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Mexican president Spanish prime minister expected to discuss Iraq

MEXICO CITY—The Spanish called it a private dinner between Spain's prime minister and Mexico's president. The United States denied President Bush had asked Spain for help pushing its view of Iraq with Mexico.

But Mexican officials had no doubt that the meeting Thursday between Mexican President Vicente Fox and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, on the eve of Aznar's visit to President Bush's ranch in Texas, had everything to do with Mexico's membership on the U.N. Security Council and Fox's adamant opposition to U.S. military action against Iraq.

Most observers thought it unlikely that Aznar, one of the staunchest backers of the U.S. position, would sway the Mexican president to back any new resolution authorizing the United States to act, and Fox himself said earlier this week that he saw the visit as a chance to lobby Aznar.

"I'm sure Aznar is coming to listen and understand alternatives, rather than to sell his position," Fox said.

The two were to meet at 5:30 p.m., then break for dinner at 8 p.m.

A communique was expected to be issued late Thursday.

"It's a private dinner and then President Aznar will go to the United States," said Jose Emilio Serra, press adviser at the Spanish Embassy here. "Logically the issues discussed will be determined by the two leaders and likely will coincide with current affairs. They will talk about necessary and convenient issues."

Mexico became one of the Security Council's 10 rotating members for the first time Oct. 8, 2001, a post it will hold for two years. Fox has staunchly favored a nonviolent solution to force Saddam to comply with a U.N. resolution last year to disarm.

The president's stance has placed Mexico in its most difficult diplomatic impasse with the United States—Mexico's biggest trade partner—since Fox took office Dec.1, 2001.

Aznar announced his trip to Mexico last week. He flies to Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas on Friday.

Both Spain and Mexico are rotating members of the Security Council. Russia, China, France, the United States and England are the five permanent members. In the first U.N. resolution vote, 11 of the members voted to let weapons inspectors go to Iraq before any military action was taken.

But the prospect of a second motion authorizing military action has yet to win support from the required nine members, and with France, Russia and China so far opposed, Mexico's vote becomes critical.

Most Mexicans are against war and view a U.S. attack on Iraq as a war over oil. On Thursday, Aznar's trip dominated television and radio talk shows.

"Aznar's visit is extraordinarily out of place and unfortunate," said Jesus Velasco-Marquez, a professor and researcher of international relations at Mexico City's Autonomous Technological Institute. "If the Spanish government wants to influence Mexico to back Bush, it is only generating enormous sentiment among Mexicans and political parties against any modification of Mexico's position."

Velasco-Marquez suggested Fox also will hold fast because his party faces midterm legislative elections in July. Fox, a member of the National Action Party, is the first Mexican president in 71 years not from the long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party.

None of the three main parties has a majority in Congress, and Fox will need to increase his party's presence in the legislature to have hopes of passing judicial, social and economic reforms promised during his run for the presidency.

"If Mexico changes its position and aligns with Bush, it would be seen as caving in to the United States to protect its interests," said Velasco-Marquez. "Fox would lose credibility. Now, Aznar's visit is planting seeds of doubt."

Newspapers here have had a field day with Aznar's visit, lampooning him in editorials and political cartoons. The leftist La Jornada newspaper had a political cartoon showing Aznar dressed as former Spanish dictator Gen. Francisco Franco. The more moderate daily El Universal pictured Aznar as a 15th-century conquistador and carrying an American flag.

Aznar, who will be up for re-election in 2004, is clearly going against the tide. Last Saturday, 3 million people demonstrated against the war in Spain, and polls show that two-thirds of Aznar's own center-right People's Party oppose war.

Former Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez has also been sharply critical of Aznar, accusing him in an interview published Thursday in the Madrid daily ABC of "fracturing Europe."

"Even if Hussein is repugnant, he no longer represents a threat to anyone," Gonzalez said.

At the United Nations, a diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity said Aznar was working with London and Washington to seek support for a second resolution from Chile and Mexico, the only two Latin nations currently on the Security Council.

But the diplomat said Aznar is not doing the bidding of the Bush administration.

"Spain is doing this business for Spain. It's just that they are on the same wavelength as London and Washington," the diplomat said.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.