OTTAWA — A senior Canadian military commander says 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.

That candid acknowledgment by Lt.-Gen. Jonathan Vance has critics fearing Canada is being dragged further into direct combat operations, contrary to what the Harper government has promised.

Vance told a briefing Monday that he wasn’t sure when the specialized training will be provided, but he expects that “down the road the Iraqi air force and army will be able to bring in and guide on” airstrikes.

Brig.-Gen. Mike Rouleau, the commander of special forces, says his troops are doing it because the Iraqis cannot, which has the added benefit of giving commanders confidence that the targets are legitimate.

Rouleau says that kind of assurance ultimately makes the process faster and safer not only for local troops, but civilians as well.

Speaking in Toronto, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair says Monday’s news contradicts the government’s promise that Canada’s special forces would not be accompanying Iraqis into battle.