While Canadians rejoiced at the news that two of their citizens had been rescued from captivity in Iraq, some were surprised to learn Canadian special forces were involved in the mission and curious as to how many troops are on the ground.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters Thursday that a handful of Canadian troops have been stationed in Iraq since the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation, which is still widely unpopular at home.
But Harper insisted the special forces who helped to rescue Canadians James Loney and Harmeet Singh Sooden, and Briton Normal Kember, were only in Iraq temporarily, with the express goal of obtaining the hostages' release.
The former Liberal Party government declined in 2003 to join the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, unless it came under the U.N. umbrella, and many Canadians have been critical of the United States' methods in its so-called war on terror.
Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay said about 20 special forces in Iraq, working quietly since shortly after the kidnappings of the Christian Peacemaker Teams workers on Nov. 26.
"We were there with our very best," he told The Globe and Mail for Friday editions. "We had everyone fully engaged in this operation from day one." The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, intelligence officers and diplomats were also involved, he said.
"Canada should not (be), and is not passive when it comes to its own citizens and the protection of their lives," MacKay said.
It is believed members of Canada's elite and secretive Joint Task Force 2 were also involved, but the government would neither confirm nor deny this.
Harper did confirm Thursday, shortly after the men were rescued, that an unspecified number of Canadians have been embedded with coalition forces since the beginning of the war.
"I'm not free to say anything more than that because this involves national security," he said. He denied Canadian troops were involved in the war, however, saying: "Any involvement that Canada has had on the ground in this particular matter was obviously targeted simply at the issue of Canadian hostages."
Canadian Defense spokeswoman Lieut. Morgan Bailey told The Associated Press on Friday there were only a handful of Canadian troops on the ground in Iraq. She said one soldier is serving with a U.N. assistance team helping to draft a new constitution and coordinate humanitarian operations; three other Canadian soldiers are on an exchange with U.K. forces.
"They do their normal job, only with the British unit," she said. "If their job is to be an engineer, they would do that job with the British."
But she declined to say whether there were special forces in Iraq, reports AP.
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