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Harper asked to explain position on Iraq

[PoliticsWatch Updated 4:30 p.m. December 13, 2005]

OTTAWA  — Conservative Leader Stephen Harper unveiled a new defence policy on Tuesday but was faced with a number of questions about whether he would send Canadian troops to Iraq if elected.  
 
That issued was renewed recently after an opinion piece in the Washington Times described Harper as U.S. President George W. Bush's late Christmas present if he were elected. 

"On Jan. 23, Canada may elect the most pro-American leader in the Western world," wrote Patrick Basham, senior fellow at the Cato Institute. In that article Basham described Harper as "pro-Iraq war."

The issue with the Washington Times seemed to have died, but Harper gave it new life over the weekend when he sent a letter to the Times in which he disputed Basham's claim about his position on Iraq among other things.

"On Iraq, while I support the removal of Saddam Hussein and applaud the efforts to establish democracy and freedom in Iraq, I would not commit Canadian troops to that country," Harper wrote. 

While supporting the U.S. invasion in Iraq would not hurt him with the base of the Conservative party, it would likely be the equivalent of political suicide in an election campaign to support a war that is unpopular with Canadian voters, according pollsters. 

Harper also said he had "great disappointment" with the "failure to substantiate pre-war intelligence information regarding Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction," a position that has been taken by a number of moderate Democrats in the U.S. 

Speaking with reporters in Trenton, Ontario, Tuesday Harper said his position all along was that he did not want to send Canadian troops and that his position is no different than that of Prime Minister Paul Martin.

"I've never believed Canada had the capacity to participate in the Iraq conflict as a military intervener," he said. "I think the truth of the matter is Mr. Martin and I have maintained exactly the same position over the past couple of years."

A check of the past shows that when he was leader of the Canadian Alliance party, Harper did indeed rule out sending troops to Iraq in a March 20, 2003 debate in the House of Commons

"This party will not be with Saddam Hussein," he said. "We will not be neutral. We will be with our allies and our friends, not militarily but in spirit we will be with them in America and in Britain for a short and successful conflict and for the liberation of the people of Iraq."

But that was a debate on a Bloc Quebecois motion requesting the government not participate in Iraq. 

Harper voted against that motion which read: "That this House call upon the government not to participate in the military intervention initiated by the United States in Iraq."

The motion passed 153 to 50. Martin, who Harper says has had the same position as him, actually voted in favour of the Bloc motion. 

So although Harper did not explicitly endorse sending troops, he was not opposed to it. 

And Harper was clearly in favour of the U.S. invasion and critical of then prime minister Jean Chretien's position on the war. 

A check of Hansard shows that on March 24, 2003 in question period he appeared to be pressuring then foreign affairs minister Bill Graham to get involved militarily in Iraq, days after the U.S. invasion began.

"Mr. Speaker, on Friday the Minister of Foreign Affairs did not rule out participation in the allied military campaign in Iraq. The government has now had the weekend to reflect on subsequent events and to reconsider its position. Is the government now prepared to stand with our American and British friends for the end of the rule of Saddam Hussein?" Harper asked.

Then there was Harper's second question that day, where he comes about as close as you can come without using the words send troops.

"A reason the government should reconsider its position is that it appears some allied POWs may have been executed by Saddam's soldiers. It is certainly clear that Saddam's treatment of allied personnel is a blatant violation of the Geneva convention. Given these realities, does the government now regret that it is not standing with our American and British friends in the fight against Saddam?"

And finally there was a call to fight for Canada's principles contained in Harper's third question. 

"Mr. Speaker, two world wars demonstrated that principles do not matter unless one is prepared to fight and stand for them. Saddam is not just killing allied personnel. He is threatening his own people. He has placed military buildings inside residential areas. We have documented evidence of him using women and children as human shields. These are also violations of the Geneva convention. When will the government reverse its decision to abandon our allies?"

Perhaps Harper's language may not have specifically advocated sending Canadian troops, but nonetheless he was in full support of the U.S. invasion. 

The same cannot be said for Conservative MP Stockwell Day, who was foreign affairs critic for the official opposition in 2003. 

"Canadian Troops Must Join Allies in the Gulf. More Canadian troops should now head to region to help enforce U.N. resolution, disarm Saddam," stated the headline of the news release issued from Day's office on Jan. 28, 2003. 

Harper said in a 2004 interview with the Toronto Star that he did not recall Day's press release and he doesn't "know what it's about." 

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