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Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird responds to a question in the House of Commons on May 2, 2013.SEAN KILPATRICK/The Canadian Press

The Harper government is launching a lobbying campaign to keep a major UN agency in Montreal, joining forces with Quebec's PQ government and Montreal's mayor for what they are billing as a tooth-and-nail fight over ICAO.

The stepped-up efforts to hang onto the headquarters of the International Civil Aviation Organization, which sets international rules for airplane transportation, is shaping up as a bitter battle – with one government source insinuating, on condition the source not be named, that oil-rich Qatar might grease its campaign with payoffs.

The Gulf nation is making a bid to have ICAO's headquarters move there in 2016, and is seeking to muster the votes of 115 countries at a meeting this fall to approve the move.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is heading to Montreal on Friday to launch a "Team Montreal" lobbying campaign in a meeting with Quebec's International Relations Minister, Jean-François Lisée, and Montreal Mayor Michael Applebaum.

But Qatar's shock bid is also playing into discontent in Arab countries over the Harper government's pro-Israel stand on Palestinian issues.

The Globe and Mail reported Thursday that United Nations ambassadors from Arab nations met in New York on April 23 to discuss Palestinian issues, and devoted a section of their agenda to countering Canada, including efforts to get allies to vote against Canada in international organizations, according to sources familiar with the meeting.

Since that meeting, Qatar made its bid to relocate ICAO's headquarters, and some Arab nations are considering campaigning for it because of Canada's stand on Mideast issues, sources say.

The Harper government's vocal campaign last fall against a Palestinian bid for observer-state status at the United Nations had already made Canada's policy a topic for discussion among Arab nations. And Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird's April 9 meeting with Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni in east Jerusalem, which Israel seized in the 1967 Six-Day War – as well as his dismissal of the criticisms as superficial – has fuelled the backlash.

A spokesman for Mr. Baird, Rick Roth, said Canada will make no apologies for having a "principled foreign policy" and that focusing on where Mr. Baird "stops for coffee" does a disservice to the cause of peace – and should have nothing to do with ICAO.

"Linking the two issues together when there has been no change of policy is ridiculous," Mr. Roth said in an e-mail.

But Ottawa is stepping up the battle to keep ICAO, and taking shots at Qatar's sudden move to take the headquarters away from Montreal. "The way Qatar has gone about this demonstrates why they are not a suitable host for a United Nations organization," Mr. Roth said.

There have also been suggestions that Canada should not be facing the prospect of losing the ICAO headquarters, since it has already signed a new administrative agreement for federal funding of ICAO's headquarters. But that doesn't override the treaty that allows member states to vote to move the headquarters – if 60 per cent of the member nations support it.

That's still a steep climb for the Qatar bid, since it would require the backing of 115 countries for an unprecedented move. ICAO, in Montreal since 1947, has 534 employees in the city.

That's why Quebec and Montreal are joining forces with Ottawa to campaign to keep it – and why opposition parties in the Commons backed a Conservative government motion calling for ICAO to stay in Canada.

The NDP criticized the Conservatives for "diplomatic incompetence," and said Montreal shouldn't have to pay the price for Mr. Baird's combative approach to diplomacy. "All of this could have been avoided if this minister actually listened to and worked with others," NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said in the Commons.

Mr. Baird insisted he never heard a word about Canada's policy on Israel in the five Arab nations he visited in March and April – one of those, notably, was Qatar, and its ICAO bid was apparently not mentioned, either. He insisted the campaign to keep ICAO in Montreal will be non-partisan.

"This government is putting aside politics and will work with anyone to ensure we deliver, and ensure that this is maintained in Montreal. It is great for this country. It is great for Quebec. It is great for Montreal."

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