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Prime Minister Paul Martin will reject the missile shield as early as Thursday.

Prime Minister Paul Martin will reject Canadian participation in the U.S. missile defence program.

Martin plans to announce in the House of Commons as early as Thursday that the country will not partake fully in the controversial program.

The news comes hours after Canada's next ambassador to the United States, Frank McKenna, set off a storm by saying Canada is already taking part in the program because it has agreed Norad can monitor the skies for incoming missiles.

Martin's planned announcement will mark an abrupt change from his position 16 months ago during the Liberal leadership race, when he signaled that Canada should partake in missile defence. Since then, Martin has insisted that he hasn't reached a decision on whether Canada should be a full partner.

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Frank McKenna said earlier Tuesday that Canada was already 'part of' missile defence.

And just two months ago, U.S. President George W. Bush pressed Martin publicly to sign on, saying on a visit to Halifax that he hoped the two countries would soon move forward to co-operate on ballistic missile defence.

But federal officials, who wished to remain anonymous, told the CBC's Radio-Canada that domestic considerations may have outweighed pressure from Washington.

Martin's government lost its majority last spring and the Bloc Québécois and the New Democrats oppose the plan, while the Conservatives support it but want a full debate on Canada's role.

As well, Martin faces stiff resistance in his own caucus. The Liberals also want to improve their fortunes in Quebec, where there seems to be little support for missile defence.

Federal officials told the Canadian Press later on Tuesday that the United States was informed of Canada's decision at the NATO summit in Brussels.

"[The Americans] were told we will not participate," a federal official, who asked to remain anonymous, told the agency.

"It is a firm 'no.' I am not sure it is an indefinite 'no.''"

Canada already 'part of' missile defence: McKenna

Earlier Tuesday, McKenna, a former New Brunswick premier, delivered an opposite message outside a meeting of the foreign affairs committee, which is examining his appointment as the next ambassador to the United States.

"I believe that we've given in large measure what the Americans want, which is the ability to use Norad and their intercept information in order to be able to target weaponry," he said.

Canada agreed last August to allow Norad, the joint Canada-U.S. air defence command, to share information it gathers with the people running the U.S. missile defence program.

McKenna's comments touched off a fiery exchange in the House of Commons.

"They don't want to tell the population that we've got our arm in the wringer of the washing machine and it's sucking us in," charged Bloc Québécois MP Michel Gauthier.

But Defence Minister Bill Graham repeatedly insisted that there is no contradiction between what McKenna said Tuesday and what the Liberal government has been saying all along.

"Canada's position is not a done deal," he said, adding that the Liberals have not signed off on issues such as "how it works and ultimate deployment" of U.S. weapons to shoot down incoming missiles aimed at North American targets.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper wasn't buying the distinction.

"How could this prime minister secretly make this decision, so clearly breaking every commitment he's made to this house and to Canadians?" he asked during Question Period.

"All the ambassador said is that we signed a Norad agreement," Graham replied. "If that's a surprise to the leader of the opposition, it is certainly not a surprise to us."

U.S. has 'great deal' of what it needs: McKenna

McKenna told reporters he believes the U.S. now has much of what it needs to operate a "modest ballistic missile defence program."

When asked by reporters if Canada was part of the program, he said: "We are. We're part of it now and the question is, what more we need.

"There's no doubt, in looking back, that the Norad amendment has given, has created part – in fact a great deal – of what the United States means in terms of being able to get the input for defensive weaponry," he said.

McKenna says the United States has not asked Canada for financial support for the program and it hasn't asked to put missile interceptors on Canadian territory.

He says he's not sure what Bush means when he calls for Canada to sign on to the program.

The Liberals were expected to debate Canada's full participation in missile defence at the party's national convention in two weeks.