PMO retracts message about Italian troop commitment

The Prime Minister's Office had to quickly backtrack on Thursday, after incorrectly telling reporters that Italy was loosening the restrictions imposed on its troops in Afghanistan.

The Prime Minister's Office had to quickly backtrack on Thursday, after incorrectly telling reporters that Italy was loosening the restrictions imposed on its troops in Afghanistan.

Officials made the erroneous comments to Canadian reporters as they took their seats on a plane in Italy in the morning, ready to fly with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to London for the British leg of his three-day European tour.

Officials told the group that Harper had met with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on the previous night, and Berlusconi had told Harper he was removing the conditions imposed on his country's soldiers. Italy, like some other countries in the NATO-led force in Afghanistan, has come under fire for imposing restrictions that keep its troops out of many battles and other dangerous activities.

About 40 minutes later, the Prime Minister's Office backtracked. Berlusconi hadn't removed the conditions and was only considering it, they said.

Reporters started scrambling, as most had already filed their stories to their editors and producers back in Canada.

"The PMO's staff … said, 'Oops, sorry, not true,' and then a parade of journalists went up to the front of the plane where the only secure and operating telephone exists, to correct those stories," the CBC's chief political correspondent Keith Boag said.

"This could have had a very damaging and embarrassing effect in terms of a diplomatic gaffe," he added.

Opposition slams government

Had the PMO's initial comments been true, it would have been important news for Canada. This country has about 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, most of them serving in the volatile southern regions. The Canadian military and the federal government have been pushing for more support in the area from other NATO nations, including Italy.

Deputy Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff said the prime minister and his staff should have had their facts straight after a two-hour meeting with Berlusconi.

"That is not competent, that is more than embarrassing. That's really stupid," said Ignatieff. "I don't want a prime minister who goes in to talk to an Italian prime minister and doesn't understand what the Italian prime minister tells him on an important matter of state."

During question period Thursday, NDP politicians accused the government of "inventing allies" for its "misguided war."

Government House leader Peter Van Loan said Canada continues to encourage allies to lift restrictions around their soldiers in Afghanistan.

"We're glad the Italian government is looking into that possibility," said Van Loan.

PM defends climate plan

Harper's European tour, which included meetings with leaders in France, Italy and Germany, ends Thursday evening.  In London, he has been holding talks with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and was scheduled to meet Queen Elizabeth.

Harper defended his plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on Thursday in a speech to the Canada-United Kingdom Chamber of Commerce in London.

"But it is equally true, as the current reaction to high energy prices in Europe is starting to show, that environmental progress will never be achieved unless the economic needs of the population are being met," Harper said.

"So our targets need to be realistic, practical and achievable."

Canada's position on climate change has created a legion of critics, starting with environmental groups such as the Sierra Club.

A United Nations official in charge of handling the climate change file for the organization has described the Harper government's position as hypocritical while Canada has also been at odds with the European Union. Some officials have accused Canada of failing to be a team player on the file.

In the face of critics, Harper maintained big polluters such as the United States, India and China must face the same targets for reducing greenhouse gases starting in 2012.

With files from the Canadian Press