OTTAWA (Reuters) - Prime Minister Stephen Harper denied on Thursday that Canadian military advisers in Iraq would be dragged into combat against Islamic State militants despite a recent clash but said Canada's forces would kill anyone who attacked them.
Asked whether he anticipated Canadian troops taking on more of a combat role, Harper replied: "No, I do not."
He insisted the about 70 Canadian special forces personnel on the ground in Iraq are there to help local forces in their fight against the militants.
"This is a robust mission ... if those guys fire at us we're going to fire back and we're going to kill them, just like our guys did, and we're very proud of the job they're doing in Iraq," he told reporters in St. Catharines, Ontario.
Canada pledged in October to join the U.S.-led bombing campaign in Iraq for six months. It also put the special forces on the ground in Iraq in a role that Ottawa said would be to advise and assist Iraqi troops but not engage in combat.
Military officials on Monday revealed for the first time that the forces were helping target Islamic State fighters. They also said Canadian soldiers had recently shot militants who had fired on them with machine guns and mortars.
The topic is sensitive for the Conservative government, which is trailing in the polls ahead of an October election. Canadians' appetite for foreign military missions has dropped after 10 years of involvement in Afghanistan that ended in 2011, and during which 158 soldiers were killed.
Justin Trudeau, whose opposition Liberals are leading in the polls, said on Tuesday that Harper had not been telling the truth last year when he assured legislators Canadian forces would not be involved in combat.
Separately, the chief of the Canadian defense staff said the situation on the ground in Iraq has changed since last October.
"We have increased our assistance with respect to targeting air strikes in direct correlation with an increased threat encountered by the Iraqi Security Forces," General Tom Lawson said in a statement.
"Our special operations forces personnel are not seeking to directly engage the enemy, but we are providing assistance to forces that are in combat."
Additional reporting by Andrea Hopkins in St Catharines; Editing by; Lisa Von Ahn and Peter Galloway