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Prime Minister Stephen Harper told an influential U.S. business group Wednesday he doesn't believe Canadians are really against the combat role in Afghanistan, despite numerous polls showing deep divisions.

"I don't really accept that Canadians are opposed to the mission," he said in a forceful but congenial address to the Economic Club of New York.

"I think what hurts Canadians a lot is seeing their brave men and women in uniform lose their lives. I think that's a reaction."

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Mr. Harper, who also called Iran's nuclear ambitions the "biggest single threat that the planet faces," tackled foreign policy issues as much as economic ones, earning a warm standing ovation at the end of his 20-minute speech from the city's business elite.

Mr. Harper suggested that President George W. Bush's call for sanctions against Iran aren't off the mark.

On Aghanistan, he said: "Canada is in there, absolutely, for the right reasons."

"If we are not there, the men will fall very quickly back into oppression, women will be in bondage again and children will live in ignorance and we will a price for that," said Mr. Harper.

"We will not, nor would any responsible Canadian prime minister, ever leave this mission until we're successful in achieving its security and its development objectives."

The prime minister did stress a few key business issues, telling the group they should have more appreciation for Canada's energy "superpower" status and persuade Congress to hold off on strict new identification requirements at the border.

Canadian officials want Americans to take more time with plans to require passports or another high-technology document from everyone crossing land borders into the U.S. by Jan, 1, 2008, and Mr. Harper told the room of top business leaders they have the sway to make it happen.

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"Our border must not be seen as a fence where one country's national security stops and the other's begins. It is not like that in the real world."

"We are operating the largest commercial relationship in the history of the planet," said Mr. Harper.

"In our view, this initiative threatens to divide us at exactly the time we should be collaborating closely on global economic and security challenges," he said to applause.

"We are very much concerned about the potential impact of the (U.S. plan) on the eocnomies and border communities of both our countries - and you should be just as concerned...Let's take the time to get it right."

Mr. Harper, who raised the issue with Bush at the White House in July, also emphasized Canada's enormous oil potential from the Alberta tar sands, saying the country is "a stable and positive force for good that has much to bring ot the table in chaotic and trying times."

"Canada is an emerging energy superpower, the only stable and growing producer of this scarce commodity in an unstable world," he told the packed ballroom.

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"What this means in terms not only of the strength of our economies but also the security of our continent is sometimes under-appreciated," he said.

"Make no mistake, Canada intends to be a player...Canada's back. We're on the best economic footing of any of the G7 countries," said Mr. Harper, who touted the softwood lumber deal as a sign of great co-operation.

Yet throughout his address at a downtown Manhattan hotel, Mr. Harper emphasized Canada's commitment to global and continental security as much as its robust economy, assuring Americans he understands their concerns.

It was partly a response to some U.S. politicians who have criticized Canada's "porous" border and "lax" immigration laws in the run-up to November's mid-term elections, where security is a key issue among U.S. voters.

Mr. Harper started the speech, in fact, by paying homage to the "unconquerable" city after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"Since 9/11, Canada has made major efforts on domestic security to make sure that terrorists don't come to Canada, don't find haven in Canada and don't pass through Canada," said Mr. Harper.

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"We have increased financial resources and front-line personnel to enhance our security."

Even more, though, Canadians are paying the price with their lives by taking on a combat role in Afghanistan in the global anti-terror fight.

"We are taking real casualties. It is heart-wrenching but standing up for a more peaceful, more democratic world is a long tradition in both of our countries," he said.

"I want it understood that we are determined that Canada's role in the world will extend beyond this continent. Our needs for prosperity and security, our values of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law...they are also the common destiny of all humanity."

Mr. Harper also emphasized the investment Canada has made in new defence capabilities to ensure the Canadian Forces can go wherever they are needed around the world.

The prime minister, who makes his first speech at the United Nations on Thursday, is expected to emphasized Canada's importance on the world stage and defend the Afghanistan mission in a bid to mollify critics at home.

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New Democrats are demanding Canadian pull out and the Bloc Quebecois is demanding a parliamentary debate.

Surveys suggest Canadians are split on the mission. A recent Strategic Counsel poll conducted just before the latest casualties found 42 per cent support it, compared with 49 per cent opposed.

Support was up since August, including in Quebec. The highest level of support for the conflict has been about 55 per cent.

Mr. Harper's address to the Economic Club was far different in tone than former prime minister Paul Martin's last year. Martin, in pre-election mode, warned Americans they might not get much of Canada's future oil reserves if they didn't ante up the money they took in duties from Canadian softwood companies.

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