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OTTAWA (Reuters) - The Canadian government is sounding nervous ahead of a key vote to decide who gets a seat on the United Nations Security Council -- a prize Canada would have once taken for granted but which is now in some doubt.
In a sign of the strain, Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon took time out of a routine speech to overseas ambassadors on Wednesday to lash the leader of the main opposition Liberal Party for not supporting Canada's Security Council bid.
The United Nations decides next Tuesday which two from Canada, Germany and Portugal will get a two-year temporary seat on the powerful 15-seat council. Germany looks set to succeed, leaving Canada and Portugal in a race for one position.
Canada competes for a seat once every decade and has always succeeded. Failure would be a blow for a country that has long prided itself as being one of the U.N.'s biggest backers.
Yet, since Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper took power in 2006, Ottawa has adopted policies that have irritated some countries -- notably in the Middle East and Africa -- that could normally be relied on to vote for Canada.
Harper has in the past shown ambivalence toward the United Nations and diplomats say Canada's effort to win a seat this time started later than usual and expended fewer resources.
Many diplomats predict Canada will win by a narrow margin but stress that this is not guaranteed.
Cannon told the foreign ambassadors that Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff "has shown himself to be unable to put the interests of his country above the interests of his party". Ignatieff questions whether Canada under Harper has done enough to deserve a Security Council seat.
The Liberals narrowly trail the Conservatives ahead of an election expected next April or May.
"We're getting close to the vote and they are clearly feeling the heat. The speech was designed to cover their backs so, if they don't win, they can blame Ignatieff," one person who had been in the room told Reuters on Thursday.
Another foreign representative said: "I cannot believe Lawrence Cannon would stoop so low."
The government remained unrepentant, saying Ignatieff had done great damage.
"It gives the opportunity for over 100 heads of mission to write back to their countries saying Canada is divided within on its bid for the Security Council ... that's valuable information for our opponents," a government official said.
Last year, Harper skipped the chance to address the U.N. General Assembly, preferring instead to attend a domestic political event at a doughnut shop. This year he spoke to the assembly and urged members to vote for Canada.
Harper has tilted policy strongly toward Israel and cut bilateral aid to poor African nations. The number of Canadian troops serving on U.N. peacekeeping missions has plummeted.
Former Canadian U.N. Ambassador Paul Heinbecker accuses Harper of exploiting foreign affairs for partisan purposes, saying the bid to gain a seat seems "to be more motivated by a fear of being the first government to fail to do so".
Fen Hampson, an international affairs professor at Ottawa's Carleton University, said Cannon's comments were linked to the election and noted that Portugal was financially strapped.
"We continue to be a major contributor to the United Nations ... (nations) will be saying 'What are we going to get from Portugal versus Canada? and 'We're probably going to get a lot more from Canada than we do from Portugal'," he said.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Peter Galloway