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Seven Canadian soldiers treated at military hospital in Iraq since November

Canadian troops received medical aid in Iraq

OTTAWA — National Defence is refusing to disclose details about several Canadian soldiers treated at a military hospital in northern Iraq in recent weeks, including whether any of them were wounded on the battlefield.

The soldiers were among 120 patients who were seen at the medical facility since it began operating near the Kurdish city of Erbil at the end of November, according to figures provided to The Canadian Press.

The hospital, staffed by about 50 Canadian Forces medical personnel, is providing emergency and non-emergency care to those involved in the battle for nearby Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city.

The figures show that the majority of patients seen at the facility have been troops from other coalition countries such as the United States, which has more than 5,000 soldiers in Iraq.

But the hospital had also treated seven Canadian soldiers, as well as three members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant who were captured and needed medical aid.

Military spokesman Capt. Vincent Bouchard refused this week to say whether any of the seven Canadians were wounded in combat.

"For privacy reasons and operational considerations, the Canadian Armed Forces do not release details about the types of injuries treated at the Role 2 medical facility," Bouchard said in an email.

As for the captured ISIL fighters, officials said they remained in the custody of coalition members even while being treated by Canadian medical personnel.

The veil of secrecy continues a trend that started in Afghanistan, where commanders grew more tight-lipped about injuries to Canadian troops as the 10-year mission wore on.

The main exception was in March 2015, when Kurdish forces accidentally shot and wounded three Canadians in a deadly friendly-fire incident that also killed Sgt. Andrew Doiron.

The U.S. military has been similarly reluctant to provide details on the number of injured in Iraq, though one media analysis found at least 14 American soldiers had been wounded in combat since October.

The refusal to say whether any of the Canadians treated at the hospital had been wounded in combat sparked fresh calls from opposition parties Thursday for more transparency about the Iraq mission.

"Canadians should know if our troops are being injured on a mission," NDP foreign affairs critic Helene Laverdiere said in an email.

"If the Liberals are trying to stop this information coming out because it would prove that our soldiers are entering into combat, then that would be disgraceful. We don't play games with wounded soldiers."

Canada currently has more than 200 soldiers operating in northern Iraq.

Cabinet ministers and military commanders insist the troops are not involved in combat, as was promised by the Liberals during the 2015 federal election.

But critics have accused the government of hiding information and even misleading the public about the nature of the mission, which they believe includes combat.

The debate has been complicated by revelations in recent months that Canadian troops have been spending more time on the front lines during the fight for Mosul, and even firing first on occasion.

On at least three occasions, the Canadians have used anti-armour missiles to destroy explosive-laden vehicles that ISIL was driving toward the Kurds.

"The Liberals continued lack of transparency surrounding the work of troops overseas is unacceptable," said Conservative defence critic James Bezan, who wished all Canadian and coalition troops receiving medical treatment a speedy recovery.

"We understand the need to protect security rights and operational security, but Canadians deserve to know if and when our troops are engaged in combat."

Maj.-Gen. Mike Rouleau, commander of Canadian Special Forces Operations, said in November that his troops were not leading the fight or engaged in "offensive combat operations" as a unit against ISIL.

"We have never accompanied any leading combat elements," he said. "My troops have not engaged in direct combat as a fighting element in offensive combat operations. We do not plan on that basis, because our mandate does not allow us to do so."

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Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press