03/21/2012 01:04 EDT | Updated 05/21/2012 05:12 EDT

Sandra McCardell: Libya Conflict Of Interest Allegations Aimed At Ex-Envoy Prompt Defence From John Baird

OTTAWA - When she returned to Tripoli last fall Sandra McCardell wanted to see for herself that her local Libyan staff had survived a six-month NATO bombing campaign ahead of the final dispatching of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

McCardell's main job was to oversee the reopening of the embassy — everything from inspecting bullet holes to making sure secure communications were up and running again — but Canada's ambassador to Libya's return last fall to the embassy that she led was never destined to be anything more than a curtain call.

McCardell is no longer in the high-profile post after questions were raised about a potential conflict of interest surrounding the business dealings of her husband. News of her being pulled out of the post was originally reported in La Presse.

Senior government officials said Wednesday they are convinced that McCardell will ultimately be cleared of any conflict of interest, allowing her foreign service career to carry on in another Arabic speaking country.

Those officials, who were not authorized to speak publicly about McCardell's case, said she has been back in Canada since November to undertake advanced language training in Arabic. The language training was part of a professional development plan that McCardell agreed to last summer.

The Tripoli posting is considered one of the most difficult jobs for any foreign envoy. McCardell quarterbacked the closure of the embassy in February 2011 when the NATO-led bombing campaign began in earnest to protect Libyan civilians from Gadhafi's forces.

The office of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird made clear he is standing behind McCardell, who is still widely viewed as a rising star in Canada's foreign service.

"Ms. McCardell is the former ambassador to Libya and is currently waiting on her next assignment," said Baird's spokesman Chris Day. "Our charge d'affairs in Tripoli will continue to serve as the interim head of mission until a new ambassador is selected."

"Minister Baird has been clear on his views of Ambassador McCardell's great work in assuring the safety of Canadians on the ground in the lead up to the liberation of Libya."

Baird assigned his deputy minister in January to conduct an internal conflict-of-interest review examining the business connection between McCardell's husband and the former Gadhafi regime. In February, the CBC reported that McCardell's husband was hired by the Montreal engineering firm SNC-Lavalin to work as part of a military-civilian engineering unit with the Gadhafi government.

McCardell has also regularly disclosed her husband's business activities to the Foreign Affairs Department to ensure she was not in breach of any ethics or values.

Sources say she received the proper assurances during her time in Tripoli. She assumed the ambassador's post there in July 2009.

"This has nothing to do — zero — with the story that has been out there," said a senior official. "This is not a statement on her performance."

McCardell accompanied Baird to Tripoli for the official reopening of the Canadian Embassy last October. She greeted Baird's military transport and took him on a tour of Bab al-Azizia, once a lavish compound of Gadhafi's in downtown Tripoli.

"On nicer weather, which is not today, they sell ball caps and hats," McCardell told Baird, as they walked a muddy field towards a gutted, bullet-riddled and graffiti-covered building that had been taken over by Libyan youths.

She pointed out the new "revolutionary colours" — black, green and red — that now adorned the compound.

McCardell told Baird how she had once attended a parade at the compound on one previous occasion when Gadhafi was in power, and when the grounds were far more resplendent than they were on this overcast day.

"Now it's gone," she told her minister. "They've taken over. Families tour it."

Gadhafi had been toppled from power in August, two months earlier, and was still at large when Baird and McCardell reopened the embassy on Oct. 11, 2011.

Nine days later, the fleeing, deposed dictator was captured and killed by one of the many militias that had taken up arms to fight his regime.

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