A Canadian Forces soldier walks towards a Griffon helicopter near Erbil in northern Iraq in 2016. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

COVID-19 forcing Canada to adjust military presence in Iraq

CBC News reports that Canada is scaling back its mission in Iraq, redeploying what sources in the military call a “significant number” of Canadian military trainers out of Iraq to Kuwait, in part because of COVID-19.

Canada has had about 500 troops in Iraq and about 850 troops across the Middle East, with military trainers also stationed in Jordan and Lebanon and support staff in Kuwait.

About 300 Canadian military trainers have been in Iraq as part of a U.S.-led anti-Islamic State training operation known as Operation Impact.

The others are part of a separate NATO training mission of Iraqi soldiers that Canada leads.

A Canadian special forces soldier, left, speaks with Peshmerga Captain Omar Mohammed Dhyab, second left, and other fighters at an observation post Feb. 20, 2017 in northern Iraq. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

The CBC’s Murray Brewster writes that it’s unclear how many troops have been moved to Kuwait over the last few weeks.

The redeployment comes as other countries are pulling troops out of Iraq because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The coalition training mission in Iraq has been at standstill since early January, as a result of the U.S. assassination of Iranian leader Gen. Qasem Soleimani and now because Iraqi soldiers have stopped all training because of COVID-19.

The latest figures show that 54 people have died from the virus in Iraq, where there are currently over 500 open cases.

As a result, Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands have recently pulled troops out of Iraq.

It is unclear if any of the Canadian troops will be coming home to help in the fight against COVID-19 in Canada.

The CBC’s Brewster quotes a senior defence source saying the redeployment to Kuwait is only temporary and those troops will not be brought home.

On Wednesday, the Ottawa Citizen’s David Pugliese, quoting National Defence sources, wrote that military planners were considering bringing them back to Canada where they could be used if required to support the federal government’s response to COVID-19.

Both Brewster and Pugliese, it should be noted, are well connected.

Brewster writes that the redeployment in Iraq comes as Canada temporarily “contracts” the size of its overseas missions in response to the pandemic and follows on a move last week to scale back Canadian forces in Ukraine, where 200 Canadian soldiers have been conducting a military training mission.

A member of the Canadian Forces mans a gun from inside a Canadian Griffon helicopter near Erbil air base in Northern Iraq. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

A fresh rotation of troops had been set to deploy to the training centre near Lviv, in the western part of Ukraine, but that deployment has been scrubbed and the existing contingent will come home. 

Only a token force of 60 soldiers will remain behind to “keep the lights on” until there is a full resumption, the defence official told Brewster.

The coronavirus crisis, Brewster writes, will not lead to any changes for the roughly 450 Canadian troops leading a NATO battle group in Latvia, which is intended to deter Russian aggression in the Baltic states.

On Monday,  Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said The Canadian Forces has plans to mobilize 24,000 military personnel in case they are needed to support federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

With files from CBC News (Murray Brewster), RCI (Levon Sevunts), Ottawa Citizen (David Pugliese)

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