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Chile against March 17 deadline for Iraq disarmament

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil—Chile, one of the key swing votes on the U.N. Security Council, came out Saturday against the March 17 deadline for Iraq's disarmament called for by the United States and Britain.

"The destruction of these arms can take two, three or four months. My question is, from now until the 17th of March, is that possible? It seems very difficult," Chilean President Ricardo Lagos said Saturday during an interview on Chile's Radio W.

The United States and Britain are pressing the U.N. Security Council to vote next week on a resolution that would give Iraq until March 17 to prove that it will fully disarm or else face war.

Of the 15 members on the Security Council, so far only four support the U.S. position. France and Russia have vowed to block it with their veto power if necessary, arguing that U.N. weapons inspections are working and deserve more time, and China and Germany support them. U.N. weapon inspectors reported Friday that they are making progress, Iraq is cooperating and inspections could be completed within months.

Chile is one of six swing votes being courted by both sides. Lagos did not say how Chile would vote. Chile has a free-trade agreement important to its economic future pending before the U.S. Congress.

Lagos said he spoke with President Bush on Friday and expressed reservations that the timetable is unrealistic. The Chilean president also said he worried about the consequences for United Nations if the United States plan is vetoed and yet America still attacks Iraq.

"If they take that decision outside the organization (U.N.), I think it would be very negative," Lagos said.

While Chile appears leaning toward the anti-war camp, Mexico, another swing vote on the council, sounds increasingly pro-Washington. Answering student protestors calling Friday for peace, President Vicente Fox sounded as if he took a cue from President Bush, who had telephoned him on Thursday.

"Saddam now needs to undress before humanity and the entire world" to show he means "his promise to absolutely and totally disarm," Fox said.

Of Saddam, Fox said: "With him rests the responsibility for peace or for war. It seems the message must be very clear for him, and there are very strong messages, threatening to him, but there are also very, very solid invitations for him to do this in a voluntary manner."


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