Quietly, Mexico backs US on Iraq

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

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

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.

A poll in Wednesday's Reforma newspaper found that 70 percent of Mexicans oppose war in Iraq, up from 62 percent in December. Only 16 percent said they supported military action, down from 23 percent two months ago.

Fox wants to win his National Action Party a majority in Congress in July 6 midterm elections, so supporting action in Iraq could give a leg up to his opposition. Mexicans are historically antiwar - they opposed the war in Afghanistan 3 to 1, one analyst points out, even when Kabul fell.

At times, Fox's rhetoric has sounded distinctly opposed to the US, even verging on pacifist. "Mexico takes a firm stand against unilateralism and war, defending peace while seeking to disarm Iraq," he told a public gathering last weekend.

At other times, he sounds supportive of taking action, as on Tuesday, when he told American business leaders that the proposed US and British resolution on Iraq "will surely bring us closer to a good solution on the issue."

"You can wonder about the reasons, but they don't matter," says Federíco Estévez, a political analyst at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

"Americans need to understand that all politics is local politics. Fox will pander to a peace-loving electorate so as not to be raked across the coals in the coming elections," he adds.

Some here fear the angry reprisals America's government and its people could take if Mexico doesn't swing into line. The Foreign Ministry directive indicated that this concern had reached senior levels in the government, though both US and Mexican officials have been at pains to insist there has been no arm-twisting by Washington.

"They don't pressure us," Mr. Derbez insisted on Wednesday, "and we don't pressure them."

Newspapers, TV talk-shows, and radio here have obsessed over the various ways the US might demonstrate its bile: boycotting Mexican products and tourist destinations, stalling immigrations talks, or simply taking it out on the millions of Mexicans who live and work north of the border.

Some analysts say fears of a backlash are overblown.

"Are they going to boycott our factory workers and house cleaners and gardeners? I don't think so," says Mr. Estévez.

Others say the Mexican president has more serious consequences to worry about, especially since Bush has framed this argument from the start as a question of "you're with us or against us."

"I think this could cast a doubt over not just Mexico's friendship, but whether the country was really an ally," says Mr. Peschard-Sverdrup. "This could trickle through the bureaucracy here and have a lingering effect."

Where they stand

Nine votes are needed to pass the new United Nations Security Council resolution, which could pave the way for military action against Iraq. (Any permanent member can veto the resolution.) Where the 15 members currently stand:

Angola undecided

Britain* supports

Bulgaria supports

Cameroon undecided

Chile undecided

China* opposes

France* opposes

Germany opposes

Guinea undecided

Mexico indicating support

Pakistan indicating support

Russia* opposes

Spain supports

Syria indicating opposition

US* supports

* permanent Security Council members

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