A cache of weapons, from sniper rifles to mortars and grenade launchers, is sitting in a warehouse in Montreal, Quebec, caught in limbo as the Iraqi government attempts to choke off supplies to its wartime allies in Kurdistan. And while Canada’s defence minister is optimistic that both sides can “work out their differences,” there is still no date for when that equipment will reach its destination.
The $9.5 million (Canadian dollars) military aid package likely won’t be moving any time soon, unless Baghdad is willing to sign the paperwork.
While the US military task force leading the mission against ISIS in Iraq and Syria says it hasn’t any issues moving equipment into Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region in recent weeks, Baghdad’s resistance to the Canadian package raises questions about the fate of a $300 million aid package for the Kurds planned by the Trump administration.
The Canadian weapons were earmarked for the peshmerga, the fighting force of the Kurdistan Regional Government, as the Iraqi Kurdish region is known officially. The weapons include 5.56 caliber rifles, C6 machine guns, 84MM Carl G anti-tank rifles, .338 and .50 caliber sniper rifles, 9mm pistols, M203 grenade launchers, 60mm mortars, and a raft of other gear and equipment.
A spokesperson with the Canadian military confirmed that Baghdad was refusing to sign the end-use agreements, contracts that are necessary before military goods can be exported. Until those agreements are signed, the weapons will sit in the Montreal warehouse.
“Given the Iraqi theater of operations is dynamic, it requires deliberate, responsible reflection,” the spokesperson said, adding: “Our contributions are constantly under assessment in order to ensure all appropriate strategic and tactical steps are taken. The program to provide equipment and small arms is no different.”
Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan confirmed to Buzzfeed News last month that the aid package was being held up.
“Anything that we do has to go through proper approval process with the Iraqi government and that’s where it stands,” he said.
The minister confirmed again on Wednesday that Ottawa had yet to convince Baghdad to allow the shipment to go forward, but said he was hopeful both sides could “work out their differences.”
Baghdad has, since September, been limiting the flow of what goes in and out of the autonomous region in an attempt to punish the Kurds for a referendum that called for the Kurdish Regional Government to break away from Iraq.
The KRG’s foreign minister, Falah Mustafa Bakir, confirmed to Buzzfeed News that the weapons shipment had been held up by Baghdad.
While Bakir contends that: “The flow of the weapons and ammunition has stopped,” a spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve, the US-led coalition of nations contributing in the fight against ISIS, told BuzzFeed News it’s not experienced any major disruptions moving equipment into Kurdistan since the referendum vote.
“The coalition does not anticipate any significant logistical problems in terms of moving supplies into and around northern Iraq. We will continue to provide support and training to our partners in the Kurdistan region,” a spokesperson said.
“We are approaching our friends and partners [to say] this is not the right thing to do.”
Bakir, for his part, thinks Kurdistan’s partners should skip Baghdad’s approval for these sort of aid packages altogether. “These kind of permissions should be put off the table,” he said.
While day-to-day equipment delivery may not be affected, Baghdad’s decision to block the Canadian weapons shipment could be a warning sign for future US exports.
In November, the Senate passed a $700 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that continues training and equipment support for the Kurds through the Iraqi government. The bill, which President Donald Trump signed into law last week, sets aside $365 million for the Kurds.
“The NDAA in the United States, what has been proposed, has been very encouraging,” Bakir said. “It states clearly support, in terms of training and equipment, to go to the peshmerga forces.”
The peshmerga was vital in pushing ISIS from its strongholds in Iraq. It cooperated with the Iraqi military in the early stages of the battle to retake Mosul, the terrorist group's most important city in Iraq.
Buoyed by their successes, Kurdistan held an independence referendum in September. More than 90% of voters opted to declare the region an independent country, with a high voter turnout. The vote backfired spectacularly. Many of Kurdistan’s Western allies opposed the referendum, and its results were met with threats from the KRG’s neighbors. Iraq, after the vote, sent its military to retake strategic areas from the Kurds. The KRG opted to freeze the results of the vote, but that has done little to sway Baghdad.
Few countries have been as supportive of the Kurdish government as Canada. The Canadian government began training Kurdish forces and providing military equipment to them in 2014 and expanded its training in 2016. Canadian special forces were near the front lines with ISIS, providing tactical and operational support to their Kurdish counterparts.
Canada suspended that training mission following the referendum, and Sajjan told BuzzFeed News that cooperation wouldn’t continue without a sign-off from Baghdad.
“We’re not going to get involved in internal disputes,” Sajjan said.
Germany, which also has been a generous benefactor for the Kurds, had also suspended its cooperation with the peshmerga after the vote, but restarted its training a week later. Berlin has provided significant weaponry to the Kurdish fighters, including anti-tank missiles and assault rifles.
As ISIS expanded its reach in Iraq, the US supplied the Kurds with weapons and equipment, including machine guns, artillery, and Humvees, and NATO partners shipped Soviet-era weapons held in the Czech Republic and Albania to the Kurds.
Canada provided the air transportation for those shipments and kicked in roughly $15 million in nonlethal military gear to the Kurdish and Iraqi forces.
But until Saijan took office in 2015, Canada had been a bit player in the push to arm the Kurds, and had no military aid programs with the autonomous region.
While the country’s defence industry is robust and geared heavily toward exports, Canada had no real experience in putting together this sort of lethal arms package. A spokesperson for the Canadian Forces told BuzzFeed News this sort of aid package is unprecedented for Canada.
To figure it out, the Department of National Defence turned to the Canadian Commercial Corporation, a government-owned body that helps businesses navigate the legal and logistical complexities of arms exports and has pushed to boost Canadian military exports to the Middle East. Billion of dollars' worth of equipment has been sold to Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in recent years.
The corporation confirmed to BuzzFeed News it “provided assistance as part of the Government of Canada’s response to the Government of Iraq’s request for support.”
Justin Ling is a freelance journalist who covers defence, security, politics, and people who make mistakes.
Contact Justin Ling at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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