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Despite withdrawing its strike aircraft from participation in the anti-Islamic State coalition in Iraq and Syria, Canada’s new government has moved to reassure the United States that it will boost its overall contribution to the U.S.-led campaign.
“We’re going to be responsible partners, and we’re going to make a meaningful contribution,” Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan said in an interview. After conducting an internal review and consulting with allies and ground commanders, he said, Canada has decided to significantly increase its advise-and-train mission to Kurdish military forces in northern Iraq and to boost its intelligence assets there.

Sajjan and Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion were part of a large cabinet delegation that this week accompanied Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on his first formal visit to Washington.

Both made clear that Trudeau intends to reverse what was widely seen as Canada’s withdrawal from international affairs — apart from military deployments — under the previous Conservative government. “We think we need to engage more,” said Dion, a former leader of Trudeau’s Liberal Party.

[Obama and Trudeau discuss bilateral issues]

Referring to Canada’s role in sheltering U.S. diplomats in Tehran after the 1979 student takeover of the U.S. Embassy there, Dion noted that “it was good that Canada had an embassy. Today we don’t . . . because we disagree with the government of Iran. We don’t speak to the Russians at a time where we need to be custodians of the Arctic with them, because we disagree about Ukraine.

“Engagement is not agreement — engagement is a way to try to make progress,” he said. His description was strikingly similar to President Obama’s policy of reaching out to U.S. adversaries in Iran, Cuba and elsewhere.

Trudeau’s campaign promise this past fall to end Canada’s “combat role” in the anti-Islamic State campaign was initially interpreted by some as at least a partial withdrawal from the coalition. Instead, Sajjan said, the new government decided it would be more useful to fill “gaps” in coalition deployments.

While U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter has called on all participants to increase their contributions across the board, Sajjan said that “the coalition has no shortage of air-strike capacity.” Last month, Canada withdrew its combat air component of six CF-188 Hornets that had flown 1,378 strike missions since October 2014, most of them in Iraq with a handful in Syria.

“The principle is a sense of responsibility,” Dion said. “You don’t do something only to look good . . . we try to see how, as a partner in a team, we may be optimum.”

As planning is underway for Iraqi forces to retake the major northern city of Mosul, he said, commanders say their primary need is for better intelligence to improve the capabilities of strike aircraft and Special Operations forces from the United States and elsewhere to conduct raids. Canada, he said, is doubling its intelligence capabilities inside Iraq and at a center it operates in Kuwait.

The Canadians, with about 830 military personnel in Iraq, is also tripling the number of advisers and trainers working with Kurdish peshmerga forces who are holding what Sajjan called the “northern shoulder” of the country and are getting ready to participate in a Mosul offensive he said is probably up to a year away.

Canadian advisers and trainers have been closer to the front lines than their U.S. counterparts, who are working farther to the south with Iraqi army forces. A Canadian Special Forces member operating with the peshmerga became the first coalition soldier killed in Iraq a year ago, in what was described as a friendly-fire incident.

In December, Canadian advisers were involved in a major firefight with Islamic State forces who attacked a peshmerga installation where they were based.