OTTAWA—Some of Canada's most elite and best-trained soldiers have abandoned the secretive Joint Task Force 2 unit for the promise of fat paycheques offered by private security firms working in Iraq and other hotspots, a top commander has confirmed.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, private contractors were dangling the promise of $1,000-a-day deals to poach JTF2 soldiers, said Col. David Barr, head of Canadian Special Operations Forces Command.

"We were a targeted source for that type of employment," Barr told the Senate defence committee yesterday.

He would not disclose how many soldiers he has lost to lucrative private trade "but it was enough that it was certainly catching the interest.

And since JTF2 is a small unit, "you lose three, four, five people, that's a lot," he said.

Speaking in his first extensive public appearance, Barr cited the loss of top troops as a key reason for the "significant allowance package" endorsed by Ottawa for JTF2 soldiers earlier this year.

The "Special Operations Assaulter Allowance" can boost salary by $15,000 for those with less than two year's service to $39,576 for those with 14 years or more of service. Pay hikes of up to $16,356 were awarded to support personnel.

"It's in recognition of hardship, risk, readiness, commitment and the tremendous investment we have put in them and the sacrifices they have accepted," Barr said.

He couldn't say whether the military tracks the whereabouts of the specially trained and highly skilled soldiers who have quit the forces. But he revealed that the unit keeps a list of former JTF2 soldiers who are available for special assignments.

Barr said there's no problem finding recruits although just 20 per cent of the carefully screened candidates make it through the initial course. Those who do then face a year of training before they're considered able to be deployed.

In his first ever appearance before a parliamentary committee, Barr confirmed that in addition to operations in Afghanistan, special forces units have been put on alert here in Canada several times to "be there at the right time at the right place with the right capability in case something goes wrong."

He said his "special operators — a term he prefers over commandos — are given the "no-fail" missions that no one else can do.

"We don't use that term loosely. Many of the tasks, if not all ... there truly is no one else that can do it," Barr said, offering the example of a hostage rescue.

Barr was affable, and even a little boastful, saying the ability of JTF2 troops was on par with the soldiers from Britain's legendary Special Air Service and other top-notch military units.

But those hoping to get details such as the size of JTF2, its tactics or even a simply denial on rumours that unit soldiers had seen service in Iraq were left disappointed as Barr stayed mum about operational details.

It's the lack of detail that prompted the Senate defence committee last month to criticize JTF2 for being too secret and unaccountable. Yesterday, committee chair Senator Colin Kenny took aim at Barr for the lack of details, asking, "How should the taxpayer know that you are as good as you say you are?"

And with no public accounting of its missions, Kenny wondered whether an independent watchdog should oversee special forces units, like which now exists for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service or the Communications Security Establishment, which gathers electronic intelligence.< P>

But Barr doubted that Canadians would be upset if they knew what his troops were up to.

"Everything we do is in support of the security of Canadians at home or abroad," he said.

Also at the defence committee yesterday, Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie, commander of land forces, said the Canadian army is stretched so thin by the war in Afghanistan that it will rely increasingly on civilian contractors and reservists to train new recruits.

The mission in Afghanistan has meant that junior officers and non-commissioned officers or NCOs, the backbone of army training, are in short supply at home.

The gap is being filled by outsourcing some training, such as driving courses for armoured vehicles and other non-combat related instruction.

Even though they're under pressure, Leslie said seasoned NCOs and junior officers will still direct all combat training and mercenaries will not be used to fill any gaps on the front lines.

With files from Canadian Press