Pakistan May Back US Plans for Iraq


By Maggie Farley and Robin Wright

Los Angeles Times
February 27, 2003

Pakistan signaled to the United States on Wednesday that it will back a new resolution on disarming Iraq, a major boost from an Islamic nation that could help swing wavering votes on the Security Council, U.S. and Pakistani officials said. "We are very good allies of the United States and value our relationship and want to see that blossom," a senior Pakistani official told The Times. "The issue of Iraq will not become a problem between us."

Pakistan's decision came as Mexico also signaled its potential backing, and as the United States intensified the diplomatic squeeze for key votes from the council's African and Latin American members. U.S. diplomats hope that building up a bloc of support will put pressure on France and Russia not to veto the resolution, which would allow the use of force against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

After intense lobbying at the United Nations, in Washington and in capitals around the world, the U.S. officials said that other key countries, including Angola and Guinea, are gravitating to the American side. With Bulgaria firmly in the U.S. camp, that could leave the three co-sponsors — the United States, Britain and Spain — just one short of the nine votes they need to win passage. But even with nine votes, the resolution could fail if any of the five permanent members take a stand with a veto. France — a permanent member along with the U.S., Britain, China and Russia — is leading the antiwar movement in the Security Council.

Diplomats from the countries that sponsored the resolution said they were encouraged by the apparent gain in ground. But they warned that it was too early to count definite votes, as both sides continue to court and coerce the remaining uncommitted countries, making the situation very fluid. The sponsors are expected to call a vote in mid-March, possibly March 14. "They're sitting on the fence but with both legs on our side of the fence," one senior diplomat said about Mexico, Angola and Guinea. "But they could always turn around."

Pakistan's private signal of potential support could mark a turning point, U.S. officials said Wednesday. Besides adding an important vote, its critical decision could prevent any move to create a bloc among the 10 rotating members of the council. Six of the 10, including Pakistan, have discussed a group abstention, which would cause a resolution to fail, if the permanent members can't find common ground. The intention, they have said, would be to preserve the council's moral authority.

The decision has not been easy for Islamabad, which has favored giving the process more time and working through the United Nations. Pakistan's government, already struggling to control anti-American sentiment, could face a popular backlash for supporting further action perceived to be against Islam.

"We have public opinion very exercised about the plight of the Iraqi people, and we wouldn't like them to suffer any more. But we have a firm position that Iraq must comply with the Security Council and 1441 and divest itself of weapons of mass destruction," the senior Pakistani official said, referring to the November resolution that returned inspectors to Iraq.

"It'll help us politically to have U.N. inspectors come back and say Iraq is in final material breach," a second official said. "But will the [Pakistani] government fall if this does not happen? No. "A lot of American flags are being burnt, but we can weather that."

The economic backlash is a greater immediate concern in Islamabad, Pakistanis say. About 70% of Pakistan's imported oil comes from the nearby Persian Gulf, mainly Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq. Instability in the region could have severe repercussions, and Pakistan would need help if the supply was cut off. "We don't have Venezuela and Mexico nearby to back us up," the second Pakistani official said.

Despite the potential political and economic cost to the government, Pakistani officials insist that the United States did not offer President Pervez Musharraf any deals in exchange for his country's vote. "We are not asking any price for our support. The U.S. has not leaned on us. We have a principled position. We're aware of each other's point of view and agreed on what Iraq has to do," the senior official said.

But the United States clearly has been pressing its case in frequent contacts, and in the context of the importance of Iraq in Islamabad's long-term relationship with Washington, according to other Pakistani sources. "The issue was not framed in terms of merely, 'Are you with us or against us?' It was more like: 'Just how with us are you?' " said an additional Pakistani source.

Mexico also has seemed to shift toward the U.S. position on Iraq this week, but as one of the most influential rotating members of the Security Council, it has been careful not to publicly commit its support just yet. In a speech to business leaders Tuesday evening with U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza present, Mexican President Vicente Fox signaled a change in his previous "avoid war at any cost" policy. On Wednesday, Fox said Mexico was looking for a middle ground and could support a modified version of the U.S.-British resolution.

"If this proposal is made with good intention and improvements to it are accepted, then surely it will bring us toward a good solution to this issue," he said. Fox did not say what changes he was seeking. The policy shift was outlined in a confidential memo distributed Tuesday to Mexican embassies. The talking points said that Mexico's primary national interests will define the country's stance on Iraq and emphasized its valued relationship with the United States, according to the Associated Press, which obtained the document. Mexico, along with Chile, has been a leader of the members that desire council unity above all.

A shift by one of the principals, therefore, could have a domino effect, one reason why U.S. officials have been leaning heavily on its southern neighbor to gain its support in the last week. The move by Pakistan also could add momentum to mounting support. "If there's a clear move from a country that has had a consistent view, that is certainly important," a Western council diplomat said. "That puts more pressure on the three permanent members" seeking more time for inspections — France, Russia and China.

Although France, Russia, Germany and Syria have all said they oppose a resolution authorizing force, China indicated to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell during his recent visit to Beijing that it probably would not use its veto. "Just keep in mind, they were one of the 15-0 on Resolution 1441, as were the French," Powell said.

France remains steadfast, however, arguing that a Security Council that simply rubber-stamps U.S. policy would have no credibility. "The resolution will not pass," a senior French diplomat said Wednesday. "France's determination should not be underestimated." But every ambassador on the Security Council says that it is too early to count votes or vetoes. "There's a lot of this game still to be played," said one Latin American diplomat. "We haven't even reached the two-minute warning yet. There still might be changes of position."

After a barrage of phone calls and visits to the three African countries on the council, Angola, Cameroon and Guinea, U.S. and other officials said that Angola and Guinea had warmed to the U.S. position.

The one person who can definitively break the Security Council stalemate is Hans Blix, the U.N.'s chief weapons inspector. Blix will submit a report to the Security Council on Iraq's cooperation by Saturday and then meet with ambassadors March 7 to answer questions. Even France has said that if Blix's report points to a material breach by Iraq and a conclusion that inspections aren't working, the French would join the council in approving force.

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