Opposition parties are accusing Prime Minister Stephen Harper of misleading Parliament and Canadians about Canada’s mission in Iraq, after it was revealed that our troops were recently involved in a firefight with Islamic State militants.

“Now that we know Canadian soldiers are involved in combat in Iraq, (the government is) trying to say they might be involved in combat, but it’s still not a combat mission,” NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair told reporters Tuesday in Toronto. 

“That’s playing with words, and the brave women and men in uniform who are serving our country deserve better than word games from their prime minister.”

Mulcair later told CTV News Channel that he asked Harper “very specific” questions in the House of Commons last fall as Parliament debated Canada’s involvement in the fight against ISIS. Each time, the prime minister answered that Canadians would not be engaging in ground combat, Mulcair said.

"Canadian soldiers are not accompanying the Iraqi forces into combat," Harper had said on Sept. 30.

But senior military officials revealed on Monday that Canadian special operations forces came under ISIS attack over the last week and returned fire to “neutralize” the threat.

Brig.-Gen. Michael Rouleau said the special ops had just completed a planning session with Iraqi forces several kilometres behind the front lines when they came under mortar and machine-gun fire.

“This is the first time that this has happened since our arrival and our reaction is wholly consistent with the inherent right of self-defence,” he said of the roughly 69 special ops deployed to Iraq in an advisory and training role. 

Rouleau also said that Canadians are “enabling airstrikes from the ground,” by actively finding targets with lasers for jets flying overhead.

But he said that does not mean Canadian ground troops are in a combat role.

“This is very much within the advise-and-assist regime,” Rouleau said. “We have the ability to help make the process involving the delivery of coalition aircraft kinetic effects better, safer, faster. We have those capabilities on the ground. We’re assisting Iraqi security forces who own the combat mission against ISIS.”

However, Gen. Tom Lawson, chief of the defence staff, told CTV’s Question Period last October that Canadian special ops would not be on the ground, guiding air strikes with lasers. This is what he told Ottawa Bureau Chief Robert Fife:

Lawson: “For our air crews to be more effective, they need to be guided to targets by those who are on the ground and that’s something that will more and more come into force in coming months.”

Fife: “OK, so we’re going to have these people on the ground pinpointing but it wouldn’t be Canadians, right? Because that would sort of end up being a semi-combat role?”

Lawson: “That’s right.” 

On Tuesday, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson told CTV News that special forces were only guiding air strikes to avoid civilian casualties, and had to defend themselves.

“With respect to the firefights, these are Canadian soldiers who were fired upon,” he said. “And no matter where you are in the world, if you fire on Canadian soldiers, we will defend ourselves.”

‘Combat is combat’

Mulcair told CTV’s Power Play Tuesday that “training is training” and “combat is combat.”

“The question is: Was Mr. Harper respecting his word to Parliament and to Canadians? And it clearly appears that the answer to that is no,” he said.

Senior military commander Lt.-Gen. Jonathan Vance also said it's not clear how long it will be before Iraqi forces are able to call in coalition airstrikes against Islamic State fighters without Canada's help.

The military briefings have raised concerns about Canadian troops’ deeper involvement in Iraq as the threat of ISIS attacks intensifies.

Speaking to reporters in London, Ont., Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said Harper made “great assurances” in the House about the “established perimeters for the mission.”

Those assurances “have not been respected,” Trudeau said.

“I think the prime minister owes it to Canadians to be forthright and fulsome in his explanations.”

The Conservative government insists that Canadian troops are not getting involved in ground combat and that they simply had to defend themselves.

Retired Col. George Petrolekas, a former senior NATO advisor, told Power Play Tuesday that the facts, as they were presented by military officials on Monday, “don’t lend themselves to an interpretation of combat.”

Petrolekas said using lasers to point out ISIS targets is “enabling the air function but it’s not actually involved in ground combat."

“The reaction by political leaders and some academics and other commentators have to be taken in the context of the fact that we’re in an election year so everything is politicized,” he said.

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson told CTV News that Canada will be providing more “non-lethal” assistance to Iraqi troops by sending 6,000 pieces of surplus winter equipment, such as coats, pants and boots.

With files from The Canadian Press