal a target number or timeline for the Yazidi plan, leading Conservatives to criticize it as a Liberal “token effort.” Resettlement from Iraq, where Yazidis primarily live, poses logistical and security challenges, especially with the ongoing offensive. Immigration Minister John McCallum has reiterated the government would honour its commitment and that his department has already dispatched a group to Iraq to assess the situation; however, Yazidi community leaders said they have not been consulted.

Further complicating matters, the plan has drawn the ire of Canada’s Kurdish allies, who have publicly stated that they oppose any Canadian scheme that would bring a large number of Yazidis from northern Iraq. The office of Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani recently made a statement to the CBC saying it was against “any organized attempt to mass-migrate members of its community,” arguing instead that Canada should deliver aid to Yazidis in their own country.

Germany faced similar opposition from the Kurdish government for its rescue plan and was obliged to restrict its program to 1,000 emergency cases only. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) was characteristically vague when asked to clarify details and progress of the plan, and declined to provide an in-depth interview.

“We recognize that operating in the region is complex and could pose risks,” said IRCC spokesperson Sonia Lesage. “It is imperative that we consider the next steps very carefully and are engaging with local authorities and will keep them apprised as we move forward.”

IRCC officials are meeting with “key partners,” she added, “to gather as much information on how we can best assist the most vulnerable members of this community as quickly as we can.”

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