A Canadian special operations soldier has become the first fatality among international troops deployed to counter the Islamic State, the Canadian Defense Ministry announced Saturday.
Three other Canadian troops were wounded in the Friday incident, which the defense ministry described as “friendly fire” when Kurdish peshmerga fighters mistook the Canadians’ sport utility vehicle for militants from the Islamic State. The Canadians were returning to a base at dusk in northern Iraq.
Coalition officials have stressed repeatedly that the hundreds of international troops in Iraq are there only to train and advise local Iraqi forces and are not undertaking combat missions. But the description of the incident suggests that the Canadian troops were in an area where an Islamic State attack was expected and serves as a reminder that no deployment is danger free.
Canadian special operators have been among the most aggressive trainers and consultants in northern Iraq. Peshmerga officials have said Canadian troops have spent more time on the front lines than any other members of the U.S.-led coalition.
A knowledgeable Kurdish official who asked to remain anonymous so as to not to be seen as discussing the accidental death of a close ally said Canadians have participated in at least two major gunfights with Islamic State forces in the last three months.
Canadian officials identified the dead special operations soldier as Sgt. Andrew Joseph Doiron. Names of the three wounded troops were not revealed; they apparently were being treated in Iraq.
“The Canadians have been the most aggressive around Irbil, regularly visiting the front lines and helping call in air strikes,” the peshmerga official said. “Around Mosul Dam, it’s the British Special Forces but the Canadians have been strong in their commitment to the defense of Mosul.”
The United States has around 2,000 advisers and force protection units working in three known places: Baghdad International Airport, the Ain al Asad Air Force Base in Anbar Province, most of which is controlled by the Islamic State, and in Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region and the location of a joint command center.
The U.S. has yet to confirm that any of its troops have engaged in direct combat with the enemy, though officials in October acknowledged that U.S. commanders had scrambled Apache helicopters to confront Islamic State forces that had moved to within “striking distance” of Baghdad airport.
That move was viewed as risky because the low altitudes at which the helicopters fly leave them vulnerable to ground fire.
There have been multiple reports that American advisers were near the front lines during combat to retake Mosul Dam from the Islamic State last year, but in careful statements, U.S. officials have refused to confirm that American troops took part in that operation.
A statement from Canada’s Ministry of Defense was unapologetic about what all sides admit was a friendly fire incident in the waning hours of daylight near the front line Friday.
The incident occurred, “when members of the Special Operations Forces were mistakenly engaged by Iraqi Kurdish forces following their return to an observation post behind the front lines,” the Canadian statement said.
“Every member of Canada’s Special Operations Forces Command feels a great loss at Drew’s passing,” it said, referring to Doiron. “He was a gifted special operator and a great leader. He loved his job and the people he soldiered with. We grieve with Drew’s family and extend our condolences to them.”