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Updated: Wed, 03 Sep 2014 13:10:15 GMT | By The Canadian Press, cbc.ca

John Baird pledges $15M to bolster Iraq security during Baghdad visit

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, centre, chats with Canadian Ambassador to Iraq Bruno Saccomani, left, after a meeting at the Presidential Palace Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014 in Baghdad, Iraq. Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, centre, chats with Canadian Ambassador to Iraq Bruno Saccomani, left, after a meeting at the Presidential Palace Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014 in Baghdad, Iraq. Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press

Canada will continue to stand by the people of Iraq, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird declared Wednesday during a surprise, security-shrouded visit to Baghdad that included two of his most prominent political rivals.

A meeting with President Fuad Masoum was first on Baird's jam-packed agenda as the Canadian delegation, including opposition MPs, donned flak jackets for a heavily guarded, high-speed dash to the presidential palace.

"We are many — all Canadians in government — deeply concerned with the security threat," Baird told the president.

"We wanted to come here to show our solidarity with the Iraqi people. We want to congratulate you on your nomination as president."

Baird also met prime minister-designate Haider al-Abadi and Foreign Affairs Minister Hoshyar Zebari. "I'm here in Iraq to demonstrate Canada's commitment to Iraq's stability, security, and prosperity," he said.

He condemned what he called the "barbaric" advance of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, an al-Qaeda splinter group wreaking havoc across Syria and northern and western Iraq.

$15M to support fight against militants

Baird promised $15 million to support security measures, including $10 million to provide equipment helmets, body armour and logistics support vehicles to Iraqi forces fighting ISIS. The other $5 million will support regional efforts to limit the movement of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria.

The full scope of the violence has come into sharper focus in recent days, in part because of a new Amnesty International report accusing ISIS of ethnic cleansing against religious minorities, including thousands of members of the Yazidi faith.

"Canada will not stand idly by while ISIS continues to murder innocent civilians, including members of ethnic and religious minorities," Baird said.

The extremists pose a threat not just to regional interests, but to global security as well, he said.

ISIS, also known as ISIL, has claimed responsibility for the beheading deaths — each depicted in videos released on the Internet — of two U.S. journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

On Monday, the United Nations Human Rights Council said it would investigate ISIS's possible crimes against the civilian population.

The UN says more than 1,400 Iraqis were killed — the vast majority of them civilians — in August, a decline from the previous month's death toll of more than 1,700. In June, the death toll hit 2,400, Iraq's highest since the spring of 2005.

The incoming Iraqi prime minister succeeds Nouri al-Maliki, who stepped down last month under strong political pressure after eight years in office.

Al-Maliki was widely accused of promoting a pro-Shiite agenda that alienated Iraq's Sunni minority — a political path that many say led to the rise of ISIS.

Baird urged the Iraqi leadership to come together and govern for all Iraqis, regardless of religious or ethnic background.

Canada urges inclusive cabinet

The message was reinforced by opposition MPs Paul Dewar and Marc Garneau, the NDP and Liberal foreign affairs critics, who accompanied Baird to Baghdad at his request in a show of non-partisan political solidarity.

The Canadian delegation wants al-Abadi to build a strong cabinet that believes in tolerance.

"It will have to be more than one-face change," said Dewar. "A new prime minister needs to have a team around him that is going to include all minorities, particularly including the Sunnis."

Al-Maliki was unable to unite Sunnis, Shiites, Christian minorities and other groups, said Garneau. "And this is one of the reasons that the Islamic State has been able to implant itself vigorously in Iraq."

Baird's latest visit — his Iraq in almost 18 months — came after a major battlefield breakthrough in the fight against ISIS.

On Sunday, Iraqi security forces and Shia militias ended the Islamic State siege of the town of Amirli, where about 15,000 Shia Turkmens had been trapped for the last two months.

Iraq received support from Iran after thousands of Shiite militias answered the exhortation of Iraq-based Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to direct their fire at Sunni insurgents.

The U.S. has played down the role of Iran, America's sworn enemy since its Islamic revolution more than 30 years ago. Tehran's apparent good-guy posture also has foreign policy implications for the Harper government.

Canada severed diplomatic relations with Iran in 2012, shuttering its embassy in Tehran and kicking its diplomats out of Ottawa. Baird, in particular, has been a loud, boisterous critic.

Dewar said it is time for Canada to reconsider its hard line towards Iran. "Diplomacy is talking to people you find it difficult to talk to. That's why it's important to have a presence anywhere you can."

Added Garneau: "It's a delicate thing to manoeuvre because Canada has a certain position with respect to Iran on a number of issues — some very serious issues including human rights."

The crisis has also presented a conundrum for many U.S. allies, including Canada, which did not support the original 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that many now view as the root cause of the current situation.

At the request of Iraq and the U.S., Canada, France and Italy have joined Britain and Australia by helping transport guns, mortars and ammunition to Iraqi forces.

Canada has contributed two military transport planes to the region, a CC-130J Hercules as well as a CC-177 Globemaster, which last week successfully delivered weapons donated by Albania.

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