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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Canada suffered a humiliating defeat on Tuesday when it was forced to withdraw from the race for a seat on the prestigious U.N. Security Council, conceding victory to Portugal in the annual election.
In addition to Portugal, the 192-nation General Assembly elected Germany, India, South Africa and Colombia to two-year seats on the council. Canada had been vying with Germany and Portugal for the two seats in their geographic group but pulled out when it became clear that it lacked adequate support.
There are five veto-holding permanent members of the Security Council -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China, the victors of World War Two -- and 10 temporary elected members without vetoes.
But the elected members have some power because a council resolution needs nine votes in favor as well as no vetoes. Several Western diplomats said the presence of India and South Africa on the council would complicate matters if Washington were to push for new sanctions against Iran in the coming two years.
The five newly elected nations will serve two-year terms beginning in January 2011 and ending in December 2012 on the 15-nation body, the powerhouse of the United Nations with the authority to impose sanctions and deploy peacekeeping forces.
Canada has served six terms on the council and never lost a bid for a seat in the past.
In Ottawa, foreign affairs pundits largely blamed the embarrassing failure on Canada's belated campaign, as well as on policies which were likely to have alienated many delegations -- such as a strongly pro-Israel Middle East policy and reductions in bilateral aid to poor African nations.
But Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon blamed the opposition for what he described as an extremely disappointing defeat.
"I do not think this is a repudiation of Canada's foreign policy," Cannon told reporters at U.N. headquarters.
"Unfortunately back home in Canada the leader of the opposition determined that Canada did not speak with one voice," he said. "He came out clearly indicating that Canada did not deserve a seat."
Opposition Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff had publicly questioned whether Canada under Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper deserved to be on the council.
When South Africa was on the council in 2007/2008, it was a headache for the United States, France and Britain.
It joined Russia and China in voting down sanctions against Zimbabwe's leaders, was reluctant to sanction Iran over its nuclear program and stood with China against condemning Myanmar. In the end it did vote for two sanctions resolutions against Tehran in 2007 and 2008 after pushing to dilute them.
South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said tone of the issues her country would push is a suspension of the International Criminal Court's prosecution of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for genocide in Darfur -- something the U.S., British and French delegations oppose.
"We'll give it our best shot," she said.
India, which has close trade ties with Iran, and possibly Portugal, are also expected to be reluctant if new U.N. sanctions against Tehran are proposed, diplomats said. But Germany, which joined Britain, France and the United States in negotiating previous sanctions, would boost the Western camp.
Berlin ran afoul of the previous U.S. administration during its last council stint by opposing the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
In the first round of voting, only Germany managed to cross the 127-vote threshold in the category known as "Western Europe and Others," getting 128 votes. India, South Africa and Colombia were uncontested in their respective geographic groups and secured ample votes in the first round.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters in Berlin that the government was delighted with the results.
"Germany will work hard during its term to push ahead on reforms of the U.N. Security Council," she said. "That is the expectation that a lot of people in the world have."
Indian Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri told reporters that Security Council reform would be high on India's agenda too.
Germany is one of the top contributors to the United Nations and one of several countries, along with India, Japan and Brazil, that are considered prime candidates for permanent seats on the council if U.N. member states ever expand it.
The five rotating members serving on the council until the end of 2011 are Bosnia, Brazil, Gabon, Lebanon and Nigeria. The five nations leaving the council at the end of this year are Austria, Turkey, Mexico, Japan and Uganda.
Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa and Erik Kirschbaum in Berlin; Editing by Anthony Boadle and Sandra Maler