updated 3/1/2005 10:29:40 AM ET 2005-03-01T15:29:40

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice scheduled a meeting Tuesday with Canadian diplomats amid U.S. disenchantment with Ottawa’s decision to opt out of an American-led anti-ballistic missile shield program.

President Bush’s top diplomat last week had deferred plans to visit America’s northern neighbor early in her tenure at the State Department and U.S. officials made no secret of their disappointment over the Canadian stance.

Canadian diplomats requested a short meeting with Rice on the sidelines of an international conference on Palestinian reform, a Bush administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

As to whether the meeting in Ottawa, once tentatively set for mid-April, was canceled out of pique, deputy State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said that scheduling conflicts were the paramount concern.

“We want to meet the Canadians and they want the meeting,” Ereli told The Associated Press by telephone Tuesday. “The Canadians are important partners and we’re just nailing down the dates,” he said.

Move was last week
Canada announced its decision on the missile defense system last week, setting off a prickly exchange between the U.S. ambassador to Canada and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin. U.S.-Canada relations were already clouded by strong Canadian opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

An early visit to Canada had been among Rice’s early priorities as secretary of state. She plans to visit the United States’ southern neighbor, Mexico, next week.

Martin said last Friday that the United States must get permission before firing on any incoming missiles over Canada.

“This is our airspace, we’re a sovereign nation and you don’t intrude on a sovereign nation’s airspace without seeking permission,” Martin said.

At the same time, he acknowledged that it was the Americans who would ultimately determine whether to shoot down an incoming missile from a terrorist or a rogue state.

“I don’t think that anybody else expected that there would be any other finger on the button other than an American,” he said.

Outgoing U.S. Ambassador Paul Cellucci had said in late January: “We think it’s in Canada’s sovereign interest to be in the room to decide what’s going to happen when there’s an incoming missile.”

He denied media reports that Bush had told Martin that a future president might question why American taxpayers were funding Canadian defense if Ottawa wasn’t supporting the U.S. missile shield.

Canada's domestic picture
Reports indicated that Bush waved off attempts by Martin to explain how contentious the issue was, as leader of a minority government in a country opposed to the U.S. war in Iraq.

Cellucci, who will wrap up his four-year term in March, said he attended the meeting between Bush and Martin on Nov. 30 and called the reports overblown.

“It was not bullying,” Cellucci told reporters after giving a speech on U.S.-Canadian relations on Jan. 26. “It was just a discussion. The president was looking at where the opposition was coming from. He was looking for answers.”

Stockwell Day, the Conservative Party’s foreign affairs critic, ridiculed Martin’s position that Washington would have to alert Ottawa before shooting down a missile.

“These missiles are coming in at 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) a second, and if the president calls the 1-800 line and gets: ‘Press 1 if you want English, press 2 if you want French, press 0 if nobody’s there ...’ I mean, it’s crazy.”

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