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Small nations carry big sticks in Iraq tug of war

Spotted exiting the U.N. Security Council chamber: the ambassador from Cameroon, Martin Belinga-Eboutou. Though he's from a small, poor, relatively powerless country, he's suddenly very important, at least for a few more days, one of the new go-to guys in this temple of global diplomacy.

He has his coat on, briefcase in hand, as if he's ready to leave. But a reporter sees him, catches up with him, and the sight of it draws a stampede. Cameras, microphones, tape recorders suddenly surround Belinga-Eboutou. He's in a scrum as he heads through the delegates' corridor and down an escalator, where fellow Security Council members from Bulgaria and Angola are waiting.

There is much to discuss, what with the council's apparent opposition to a U.S. and British resolution justifying war with Iraq. And so for days, these swing states _ Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, Mexico and Pakistan _ have been caught in a vise grip of competition between the United States and France, vying for votes that may either bring war or delay it.

Stefan Tafrov, the ambassador from Bulgaria, one of the countries supporting the United States, is irritated at the flock of reporters who've descended on him. He's virtually tugging on the sleeve of Ismael Abraao Gaspar Martins, the amiable ambassador from Angola. "We want to speak amongst ourselves," Tafrov is complaining to one reporter, while Gaspar Martins is in the midst of an important pronouncement, telling another reporter: "We cannot as the U.N. say we want regime change in Iraq. No."

Back upstairs, the leader of this bunch _ Mamady Traore, ambassador from Guinea and on the rotation as Security Council president this month _ is holding forth at the media stakeout area, in his flowing African robes of gold brocade.

All manner of hard sell, hard press, diplomatic stroking and the like has been applied to these men and their leaders by U.S. and French diplomats in recent days. President Bush has spoken to many of their leaders. So has France's President Jacques Chirac, who is leading the opposition to war.

Neither Traore nor Gaspar Martins, in brief interviews Tuesday, would spell out the form that this competition has taken. Much of the hard sell has taken place perhaps well above their diplomatic heads.

Traore would say this, putting his hand up to end the questions: "We have bilateral relations with both countries, and if they are coming to see us it's just to try to explain to us better their position."

Suddenly, in a world body that purports to represent the masses but is guided by the powers, the importance of the little guy has come to the fore. Who'd have thought that Guinea, a tiny West African nation, would be in a position to help decide the future course of U.S. policy? Stranger still: Who'd have thought it possible for Angola to emerge as such an important player when it's been only a decade since the United States normalized relations with that nation after spending decades financing rebels to oust its government?

"Bygones are bygones," says Gaspar Martins, 62, a U.S.-, British- and German-educated former finance minister, trade minister and governor of the Angolan central bank. "The U.S. needs our government, and we need the U.S., very much so."

In many ways, Angola is accustomed to competition for its attentions. U.S. oil companies are key players in pumping crude from the deep-sea oil fields on Angola's Atlantic coast, which account for 7 percent of U.S. oil imports. And the role of French companies has surged in recent years. And nations with money to give have been pledging aid to Angola for the resettlement and reintegration of its demilitarized rebel fighters since a civil war there ended last year.

"We have been discussing that with the U.S., yes there is a pledge on the part of the U.S.," he says.

But, he insists, there have been no conditionals, no quid pro quos, because of Iraq _ not in pledges in aid, for instance, nor in things like defending Angola from frequent allegations of corruption.

"Nothing to do with Iraq," he says of the promises of aid made to his country since last year. The United States and Angola have "talked about this before. We are continuing to talk about that. It is completely de-linked to Iraq and to Iraq's position, and we would like to keep it as such. . . . Look at it as merits. If Angola has a program which has merit to be looked at and assisted, we would appreciate that from the U.S. and from other countries of the world."

These nations, and by extension these men, have been ridiculed, especially by American critics of the United Nations itself. At least one commentator has singled out the African swing states for criticism: How can these tiny African nations be allowed so much clout?

Perhaps because the United States asked them to help. In coming to the United Nations for its imprimatur of legitimacy for the U.S. campaign against Iraq, President Bush has laid his policy at the feet of a system that, for better or worse, affords small states a say in the affairs of large ones, that gives voice to a global will broader than the will of one nation. There are, after all, 191 member nations in the General Assembly. Ever heard of Vanuatu? It will have its say.