OTTAWA — The Canadian military is drawing up options to extend its mission in Iraq even as growing political instability and competing foreign interests threaten to plunge the country into yet another cycle of bloody violence.
The mission, which includes hundreds of special forces soldiers, transport and refuelling aircraft, a military hospital and counter-explosive experts, recently entered its fifth year and is currently set to expire at the end of March.
But Brig.-Gen. Colin Keiver, the commander of Joint Task Force-Iraq, said the Iraqi government will continue to rely on Canada and other international partners for the foreseeable future despite the Islamic State's defeat last year.
"They recognize they need continued assistance in order to ensure security and work on stability and prosperity in Iraq," Keiver said on a call with reporters on Friday.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in June that Canada would contribute 250 soldiers to lead an expanded NATO training mission in Iraq whose focus will be helping local forces bring peace and stability to the country.
But military planners have started working on proposals for an extension to the rest of Canada's mission beyond March, which Keiver expects will be presented to cabinet ministers for a decision sometime this fall.
Peace and stability appear a long way off for many Iraqis, thanks to political infighting and deep ethnic and religious divisions across the country.
Keiver said the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has become a shadow of its former self thanks to sustained pressure by Iraqi and allied forces, but the militant group that once threatened to take over the whole of the region remains a threat nonetheless.
"What we see is them trying to reconstitute and trying to regroup to potentially do bigger things in the future and the Iraqi security forces are really keeping the pressure on them right now," Keiver said of ISIL.
"We watch it very closely. It is something that Iraq has to stay on top of."
The more immediate threat appears to be political infighting, corruption and public anger.
The country remains without a government four months after parliamentary elections, and there are concerns that tensions between different political groups — some backed by the U.S. and others by Iran — will erupt into civil war.
Those fears have escalated in recent weeks after Iran destroyed a Kurdish political headquarters in Iraq, a protest destroyed the Iranian consulate in the oil-rich city of Basra and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was shelled. Iranian-backed militias also continue to prowl the country.
Violent protests have also erupted in recent weeks over the slow pace of reconstruction and rampant government corruption and many Iraqis are angry at the lack of economic opportunity and development within the country.
The different challenges have not directly affected Canadian military operations in Iraq, Keiver said, though he added that officials are watching developments closely and feel Baghdad needs to start taking action or risk further problems.
"They've got to get on with the business of forming a government," he said. "They've got to address things like unemployment and reconstructions and all these things like that. (ISIL) can't exploit those potential opportunities, but they're working hard to get there."
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