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THE WORLD

Canada Wants Answers in 'Friendly Fire'

April 20, 2002|WILLIAM ORME | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OTTAWA — Flags fluttered at half-staff here in Canada's capital Friday to honor four infantrymen killed by a bomb from a U.S. warplane, the first Canadian combat troops to die in the line of duty in half a century.

But the initial shock over the incident early Thursday in southern Afghanistan was giving way to skeptical and even angry questioning about the terms--and costs--of Canada's military collaboration with the United States.

The Canadian soldiers, members of an elite unit fighting alongside American troops near the city of Kandahar, were killed by a 500-pound bomb apparently dropped in error by an Air National Guard F-16 pilot. Eight other Canadians were wounded.

The "friendly fire" deaths have brought to the surface feelings here that Canada has become an underappreciated and perhaps under-equipped junior partner in a superpower's global adventures.

"The symbolism, for those who think we have no business being in Afghanistan, is too rich to miss," prominent journalist Margaret Wente wrote in a front-page column in Friday's Globe and Mail newspaper. "We went to help out the Americans with their war--and they used us for target practice."

On Thursday, as Prime Minister Jean Chretien somberly informed Parliament about the accident, most opposition politicians refrained from questioning the government's controversial decision to contribute an 880-member unit to the Afghanistan coalition commanded by U.S. generals in Tampa, Fla., and dominated in the field by U.S. air power and high-tech ground weaponry.

They did not challenge the government's accounting of the U.S. response to the incident--President Bush's condolence call to the prime minister, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's promise of a swift investigation--which portrayed relations with Washington as still close and collegial. The leaders of the Canadian Alliance and Parti Quebecois crossed the aisle to shake hands with the visibly distressed Liberal Party prime minister, who vowed to keep Canadian troops in Afghanistan.

One pointed and surprising exception was Joe Clark, the Progressive Conservative Party leader, a normally pro-American former prime minister.

"War is always unpredictable, but Canadians would want to know what were the exact circumstances that led to Canadians being killed by friendly fire," Clark said. "Did the arrangement whereby American commanders direct Canadian troops have any impact on these casualties?"

On Friday, Canada's other parties joined the fray. Defense Minister Art Eggleton was grilled by opposition leaders in Parliament about the extent of promised U.S. collaboration with Canada's investigation into the incident. Would the Americans share all their documents? The depositions of all their personnel?

Canadian commentators, unimpressed by Chretien's report of his Wednesday night telephone call from the U.S. president, noted with some bitterness that Bush had failed to voice regret or dismay about the deaths in any of his public appearances Thursday. He might not have mentioned the incident at all, it was widely noted here, if it had not been for the shouted question of a Canadian reporter--to whom Bush responded by saying he had called Chretien on Wednesday.

"Canadians know tragic accidents happen," wrote Paul Wells, a National Post columnist. "They also know what outrage would ensue if the situation were reversed--if our snipers had killed U.S. soldiers--and our own leaders could offer the Americans no public display of remorse."

Canadian officials also expressed concern. "I think, undoubtedly, it would have been a comfort to the families to hear the president's own words through the media," said Deputy Prime Minister John Manley.

Canadian sensibilities were assuaged later Friday when Bush, Rumsfeld and State Department spokesman Richard Boucher publicly voiced regret about the incident. "It was a terrible accident," Bush said. "We appreciate so very much the sacrifices that the Canadians are making in the war against terror."

Nonetheless, after the deaths in Afghanistan and with reports here that the Pentagon is planning more direct surveillance of Canadian land and sea borders, there is a growing backlash in centrist political circles here against military subordination to Washington.

By coincidence, the bombing near Kandahar came just hours after an announcement in Washington that the Pentagon is creating a new North American military command--an initiative that appears to have taken much of Canada's political leadership by surprise.

Eggleton said later that his ministry had been kept apprised of the plans. But he has declined to comment on reports confirmed by U.S. officials here of an open U.S. offer for more direct regional coordination with the Canadian army and navy. Other Liberal politicians oppose any such arrangement as an infringement on Canada's sovereignty, as does the leftist New Democratic Party.

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