Rising security risks posed by the death of a prominent Iranian general have prompted NATO to temporarily suspend a training mission in Iraq being led by Canadian troops, the federal defence minister said Saturday.
Harjit Sajjan released a brief statement reiterating comments from the military alliance, which said the non-combat operation dubbed NATO Mission Iraq was on hold in the wake of the death of Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The general, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force and mastermind of its regional security strategy, was killed along with other senior Iraqi militants in a Friday morning airstrike ordered by United States President Donald Trump.
Sajjan said that while the NATO mission’s goal of preventing the resurgeance of Islamic extremism remains valid, the current political climate made it necessary to suspend the operation for the protection of those involved.
“The NATO mission and Operation IMPACT’s mandate remain the same, but all training activities in Iraq are suspended temporarily as we continue to monitor the security environment,” Sajjan said in a statement. “We are taking all necessary precautions for the safety and security of our civilian and military personnel.”
Sajjan’s remarks echoed those from NATO spokesman Dylan White, who said the safety of personnel was “paramount.”
Trump’s airstrike, ordered without consulting U.S. congress or American military allies, has prompted both a dramatic spike in regional tensions and fears of all-out war.
Trump has said he ordered the strike to prevent a conflict, while U.S. officials contended Soleimani was plotting a series of attacks that endangered American troops.
But Iran has vowed vengeance for Soleimani’s death, which drew thousands of people to the streets of Baghdad on Saturday for his funeral.
Though it’s unclear how or when Iran may respond, any retaliation was likely to come after three days of mourning declared in both Iran and Iraq. All eyes were on Iraq, where the U.S. and Iran have competed for influence since the 2003 American-led invasion.
The NATO mission, established at the request of the Iraqi government, was meant to help train and advise various military personnel. It has been under Canadian command since its inception in the fall of 2018, with Maj. Gen. Jennie Carignan currently leading the mission. Other participating countries include Australia, Sweden and Finland.
Canada’s Department of National Defence said the decision to suspend the mission applied to both the 250 military members working with the NATO training mission as well as the dozens of special forces troops who have been working in the northern part of the country with Iraqi security forces. There was no immediate word on the status of Canadian troops deployed in the country.
The government also urged civilians to stay away from Iraq and the bordering regions of Iran, saying those who are already there should consider leaving. The caution came in a formal travel advisory issued on Friday, citing increased tensions in the wake of the airstrike.
Soleimani was the architect of Iran’s regional policy of mobilizing militias across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, including in the war against the Islamic State group. He was also blamed for attacks on U.S. troops and American allies going back decades.
The Quds Force he commanded is part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, reporting to the country’s leader Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei. The Quds Force trains and equips foreign militias, carries out bombings and assassinations, and otherwise uses unconventional methods to expand Iran’s military and diplomatic influence. “Quds” is the Arabic and Persian name for Jerusalem.
The United States designated the Quds Force a terrorist organization in 2007. Canada followed suit in 2012, with Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne reiterating the government’s position on him and the body he commanded within hours of his death.
“Canada has long been concerned by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, led by Qassem Soleimani, whose aggressive actions have had a destabilizing effect in the region and beyond,” according to a statement from Champagne released on Friday.
— with files from The Associated Press
Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press