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Fox Remains Cool as Bush Calls for Support on Iraq

Diplomacy: The Mexican leader risks losing vital popular backing if he more closely embraces U.S. aims against Baghdad, aides say.


MEXICO CITY — When President Bush telephoned Mexico this week to make his case for invading Iraq, he got a cordial non-commitment from his friend Vicente Fox and a firm "no" from ordinary Mexicans.

The Mexican president welcomed Bush's decision to seek support from the U.N. Security Council. But he warned that Mexico's vote there will depend on proof that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction. If Iraq bars U.N. weapons inspectors, Fox said he told Bush, Mexico will be guided only by "the need for consensus" among world leaders over what to do next.

"There was no commitment on my part to President Bush, absolutely none, to support this or that course of action," Fox said in an interview.

Mexico's Televisa network reported Tuesday's call from the White House, then asked viewers whether Fox should support Bush in a war. Of the 42,356 callers that night, 82% said no. On Wednesday the Senate demanded that Mexico refrain from endorsing military force.

Iraq is becoming a new test of the Fox-Bush partnership and the closer ties they seek between two countries with a history of conflict and mistrust. The partnership is already strained by Bush's year-old war on terrorism, which has pushed aside Fox's proposals to ease the flow of Mexican migrants into the United States.

Some aides to Fox say he would like to be more supportive of Bush on Iraq but cannot ignore public sentiment at home, where his popularity is an asset in struggles with an opposition-led Congress.

Since U.S. forces seized half their country's territory in the mid-19th century, Mexicans have been loath to back military actions elsewhere, especially by Americans. After the attack on the United States a year ago, it took Fox two weeks to come out in full support of Bush's anti-terror campaign.

Mexico still displays aloofness from its superpower neighbor. Although Fox led a minute of silence Wednesday for the dead of Sept. 11, Mexico's commemorations were smaller and more subdued than many in Europe. Mexico was the only member country not represented by its president or foreign minister at a special Sept. 11 session of the 15-nation Security Council in New York.

Mexicans are only starting to debate Iraq. With one eye on the polls and one eye on a plan to revive talks on migration with Bush, Fox is speaking cautiously.

In two brief interviews this week, before and after Bush's call, the Mexican leader downplayed their differences on Iraq. But he acknowledged that Mexico's rising profile on the world stage--it is one of 10 rotating members of the Security Council--carries the risk of friction with a neighbor on which it depends.

"Our position on Iraq right now is one of prudence, of reflection," Fox said. He said he told Bush that French President Jacques Chirac's proposal to give Iraq three weeks to readmit U.N. weapons inspectors "could open an important space for negotiations."

Asked whether he could imagine Mexico voting for military action in Iraq, Fox said: "We will see and decide in due time.... What I can say now is that Mexico is always for the path of dialogue, for the path of negotiations, for the search for peace."

Such ambiguity might be hard to sustain in light of Bush's warning Thursday at the U.N. against the risks of extended diplomacy. Although Fox said Bush did not press him for a commitment, other U.S. officials have signaled an aggressive bid to get Mexico's endorsement for ousting Hussein.

"The least we expect from Mexico is unconditional support," the Mexican newspaper El Financiero, in a dispatch from Washington, quoted one unnamed Bush administration official as saying. "We do not want obstructions or insinuations from Mexico."

Fox insists that he is committed to defensive steps against international terrorism and that he has proved it over the past year by helping tighten security along the U.S.-Mexican border. But at times, he said last month, "the United States does not appreciate enough the fact that we're partners."

Bush's focus on security has stalled Fox's proposals to legalize the status of 3 million or more undocumented Mexicans in the United States and to expand a guest worker program in America--a top priority of his administration.

As a result, Fox has complained of losing support at home for closer ties with Washington. After nurturing a back-slapping friendship during their early months in office, he and Bush have met just once this year, in March.

Fox denied in the interviews that the personal rapport is gone. "We talk on the phone very often," he said. Fox has accepted the reality that immigration is too sensitive an issue in the United States to be tackled before American midterm congressional elections.

But at their next meeting, set for late next month in Baja California, Fox said he will ask Bush to resume talks on immigration in November with the aim of an accord by the end of next year.

"We have a window of opportunity," Fox said. "The U.S. elections will have passed and the American economy will be growing. There will be a need for more human energy, more [migrant] workers.... We will lobby the American Congress. We will lobby the cities and states with a big Mexican presence. Nobody knows better than those who hire Mexicans the value these workers have for the United States."

A war in Iraq, Fox said, could bury this effort.

"A war would increase terrorism against the United States and Bush's concern for security, and that will only make it harder for Mexicans," said Ernesto Ruffo Appel, Fox's commissioner for border affairs.

"Bush is acting like a Wild West sheriff who's trying single-handedly to bring down a gang of outlaws hiding in the town," Ruffo added. "What we're trying to do, as good neighbors, is to persuade the sheriff to get the whole town on his side before he starts shooting. Otherwise, he's vulnerable."

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