National Newswatch

OTTAWA — Defence ministers from countries fighting Middle East militants, including Canada's Harjit Sajjan, are driving home a message of political reconciliation to Iraq's fractured leadership as plans take shape to liberate the country's largest city.

Western nations fear Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will be unable to keep sectarian rivals and Kurdish nationalists from turning on each other once Mosul is free from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Sajjan, attending meetings in Stuttgart, Germany, said ethnic and political divisions in Iraq are top of mind not only for western leaders, but for troops on the ground — including Canadian special forces operators advising Iraqi fighters. 

"We're working very closely right down to the lowest level to make sure the political situation is not heated up," Sajjan said during a conference call Wednesday.

Almost all of the armed groups in Iraq have sponsors in one form or another, including the Iran-backed Shiite militia; Sunni local defence forces trained by Turkey; and Kurdish fighters whom Americans and Canadians are backing.

U.S. Secretary of Defence Ash Carter was more blunt in a statement released shortly after Wednesday's meeting.

"We called on all of Iraq's political leaders to commit themselves to the legal and peaceful reconciliation of political differences in order to confront the nation's challenges and to remain united against the common enemy of ISIL/Daesh," he said, using two of the militant group's many aliases.

The Abadi government has been blamed for giving rising to ISIL, and the capture of Mosul in 2014, through its deliberate alienation of Iraq's Sunni population. The perception hasn't gotten much better with the use of Iran-backed Shiite militias to retake other cities overrun by the Islamic State, notably the city of Tikrit. 

The Kurds, who have partial autonomy, have made no secret of their desire for full independence, suggesting a referendum could happen by October.

U.S. coalition commanders want the central government's army — not the Kurds or the Shiite militias — to take in the lead in the liberation of Mosul.

In several meetings with high-level Kurdish leadership, Sajjan said he's pushed the point that Canada's military training, which is in the process of being ramped up, is being delivered within the context of a united Iraq. The Abadi government has been "very supportive" of those kinds of statements, he added.

"So, we're very politically sensitive to the aspects of what we were bringing to the table with the Kurds," he said. "We do understand the complexity of the political situation, but we in Canada are not alone in the training."

The meeting Wednesday, more than anything else, was meant to get western allies on the same political page in terms of their message to both Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government in Erbil, Sajjan said.

"We cannot let the sectarian violence to create a political vacuum that allows groups — radical groups like Daesh — to reconstitute themselves in the future," he said.

Being seen at the table with allies is also important for the Liberal government. Earlier this year, the Conservatives made a fuss when Sajjan wasn't invited to a session following the announcement that Canada would be withdrawing its CF-18s from combat.

There were also questions Wednesday about recent television images that show Canadian special forces troops wearing a patch with the Kurdish flag along side their Maple Leaf insignia.

Sajjan defended it as a show of solidarity, not unlike the way Canadian troops in Kandahar had an Afghan flag patch on their fatigues — a response that seemed to overlook the fact that Kurdistan is not a independent nation.

Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press

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