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Canada suspends military aid to Iraqi, Kurdish forces amid outbreak of fighting

Iranian Kurdish Peshmerga take part in routine military exercises in Koya, northern Iraq, on Oct. 22, 2017.

SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

Canadian soldiers in Iraq have been ordered to temporarily suspend all operations with Iraqi and Kurdish forces following a series of battles between the two groups.

The surprise move comes amid accusations Canada and its allies have failed the country over the past three years by ignoring its many political, religious and economic divisions while fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Canadian special forces have provided training, advice and assistance to both the Iraqi military and Kurdish peshmerga for the last three years as part of the fight against Islamic State militants.

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But the one-time allies have been fighting each other for more than a week after the Kurds held a controversial independence referendum and Baghdad responded by seizing control of contested territory.

Military officials said Friday that the Canadian Forces will continue to support the U.S.-led coalition fighting against ISIL through the provision of medical aid, intelligence and transportation.

Canada has about 50 medical personnel and a tactical helicopter detachment in northern Iraq, as well as several dozen intelligence experts, a surveillance aircraft, a transport plane and an air-to-air refueller in Kuwait.

But the approximately 200 Canadian special forces in Iraq have been told to sit tight and not provide any training or assistance to Iraqi or Kurdish forces until relations between the two sides improve.

"Given the fluidity of the current situation, Canada's Special Operations Task Force has temporarily suspended the provision of assistance to various elements of Iraqi security forces," spokesman Col. Jay Janzen said.

"Once more clarity exists regarding the interrelationships of Iraqi security forces and the key priorities and tasks going forward, the task force will resume activities.

"In the interim, they will continue to monitor the situation and plan for the next potential phases of operational activity."

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The entire mission is slated to run until 2019.

While Friday's decision to suspend operations with Kurdish and Iraqi forces was unexpected, the fact the two sides have come to blows has long been predicted.

In fact, a senior representative for Iraq's Kurdish government accused Canada and its allies this week of failing to address the many long-standing divisions that led to ISIL's birth — and which are threatening to erupt again.

While many fear a war between Baghdad and the Kurds, there are also concerns about the slow rate of reconstruction in many Sunni-dominated areas liberated from ISIL and Iran's growing influence in Baghdad.

Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurds' top diplomat in Washington, said it's past time the international community end its fixation on ISIL and begin to address Iraq's many underlying problems.

"'We are laser-focused on (ISIL).' That has been the mantra of the past few years," Abdul Rahman told The Canadian Press during a visit to Ottawa this week.

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"But to continue to say we're laser-focused on (ISIL) is missing the obvious truth of what is happening in Iraq."

That focus was on full display on Oct. 16, when Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan responded to the first outbreak of fighting between Iraqi and Kurdish forces by urging all sides to concentrate on finishing the fight against ISIL.

The Liberal government has also refused to comment on Iran's role in Iraq, including its support for Shiite militia groups that the Kurds and others say are responsible for many of the attacks on the peshmerga.

Abdul Rahman urged Canada to speak up loudly and clearly and to use the many tools she says are at its disposal to try to mediate some type of peace between the Kurds and Baghdad, including at the UN.

"There are so many things that Canada can do," she said, "We are appealing to Canada to play that role."

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