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Canada won’t sign on to U.S. missile system

Maggie Farley and Paul Richter Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON – Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin said Thursday his country would opt out of the contentious U.S. missile defense program, a move that is expected to please constituents at home but could further strain relations with Washington after Canada’s opposition to the Iraq war.

Weeks after President Bush pressed him for a public endorsement of the planned ballistic missile system in December, Canadian officials notified their U.S. counterparts during a NATO summit in Brussels earlier this week that Canada would not be signing on. But Martin tried to soften the impact with an $11-billion commitment to shore up Canada’s own military and border security, two things the White House had asked Canada to do.

“Let me be clear. We respect the right of the United States to defend itself and its people,” Martin told reporters in Ottawa. “However, (ballistic missile defense) is not where we will concentrate our efforts.”

In Washington, the news came as a disappointment to Bush administration officials, who have been trying to drum up international support for the missile program and had hoped for backing from one of its closest neighbors.

“Obviously, we would have liked to have had Canada be part of it,” said a State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But they make decisions based on national considerations; it’s their decision.”

In an appearance in Nova Scotia in December, Bush appealed for Canada’s support for the missile defense system. But the State Department official denied Thursday that Canada’s refusal to participate would hurt plans for the system or upset relations between the two nations.

“We’re going to press ahead with it any way we can,” he said.

U.S. officials have discussed participation in the missile program with Japan, Britain, Denmark, Australia, Canada, Israel, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Russia, Turkey, Spain, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Ukraine, Taiwan and India.

The yet-to-be-realized missile shield would still protect Canadians, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Tuesday. But Ottawa will not participate in building the system or have a say in how to respond to a missile heading toward North America.

Some Canadian proponents saw cooperation with the program as a low-cost way to bolster ties with Washington after a long stretch of alienation under former Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s 10-year rule.

When Martin took office in December 2003, he seemed to support Canada’s involvement and signed a defense agreement with the U.S. last August that offers Canadian help in detecting and identifying missile threats.

But as head of a minority government, with his own Liberal party divided over the issue, Martin did not want to gamble his prime ministership on missile defense, Canadian officials say.

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