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Chilean president poised to play key role in resolution on Iraq

SANTIAGO, Chile—Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, once exiled by a U.S.-backed dictator, could determine whether a majority of the United Nations Security Council backs a resolution authorizing war against Iraq.

Lagos must choose between listening to the overwhelming majority of Chilean voters, who oppose a U.S. attack on Iraq, or bowing to Washington's pressure.

Chile favors a Canadian proposal that would give Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein three weeks to meet specific disarmament benchmarks, but Lagos lamented before religious leaders Wednesday that only a miracle would prevent the United States from attacking Iraq.

The United States needs at least nine votes on the 15-member council for the resolution to pass. However, France and Russia—both permanent Security Council members—have pledged to veto any measure authorizing war, which means the best the United States can hope for is a moral victory by winning nine votes from the remaining countries on the council.

Six countries appear to be swing votes: Angola, Cameroon, Guinea, Mexico, Pakistan and Chile.

Lagos has made it clear that he doesn't favor war in Iraq, but he knows a decision against President Bush would jeopardize a free-trade agreement with the United States that's pending before the U.S. Congress and the planned purchase of 10 American-made F-16 fighter jets.

Foreign Minister Soledad Alvear is being lobbied heavily by the United States, France, Britain and several other countries. A Chilean government official would say only, "We all want a formula to reach an accord. Everyone wants peace and that the U.N. resolutions are met."

Heraldo Munoz, until just days ago a spokesman for Lagos, described the lobbying calls to Lagos as "neither carrot nor stick, but a healthy exchange of arguments between Lagos and Bush and Lagos and (French President Jacques) Chirac."

Munoz, who knows Lagos well, expected that "Chile will take a unified position with Mexico as a way to make felt a regional position."

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said this week that Bush would be "disappointed" if Latin America's two members on the Security Council—Mexico and Chile—voted against the United States or abstained.

Armen Kouyoumdjian, a political analyst in Valparaiso, where Chile's Congress meets, said Lagos hoped there wouldn't be a new Security Council resolution that forced him to make a choice.

Public opinion is against a U.S.-led invasion; Greenpeace and local groups are staging protest rallies almost daily. There appear to be few upsides to supporting the U.S. position.

"Chile is a rare country where dislike of the U.S. is prevalent across the political divide for different reasons," Kouyoumdjian said.

Chile's conservatives are offended that the United States didn't do more to support ailing former right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet, a Cold War ally, when his victims tried to prosecute him in Europe in 1999 and Chile in 2000. Leftists disdain the United States for supporting the Sept. 11, 1973, coup that deposed Salvador Allende, Chile's first elected socialist president and a Soviet ally.

Lagos was set to become Allende's ambassador to Moscow until the coup that brought Pinochet to power sent Lagos into exile. He taught at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill until 1975.

He won Chile's presidency narrowly in 2000 with 51 percent of the vote.

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

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Ricardo Lagos

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