UNITED NATIONS Senior U.S. officials have been quietly dispatched in recent days to the capitals of key Security Council countries where they are warning leaders to vote with the United States on Iraq or risk "paying a heavy price."
For some of the countries, such as Angola, Guinea and Cameroon poor African countries whose concerns drew little attention before they landed seats on the council there is the possibility that supporting Washington's drive for a new UN resolution authorizing war may reap benefits down the line.
"For a long time now, we have been asking for help to rebuild our country after years of war," said Angolan Ambassador Ismael Gaspar Martins. "No one is tying the request to support on Iraq but it is all happening at the same time."
Angola's President Jose Eduardo dos Santos met in the capital Luanda on Thursday with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Walter Kansteiner, who was diverted from a trip to South Africa to meet the leaders of the council's three African countries.
"In Africa, the message is simple: time is running out and we think they should support us," said one U.S. diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The United States and Britain plan to submit their resolution to the Security Council this week and will ask for a vote by the middle of March when weather conditions in Iraq will still be favourable for a military campaign.
In the meantime, the State Department has sent some of its top people to the world's capitals to lobby for support even as U.S. President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell and British Prime Minister Tony Blair work the phones. The Bush administration has also recruited the leaders of Australia and Spain to help push for votes.
"The order from the White House was to use 'all diplomatic means necessary,' " another U.S. diplomat said. "And that really means everything."
The wording of the order is a twist on "all means necessary," the diplomatic terminology that authorizes going to war.
In the past three weeks, the administration has sent Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman and Kim Holmes, the assistant secretary of state for international organizations to Mexico City.
Mexican diplomats described the visits as hostile in tone and complained that Washington was demonstrating little concern for the constraints of the Mexican government whose people are overwhelmingly opposed to a war with Iraq.
"They actually told us: 'any country that doesn't go along with us will be paying a very heavy price,' " said one Mexican diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
To get its resolution through, the United States must secure nine votes in the 15 member council while preventing France, Russia or China which are pushing for continued weapons inspections from using their vetoes. The United States and Britain hold the two other vetoes.
On Saturday, Mr. Bush brushed aside doubts about whether the resolution could overcome the deep divisions within the council, telling reporters "we are just beginning" to line up allies.
Undersecretary of State John Bolton will go to Moscow this week for talks designed to persuade Russian officials to support the U.S.-British resolution.
While Washington and London believe they already have the necessary authorization to forcefully disarm Iraq, many key allies Turkey included, have said a new resolution would help them overcome opposition at home. The backing of the council also would lend international legitimacy to a war and mean that Washington could count on the UN to share in the costs of rebuilding Iraq.
But so far, Washington is at least five votes short with support guaranteed only from Britain, Spain and Bulgaria.
Since both Germany and Syria have said they would not support the resolution, and Pakistan is almost certain to abstain, the United States must convince the African trio as well as Chile and Mexico to cast 'yes' votes. Otherwise, the resolution will fail.
Much to the frustration of the Bush administration, Mexico, which has been vocal in its opposition to war, is turning out to be the most difficult vote to get.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar also paid a visit to Mexico last week but he failed to secure their support.
Diplomats said there was little the Bush administration could use to scare or entice Mexico now since it does not receive U.S. aid and the one thing it had wanted most legalizing the status of undocumented Mexicans in the United States was taken off the table more than one year ago.
"Even so, the pressure is very intense and the warnings are real," according to one Mexican diplomat who acknowledged that the tactics were having an impact on President Vincente Fox.
Complicating matters however is a back-room deal Mexico cut with Chile in which the two Spanish-speaking countries agreed to cast abstentions if the five powers on the council The United States, Britain, France, Russia and China failed to reach a compromise on Iraq.
"We're just not going to be used or bought off by either side," a Chilean diplomat said.
France is also doing its share of counterlobbying, trying to keep countries that have pushed for continued weapons inspections from moving over to the U.S. position. Paris' key sphere of influence is in Africa, where it was once a colonial power.
At an African summit last week in Paris, French President Jacques Chirac said to have found unanimous support among African leaders that weapons inspections, not war, are the best way to disarm Iraq.
It was unclear whether that meant the African council members would vote against the U.S. resolution.
But Gaspar Martins of Angola said the vote-jockeying was part of the game of international diplomacy.
"If I was the U.S. or France, I would be doing the same thing. To achieve results you need to offer a lot of communication, a lot of dialogue and a lot of attention."
Copyright 2003 The Associated Press