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A U.S. congressman warned yesterday that Canada, and in particular the enclave of "South Toronto," was a breeding ground for Islamic terrorists and that the United States will be under threat as long as passports are not required of all Canadians crossing the border.

"South Toronto, like those parts of London that are host to the radical imams who influenced the 9/11 terrorists and the shoe bomber, has people who adhere to a militant understanding of Islam," said John Hostettler, chairman of the House of Representatives subcommittee on immigration and border security, noting that Toronto has a very large South Asian community.

Later, when asked by reporters to describe "South Toronto" in greater detail, Mr. Hostettler said it was "a location which I understand is the type of enclave that allows for this radical type of discussion to go on."

The Indiana Republican painted a picture of Canada as a hotbed of Islamic extremists intent on inflicting their terrorist damage on their southern neighbours while Canadians sat in blissful ignorance of the danger in their midst.

"It is fair to say that the Canadian border is virtually unguarded," Mr. Hostettler said. "Canadians, as well as those [who are]imposters pretending to be Canadians or returning American tourists, roll through our border ports of entry with little or no document inspections."

He said that the 17 terrorist suspects arrested in Toronto demonstrated "an unsuccessful adoption of traditional Canadian values."

"If we needed a clear case for why there needs to be a dramatic increase in security along the northern border . . . the example of this past week's terrorist arrests in Toronto is very dramatic," he said.

Mr. Hostettler's comments came during a hearing called to receive an update on plans to implement the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which would require everybody crossing into the United States from Canada and Caribbean nations to carry a passport or secure identification by the start of 2008.

Later, he warned Canadians that the United States would not be as generous to its northern neighbours if there was another Sept. 11 attack, especially if there was any sign of a Canadian connection.

"Does Canada realize what will happen at the border?" he asked reporters. "The American people will require us to shut down the border."

Mr. Hostettler, a 44-year-old engineer who was first elected in 1995, is a stalwart of the Christian right and a fierce opponent of abortion and same-sex marriage. Last year, he accused Democratic members of Congress of "demonizing Christians" after a Wisconsin Democrat alleged that there was "abusive religious proselytizing" at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado.

He was arrested in 2004 when he was caught carrying a loaded handgun at Louisville, Ky., airport. He later pleaded guilty to carrying a concealed weapon and received a 60-day sentence, which he will not have to serve if he keeps out of trouble before August of this year.

The subcommittee reports to the U.S. House committee on the judiciary, which is chaired by James Sensenbrenner, an influential backer of tough anti-immigrant measures.

Mr. Hostettler's views were backed by several witnesses to the committee, including David Harris, an Ottawa lawyer and senior fellow at the Canadian Coalition for Democracies who used to work for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. He was the only Canadian asked to appear before the committee.

Mr. Harris described Canada as being "heavily infiltrated by terrorists" as well as "a recruiting, planning, financing and launch point for international terrorism."

He said that Canada was "a generation behind" the United States in understanding the threat of terrorism, and that the previous Liberal government refused to ban the Tamil Tigers in Canada for electoral reasons and had tolerated Hamas and Hezbollah for years before banning the groups.

The tenor of questions by the congressmen seemed aimed at resisting efforts to delay implementation of the passport requirement beyond 2008, due to take effect at Canada's land borders with the United States.

The passport requirement had its political birth in the same subcommittee in 2003. Then the focus was on Washington sniper John Allen Muhammad, who forged U.S. driver's licences for Caribbean residents who snuck into the United States claiming to be Americans under the current entry rules.

A coalition of northern border politicians worried about the economic impact of the measure have succeeded in getting a 17-month delay included in immigration legislation passed by the Senate. But that delay still needs the okay of the House of Representatives.

The border legislators worry about a big drop in cross-border tourism and business travel, particularly because U.S. authorities have not yet agreed on specifications for an easy-to-use wallet-sized border card, which could take the place of a passport at a lower cost.

Paul Rosenzweig, acting assistant secretary for policy development at the Department of Homeland Security, insisted that the border card system would be in place in time for a 2008 launch. He, too, agreed that the current system was a giant loophole that put the United States in danger.

"Every day of delay is another day of risk at the northern border," he said.

Janice Kephardt, a security consultant who worked for the U.S. national commission on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said that the 17 individuals arrested in Toronto are only a tiny portion of the 350 suspected terrorist sympathizers operating in Canada. Many of them, she said, were "second-generation jihadis, born and bred in Canada."

"Today, terrorists with Canadian citizenship can move in and out of the United States virtually unconcerned about detection," she said in her testimony, adding that while there was one U.S. border patrol agent for every 0.4 kilometres (quarter of a mile) of the Mexican border, there was one agent for every 20 kilometres (13 miles) of the Canadian frontier.

Roger Dow, president of the Travel Industry Association of America, was the only witness who sounded a more cautious tone. He said his members were worried about terrorism, but were concerned that the passport requirement could damage the $650-billion (U.S.) tourist industry and the 14 million visitors who crossed from Canada in 2005.

"With the knowledge that less than 40 per cent of the Canadian population currently holds a passport, we are unsure how many business and leisure trips in the U.S. might now be cancelled due to a lack of proper documentation, confusion over the rules, or an unwelcoming view of our nation," Mr. Dow said.

Mr. Hostettler was unmoved. He said after the hearing that he would oppose any delay in implementing the passport requirement, even if the alternative border card was not ready. In that case, a passport would be the only ID allowed at the border.