OTTAWA (CP) - The United States is optimistic Canada will sign on to President George W. Bush's missile defence plan before the end of March, Ambassador Paul Cellucci has told The Canadian Press.
Cellucci, who is scheduled to leave his post this spring, said he expects the issue will be resolved before he returns to the U.S.
"We've been told that it will be dealt with over the next couple of months," he said during a brief conversation.
Asked if, based on his discussions, he anticipates that Canada will take part in the controversial missile shield, Cellucci replied: "Yes"
"We continue to hope that Canada makes a positive decision on the
missile defence program, which we believe is consistent with the mission
Participation in missile defence represents a potentially explosive issue for the federal Liberals and could conceivably bring down their minority government.
The Bloc Quebecois and the NDP are unalterably opposed to any participation in the U.S.-led project. Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has said he would want to see the terms of any deal between Canada and the United States before lending his party's support to Canadian participation.
There is considerable public opposition to a Canadian role in the program - particularly in Quebec, the province that will likely hold the key to any hopes the Liberals have for forming a majority government in the next election.
Even more troublesome for Prime Minister Paul Martin is the significant opposition to missile defence in his own caucus.
Martin has indicated that Parliament will be consulted on the issue, but he has been less clear on the exact mechanism for the process and on the sequence of events.
The prime minister's spokesman reiterated Sunday that MPs will be able to voice their opinions before Ottawa signs off irrevocably on any agreement. But he said the timing will be dictated by Martin and the interests of Canadians.
"The government will not adhere to artificial deadlines of any kind," said Scott Reid.
"The substance and the timing of this decision will be determined by Canadians. And Parliament will have a role before any final decision by cabinet is reached."
Martin has voiced some misgivings in recent weeks about the Bush plan to erect a defence shield over the United States that would knock down any incoming missile from a "rogue" state.
A U.S. attempt to launch an interceptor missile as part of the shield failed in early December in the first test of the proposed system in nearly two years.
The Missile Defense Agency said the ground-based interceptor automatically shut down "due to an unknown anomaly" shortly before it was
to be launched from Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific Ocean.
The prime minister pointed to that failure as he told year-end interviewers that Canada would not be on the hook financially even if he decided to take part in the program. Nor would he allow Washington to station rockets on Canadian soil.
Martin also insisted that Canada must have a significant say in how the missile shield is operated, and that under no circumstances can the program lead to the weaponization of space.
Those unusually pointed caveats prompted banner national headlines on Dec. 15.
Sources say, however, that the next day Martin dispatched Alex Himelfarb, the clerk of the Privy Council and the prime minister's most senior bureaucrat, to assure American officials that the critical comments did not reflect a definitive decision by the government on missile defence.
One source said Himelfarb even told the U.S. officials that Canada would shortly announce it would participate in the program.
Bush did some unexpected public lobbying for Canadian participation when he was in Canada last month. He also privately told Martin that he couldn't understand why anyone would be opposed to the project.
In addition, the U.S. president used a separate meeting with Harper to urge the Conservative leader to end the mystery over his party's stand and support the initiative.
American officials say Bush would welcome Canadian support in missile defence but they now just hope the issue will resolved soon - one way or the other.
When he was running for the Liberal leadership, Martin was far less equivocal about a Canadian role in the missile shield. In those days he portrayed Ottawa's participation as an element of Canadian sovereignty.
"If somebody is going to be sending missiles over Canadian airspace, we want to be at the table," Martin said during the leadership campaign.
As prime minister, he has made it clear that he would pull Canada out of the program if it led to the installation of weapons in space. But he has also signalled that he might be interested in participating with that caveat in mind.
"In terms of the land-based or sea-based missile system, we're
going to do what's in Canada's interest."