Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Canada's key role in Iraq

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Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird made a surprise visit to Iraq Monday where he opened a new Canadian diplomatic mission, the first since Canada closed its embassy in 1991 following the first Gulf War.

It would be a mistake, however, to interpret the development as the beginning of a new era of engagement. That's because we never actually left. In fact, there are two false impressions about Canada-Iraq relations.

First, despite former prime minister Jean Chrétien's myth-making comments about how Canada stayed out of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, the country was heavily engaged in the operation from beginning to end. The only thing Canada didn't do was declare its support for the Americans, which is all they ever wanted.

Canadian generals and admirals, and hundreds of soldiers, sailors and airmen were mobilized under a governor-general-in-council order to work with the Americans and the British during the war. Canadian ships provided escort protection for allied ships in and out of the Persian Gulf, while a Canadian rear admiral was in charge of the war coalition's fleet. In the air, Canadian personnel worked aboard American Airborne Warning and Control System warplanes providing surveillance and communications to U.S. jet fighters.

Canada may not have been an official combatant, but it did everything it could to support the so-called Coalition of the Willing.

Canada's Defence Department has yet to table a report on the full and complete role the country played in the war, which it should do for the historical record.

Second, Canada was fully engaged in civil reconstruction in Iraq almost immediately following the invasion on March 19, 2003. The country contributed $300 million in humanitarian assistance during the war and currently is the eighth-largest foreign investor in Iraq. Canada has also resettled thousands of Iraqi refugees.

More important, Canada has used the wisdom it has gained as a federal state with disparate, even separatist, forces to educate Iraqis about best practices for dealing with their own fierce sectarian elements.

Like Canada, Iraq is not a country with a single religious or ethnic character, much less a unified political outlook.

In an effort to help Iraqis find a peaceful way through the morass of competing interests, a Canadian think-tank -- the Centre for International Governance -- organized a series of meeting three years ago for visiting Iraqis.

According to reports at the time, the Iraqis were intrigued by Canada's pluralistic doctrine and, in particular, the way it had managed Quebec's long history of dissatisfaction with the federal arrangement and its desire to be maitre chez nous.

Of course the parallels are imperfect, but the Iraqis viewed the Quebec experience as similar to the Kurdish movement for self-rule. Today, the Kurds rule a semi-autonomous region with broader powers than Quebec enjoys within Confederation.

The country's internal problems and the divide between Shia and Sunni Muslims, of course, are still a major challenge. Just as daunting are the regional issues, including Iran's aspirations for status as a greater power, the Syrian civil war, instability in Afghanistan and the enduring Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

With so much violence, conflict and intrigue swirling in the region, the timing is right for Canada to expand its role in Iraq, as, indeed, it should be doing throughout the region.

Canada may never have truly left Iraq, but the time is right for deeper connections that will hopefully bolster trade, security and cultural exchanges

The worst thing the world could do today would be to abandon Iraq at a time when its recovery is still fragile and when the stakes in the region have never been higher.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 2, 2013 A6

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