By Jim Brown

OTTAWA (CP) - Giuliano Zaccardelli is out as head of the RCMP, but the clamour over the Maher Arar affair - and what it means to the future of the force - shows no sign of abating.

Zaccardelli resigned Wednesday, less than 24 hours after Prime Minister Stephen Harper made it clear he no longer had the confidence of the Conservative government.

Harper announced the news in the House of Commons: "The commissioner has indicated to me that it would be in the best interests of the RCMP to have new leadership as this great organization faces challenges in the future."

Zaccardelli fell amid controversy over conflicting statements he made about when he found out the RCMP had sent false information to the U.S. about Arar, who was then deported to Syria and tortured.

In his resignation letter to Harper, he noted the debate has '''taken on a life of its own'' and made it increasingly difficult to carry on in his post.

''Clearly, the RCMP and I depend upon the confidence of Canadians and their elected representatives. Without this we cannot succeed.''

Ironically, Zaccardelli is the only federal official who has offered a public apology to Arar for his treament. The government has refused to do so, pending negotiations on financial compensation.

More junior officers who actually conducted the investigation of Arar - and made the mistakes that led to his ordeal - continue to serve with the Mounties and in some cases have won promotion.

Sgt. Martin Blais, a spokesman or the force, said Zaccardelli's resignation will take effect Dec. 15, but could offer no word on who the acting commissioner will be as of that date.

Nor was there any immediate explanation from Harper or Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day of when a permanent replacement for Zaccardelli will be named.

There was, however, a lot of advice from the opposition on how the Tories should go about finding a new leader for the Mounties.

''The RCMP is in a difficult position now as a result of the actions of the commissioner,'' said NDP Leader Jack Layton.

He wants an all-party parliamentary committee to help develop criteria for choosing a new commissioner. And he wants the eventual nominee to appear before MPs for questioning before taking office.

Liberal Irwin Cotler, a former justice minister, also argued for a committee role in the vetting process - and suggested the government should consider appointing someone from outside the force.

Cotler added, however, that senior officers within the RCMP should not be viewed as tainted by their past association with Zaccardelli.

''I never believed in collective guilt,'' he said. ''I think it's possible to find people within the RCMP to succeed Mr. Zaccardelli, and possible to find people outside.''

Wayne Easter, a former Liberal solicitor general, noted it could be difficult for an outsider to win acceptance from the closely-knit RCMP family.
''Somebody within the RCMP who has come up through the system, I think, would have a lot more respect from the force,'' said Easter.
Zaccardelli, a 36-year veteran of the Mounties, was appointed commissioner by the Liberal government of Jean Chretien in 2000 and was viewed with suspicion by many Tories for that reason.
Yet he was credited by many pundits with turning the tide in the last election in the Conservatives' favour, by announcing in mid-campaign that the RCMP was investigating allegations of insider stock trading purportedly linked to the office of then-Liberal finance minister Ralph Goodale.
In Easter's view, he could have been fired for that alone.
''You cannot have the head of the RCMP do those types of activities during an election,'' he said.
Conservative sources say many of their own MPs - and some cabinet ministers - distrusted Zaccardelli for other reasons.
One of the biggest was the revelation that the Mounties were among the organizations that took money from the scandal-plagued Liberal sponsorship program, using the cash to buy horses and trailers.
According to Tory insiders, Justice Minister Vic Toews and Foreign Minister Peter MacKay were among those who privately believed their government should get rid of Zaccardelli.
Public Safety Minister Day, despite his staunch defence of the commissioner in public, was also said to be lukewarm about him in private.
Harper, however, resisted the idea of dumping the RCMP chief until things finally came to a head over the Arar case.
At issue was what Zaccardelli knew, and when he knew it, about Arar's deportation to Syria by U.S authorities who apparently acted, at least in part, on the basis of information provided by the Mounties.
In September, Zaccardelli told a parliamentary committee he was aware, shortly after the deportation, that the RCMP had erroneously told the Americans Arar was an Islamic extremist with ties to al-Qaida.
This Monday, in a speech to the Canadian Clubs, and again Tuesday, at a second committee hearing, he dramatically reversed himself and said he didn't know after all.
Harper said he was ''surprised and concerned'' when he learned of the change in the commissioner's story. But there are indications he should have know long before this week.
Zaccardelli sent a letter to the Commons public safety committee on Nov. 2 - though it wasn't made public at the time - advising them that he had reviewed the record and wanted to correct the ''misperceptions'' left by his initial testimony.
Liberal MP Mark Holland said he can't believe Tory committee members didn't share the contents with Harper and Day.
''It is rich in the extreme that they pretended they were surprised (this week), that this was some kind of new information, when in actual fact they had sat on it for a full month,'' said Holland.
He promised to pursue the matter when Day appears at the same committee Thursday.
''There are a lot of unanswered questions,'' he said. ''Let's not figure that justice has been served for Maher Arar and we can all go to bed tonight and think this matter is closed. It is not.''

Copyright 2006 Canadian Press