BAGHDAD — Stephen Harper paid a surprise visit to Iraq on Saturday, meeting with the county’s prime minister and delivering a substantial aid cheque for the war-torn region.
The federal government announced an additional $139 million to be spread around not only Iraq, but Syria, Jordan and Lebanon to help alleviate the burgeoning refugee crisis precipitated by the rise of the Islamic State.
The cash is in addition to the $67 million dollars Canada has already committed to Iraq.
Harper was greeted in Erbil by Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish Region, a semi autonomous part of Iraq.
There was an honour guard of peshmerga fighters and a swarm of Kurdish media, which carried the event live on television.
The prime minister’s visit, conducted under a blanket of tight security and a temporary news blackout, comes as the Shiite-dominated government considers its next move in the internationally-backed campaign to dislodge the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant from northern and western regions.
Harper was welcomed at the presidential palace in the Green Zone with full military honours.
He met with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi for close to 40 minutes.
“We’er obviously here to discuss not only our relationship, but the obviously very special issue in terms of countering ISIS,” Harper said.
“You can be sure we will continue to work with you going forward, not just on the security problem but on the greater humanitarian and development issues this is causing for the Iraqi people.”
The Iraqi prime minister praised Canada’s contribution in the conflict with ISIL.
The U.S.-led international coalition, which has been conducting an air campaign to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces, as well as provide badly needed training, has been insisting for months that the advance of extremists had been checked.
But the Islamic State surprised both Washington and Baghdad in mid-April by launching an offensive near the key city of Ramadi, putting the next phase of the coalition campaign into question.
The U.S., British and Australians have been re-training the Iraqi army after it effectively melted away in the face of the ISIL advance last summer, and it was widely expected those refreshed forces would go on the offensive either this spring, or summer.
There are 69 Canadian special forces based in the north training Kurdish peshmerga fighters, near the regional capital of Irbil.
Canada has also contributed six CF-18 jetfighters, a CP-140 Aurora surveillance plane and a C-150 Polaris tanker to the coalition bombing campaign, a commitment that was recently extended to the end of March next year.
There are persistent concerns about the influence of Iran over al-Abadi’s government, fears that were heightened with reports in March that the regime in Tehran had deployed advanced rockets and missiles to help the Iraqis retake Tikrit.
That battle saw as many as 30,000 Iranian-trained militia fighters turned loose on the key, Sunni-dominated city.
Much of the blame for the rise of ISIL has fallen on Abadi’s predecessor, Nuri al-Maliki, whose brutal, repressive policies alienated vast segments of the Sunni population.
Recently, al-Abadi sacked some of the political generals appointed by Maliki, chose to accept American military advisers, and cut two deals with the Kurdish regional government over oil.
Ken Pollack, of the Brookings Institution, wrote recently that those are among some of the hopeful signs and speak to the Iraqi prime minister’s “determination to do the right thing.”
Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press