Canadian military planes will ferry weapons and munitions to Kurdish forces battling Islamic jihadis in northern Iraq, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced on Friday.
But Canada will only deliver – not provide – arms and ammunition, Mr. Harper said in a statement.
The Canadian military flights will begin in a few days to take the supplies to Irbil international airport, currently served by half a dozen airlines, including Austrian, Lufthansa and Turkish.
About 30 Canadian Forces ground personnel to service the two military airlifters will deploy temporarily to the region. Irbil, a city of about 1.5 million, is the de facto capital of Kurdistan, a largely self-governing region of Iraq and the heart of Kurdish aspirations for an independent homeland.
A major military airlift of U.S. and French weapons is already under way to bolster the Kurdish Peshmerga forces defending a 1,000-kilometre front against radical Sunni extremists who have seized an area the size of Belgium between the Tigris and Euphrates valleys in northwestern Iraq and eastern Syria. Britain has also announced it will provide military supplies.
One Canadian Forces CC-177, a long-range, four-engined transport capable of delivering up to 70 tonnes and a smaller, CC-130 Hercules, a shorter-range turboprop with about one-third the carrying capacity, will be sent.
"This support, which will be provided in close co-ordination with our allies, will enable Kurdish forces to provide effective protection to Iraqis faced with the barbarous attacks of [Islamic State]," Mr. Harper said. Although the airlift is of weapons and munitions, the Prime Minister cast it in humanitarian terms, saying, "Canada remains committed to providing assistance to the thousands of Iraqi children, women and men, including Yazidis and Christians, who desperately need it."
However, that immediate crisis may have ended. U.S. Special Forces and Marines airlifted to Sinjar Mountain, where tens of thousands of Yazidis had been surrounded, say most have escaped. U.S. air strikes and Kurdish forces had opened a route off the barren mountain earlier in the week.
Jihadis under the banner of Islamic State, formerly known as Islamic State in the Levant, are seeking to carve out a Muslim Caliphate in the region.
"Canada will not stand idly by while ISIL continues its murder of innocent civilians and religious minorities," Mr. Harper said.
After meeting with his ad hoc cabinet committee on national security on Friday, Mr. Harper concluded Islamic State "poses a serious threat to stability in the region, as well as to global security," said his spokesman Jason MacDonald.
Iraq's mostly Shi'ite-dominated army collapsed and fled earlier this summer, and Islamic State militants now control the country's second largest city, Mosul, and more than a dozen other major cities in the country's two great river valleys.
Canada, which opted out of the U.S.-led coalition that invaded Iraq in 2003, is taking its first military action in the country since it sent peacekeepers at the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988.
While airlifting arms provided by others avoids the issue of directly arming combatants, Mr. Harper said he will "continue to monitor the situation in Iraq," adding he is "prepared to provide further assistance."
Last week, the government announced $5-million in humanitarian assistance.