With Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declaring that victory over Islamic State extremists in Tikrit is near, Canadian Defence Minister Jason Kenney says Canada is keeping “a very close eye” on questions arising from Iran’s key role in that military success.
In the complex fight against Islamic State, also known as ISIL, Canadian special operations troops are helping advise and train Kurdish forces. But in the campaign to recapture the northern Iraq city of Tikrit, where Canada hasn’t been directly involved, a key element in Iraq’s ability to push back Islamic State extremists has been the battlefield effectiveness of Shia militias led by Iranian military officers.
Islamic State is a Sunni extremist group. So the prospect of Iran, the regional Shia powerhouse, assuming a prominent role in the retaking of Tikrit raises the prospect of that Iraq’s Shia-Sunni split being exacerbated as the military campaign continues. The New York Times today describes Abadi giving a speech in Baghdad yesterday that was “carefully balanced” to credit the help of both the U.S. and Iran.
In an interview with Maclean’s earlier this week, Kenney seemed acutely aware of the potential tensions emerging in Iraq. “Our contribution to the allied effort in Iraq is to help the Iraqi people defeat this terrible cancer of ISIL, it is not to indirectly be involved in a Sunni-Shia conflict,” he said. “So obviously we will be keeping a very close eye on those developments.”
He added: “Our preference is that the Iraqi political system demonstrates unity of purpose here and avoids fragmentation on security lines, and that’s what we’ll be watching.”
Kenney also noted that Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Tom Lawson was in Saudi Arabia last month for a meeting with dozens of international military commanders from countries opposed to Islamic State, including about 25 actually involved in the military campaign against the terrorist organization, among them top officers from key Middle Eastern countries.
“So he’s had a close dialogue with Iraqi commanders and Arab commanders in the region,” Kenney said. “The Arab countries want to ensure that Iran does not take advantage of instability in Iraq right now.”
Kenney suggested that Iraq will need to foster unity across the divide between Shia and Sunni Muslims in order to defeat ISIL. “It’s no secret that the general strategy here is for the allied air campaign to degrade ISIL’s capabilities, their infrastructure, their weaponry, their weapons stocks, basically to put them on the defensive so at some point when Iraqi security forces are able to launch a counter-offensive,” he said. “Obviously, Shia and Sunni Iraqis will have to do that together.”