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Quietly, Mexico backs US on Iraq

This week Mexico - along with Pakistan - signaled it may support the new UN Security Council resolution.

By Gretchen PetersSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 28, 2003


Wedged between US pressure and public opinion at home, Mexico's President Vicente Fox is trying to wriggle free.

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Despite overwhelming public opposition to war and repeated statements that it wanted to see weapons inspections continue, Mexico indicated Tuesday that it would support a new US-backed United Nations Security Council resolution that could pave the way for military action to disarm Saddam Hussein. Mexico is one of five countries on the 15-seat Security Council whose support the US needs to push the resolution through.

In light of a Foreign Ministry directive leaked to the Associated Press, Mexico appears to be saying that at the end of the day, maintaining its close ties with the US outweighs any possible domestic backlash to supporting war.

Tuesday's Foreign Ministry directive discussed the importance of preserving Mexico's primary "national interest" - that is, a good relationship with the US. The directive made no mention of weapons inspections, instead revealing that Mexico will now refocus its position on Iraq's immediate disarmament, in line with its neighbor and biggest trading partner.

"Nothing is more urgent, no time can be lost in achieving this objective," it reportedly says.

Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez confirmed the existence of the document, but said it did not signal a shift in Mexico's position on Iraq. Asked repeatedly to clarify this country's stance on the issue, Mr. Derbez simply reread parts of the Feb. 14 speech he made to the UN Security Council, insisting Mexico was against any unilateral action.

Is Mexico waffling or just pandering to different audiences? Analysts say maybe a little of both.

"I think Mexico is trying to ride the fence on this issue, buy some time, and avoid making a decision that could have a very high political cost at home or on the bilateral front," says Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, director of the Mexico Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The US position is backed by Britain, Spain, and Bulgaria, and strongly opposed by France, Russia, Germany, and China. Syria is also expected not to support the resolution.

But Thursday, the Los Angeles Times reported that the US had won Pakistan's backing. This leaves Washington pressing Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, and Mexico for their approval.

Mexico's vote was something Washington perhaps once could have counted on, but it has proved frustrating for US officials and their allies to secure. Spanish President José María Aznar visited Mr. Fox last week in a bid to win his support, and President Bush telephoned Fox Saturday.

Fox and Mr. Bush enjoyed a warm rapport when they first took office in early 2001, both men hailing a new era in US-Mexico ties. But Fox's hopes for a wide-ranging immigration accord crumbled with the World Trade Towers. Since Sept. 11, 2001, Mexico has taken a back seat to more pressing policy issues like hunting Al Qaeda and ousting Saddam Hussein.

That leaves some analysts here wondering what Fox would gain by supporting his one-time amigo, especially on an issue that is so sensitive domestically.