By Rod Nickel
EDMONTON, Alberta (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's diplomacy was vindicated on Saturday when Iran admitted that it accidentally shot down a Ukrainian airliner as Trudeau had suggested, and his handling of the incident may increase support at home, Canadian political observers said.
The crash on Wednesday killed 176 people, including 57 from Canada. Iran insisted for days that it did not down the plane, but Trudeau said on Thursday he had received intelligence that suggested it did.
In a sharp reversal, Iran said on Saturday that its military had mistakenly shot down the airliner while on alert following Iranian missile strikes on U.S. targets in Iraq.
"It helps (Trudeau) to demonstrate and assure Canadians that Canada will do its utmost to get explanations, gather the evidence and get justice for families that have lost loved ones," said Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at University of Manitoba.
U.S. President Donald Trump and United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson had voiced similar suspicions. But before Iran's admission, the Middle East state demanded proof of Canada's allegations.
Pressure had been mounting on Trudeau to respond strongly after he avoided more aggressive language immediately after the crash.
"His cautious reaction in the days after the crash has been vindicated," said Roland Paris, Trudeau's former foreign policy adviser and professor of international affairs at University of Ottawa. "He resisted the temptation to lash out. That might have provided space for the Iranian government to face the reality that it had shot down an airliner."
Trudeau's Liberal Party was re-elected in October but with a smaller caucus that leaves him dependent on other parties to hold government.
On Saturday, Trudeau said he was "outraged and furious" about the tragedy and spoke with Iran President Hassan Rouhani.
This response won praise from one of his fiercest critics, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney.
"Thank-you to Prime Minister @JustinTrudeau for his strong words denouncing the revelation that the Iranian military shot down UIA Flight 752," Kenney tweeted.
Kenney's province was hard-hit, suffering more than a dozen casualties from the Alberta capital Edmonton alone.
"Everybody is saying thanks to Canada for creating that environment of pressure to pursue the facts, to pursue justice," said Reza Akbari, president of the Iranian Heritage Society of Edmonton.
Canadian investigators are among the international officials involved in the crash probe. Canada also said on Friday that it had established a global coordination group including Ukraine, Sweden, Afghanistan and the United Kingdom to support victims' families.
"If Canada is able to play a prominent role, I think Trudeau might get some credit with Canadians," Thomas said.
The Conservative Party of Canada, the main opposition, said Trudeau still needs to hold Iran to account by listing Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group, and by imposing sanctions if Iran does not fully cooperate with the investigation.
(Reporting by Rod Nickel in Edmonton, Alberta; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)