- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 27, 2003

MEXICO CITY George Bush and Vicente Fox haven't talked this much in ages.

Presidents, ranchers and cowboy-boot wearers both, the two were once as close as world leaders get. Mr. Bush's first state visit was to Mexico and Mr. Fox has repeatedly visited Mr. Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch. All that was before September 11, when Mexico seemed to drop off the map.

Now, with his country poised to cast a critical vote on Iraq as an elected member of the U.N. Security Council, Mr. Fox has Washington's attention once again.

This month, he has received an urgent visit from the prime minister of Spain and is fielding an "intensifying" number of phone calls from high U.S. officials, including Mr. Bush, all aimed at getting Mexico to vote for a U.S.-backed resolution on Iraq.

But Mr. Fox has been slow to take the bait; indeed, Mexico has also been in close communication with France, Germany and Russia and until this week was seen as leaning toward a "no" vote.

That may have shifted after a weekend phone call to the Mexican president from Mr. Bush.

Mr. Fox declared in a Tuesday evening speech that the disarming of Iraq was "the only road to peace." Hours later his foreign ministry issued a two-page set of talking points to the nation's embassies saying Mexico's primary national interest lay in maintaining good relations with Washington.

Mexico now will focus its position entirely on the immediate disarmament of Iraq, says the directive, a copy of which was obtained by the Associated Press. "Nothing is more urgent; no time can be lost in achieving this objective."

The change of tone and perhaps of substance follows intense pressure from the United States. Backed by Britain, Spain and Bulgaria, Washington needs five more votes to get the nine required to pass its resolution and is highly unlikely to get there without Mexico.

An unidentified Mexican diplomat was quoted this week complaining of thinly veiled threats during a visit from an American envoy. "They actually told us: 'Any country that doesn't go along with us will be paying a very heavy price,' " the AP quoted the diplomat.

Washington may be offering carrots along with the stick. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson suggested last week on CNN that if Mexico comes around to the U.S. position, it might still be possible to reach a deal on a long-stalled plan to let millions of Mexicans work legally in the United States.

The French daily Liberation went futher, claiming the Bush administration had offered a direct deal on immigration. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer denied that, saying Mr. Bush "is not offering a quid pro quo."

The fact that Mexican support is even in doubt is an indication of the profound change in the relationship between the United States and Mexico, which Mr. Bush once called "our most important ally."

Under Mr. Fox, whose election in 2000 ended seven decades of one-party rule, Mexico tightened allegiances across the Rio Grande and with Mr. Bush's open support pushed for immigration reforms.

But after September 11, relations between Mr. Fox and Mr. Bush grew increasingly distant as the Americans lost interest in an immigration deal and the Mexican leader came under mounting political pressure to stand up to the United States.

In August, Mr. Fox canceled a visit to Mr. Bush's ranch to protest the execution of a Mexican citizen in Texas. In January, Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castaneda resigned, citing stalemated negotiations on the immigration issue.

Now facing Mexican congressional elections in July, Mr. Fox and his National Action Party are under tremendous pressure to challenge Washington over Iraq.

The two leading opposition political parties are adamantly against a war, and a poll by a Mexico City daily found 83 percent of Mexicans against early military action.

"The U.S. hasn't come through on a single thing it promised us," Mexico City auto mechanic Jose Luis Morelos said. "Why should we help it now?"

In addition, Mr. Fox is a devout Catholic who is as close to the Vatican as he is to Washington. Pope John Paul II has strongly opposed any war against Iraq.

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