CAIRO – US Secretary of State Colin Powell said the United States may have “nine or 10 votes” to pass the US-UK-Spanish-sponsored second United Nations resolution setting March 17 as the last deadline for Iraq to disarm – or else. It’s not true, though. The key is Africa. If two of the three African nations – Guinea, Cameroon and Angola – currently sitting as non-permanent members of the Security Council vote “no,” there will be no UN second resolution to legitimize war.

African diplomats are bemused, and quick to point out that when you are a poor African nation, the international community only voluntarily turns all its attention to you for reasons of self-interest or power politics – and not to alleviate poverty, help in investment in health and education, or to fight corruption. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin on Sunday started a whirlwind tour of the three members of the U-6 (undecided six), as they are known in UN corridors, after Washington has been frantically on the phone with all of them. It’s a Paris-against-Washington game played out in western Africa with a time limit and no strategies spared. The prize for Washington is to get all three votes. For Paris, two are enough to prevent it from having to use its veto if a resolution is passed. In a nutshell, Africa – snubbed by the West in any major international decision – is now in effect deciding whether the United States and United Kingdom go to war in Iraq legitimized or not by the concert of world nations.

Guinea has presided over the Security Council since March 1. Guinea, one of the world’s poorest nations, is Muslim and francophone. Public opinion is overwhelmingly against the war. France is its No. 1 source of economic help. The US is its No. 1 source of military help. In 2002, Washington spent US$3 million to train 300 Guinea Rangers and also subcontracted operational help from the Israeli military, so that Guineans could fight the dangerous spillover from anarchic Liberia and Sierra Leone. Most Guinean bauxite – 75 percent of local exports – is bought by US firms. Washington has been assiduously courting Guinea since late February. Guinea is yet to make a final decision on Iraq.

Cameroon, also a francophone nation, is involved in all sorts of cooperation with France, and it has a military agreement. More than 150 companies and 20,000 French expats live in Cameroon. In the recent Franco-African summit in Paris, President Paul Biya not only signed the French-sponsored declaration privileging the work of the UN inspectors, he also stressed that he totally agrees with President Jacques Chirac’s strategy.

Cameroon at the moment is at odds with its powerful neighbor Nigeria: they both aspire to control the oil-rich island of Bakassi. George W Bush personally called Biya last week. Certainly, Biya was reminded in a not-too-subtle way that Cameroon – as well as Guinea – depends heavily on a relative commercial bonanza offered by the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). This US mechanism is a Sword of Damocles: one of its key provisions is that nations are prohibited to “engage in activities that would undermine United States national security in the domain of foreign policy.”

Former Portuguese colony Angola is the second-largest sub-Saharan oil producer, behind Nigeria: 920,000 barrels a day. The nation swims in oil as well as corruption. Angola has just emerged from a devastating civil war that lasted more than a quarter of a century. Since rebel leader Jonas Savimbi died one year ago, Angola has been desperately trying to convene a donors’ conference. The nation needs everything: from total rebuilding of infrastructure to a semblance of normal life to 4 million internally displaced people and more than 300,000 refugees.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) approved pitiful annual aid of $15 million to Angola. There’s no democracy in sight, but Washington does not care: US oil companies are in charge. Both Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have been on the phone with President Eduardo dos Santos. But the very articulate head of state may not want to be totally dependent on the Americans. Portuguese-speaking Brazil is exerting discreet pressure for Angola to align itself with the axis of peace.

The unbearable position of the U-6 – the three Africans plus Mexico, Chile and Pakistan – forced to choose between nothing else than two clashing visions of what the world will be like in the near future, is causing them tremendous strain.

Mexico has been slowly aligning itself with the US-UK-Spanish camp – something that provoked Chile’s fury: Mexico was accused of betrayal because the two Latin American nations had agreed on a common position. Mexico has no way out: Ninety percent of its trade is with the United States. Brazilian President Lula da Silva is doing everything to encourage Chile to follow the Franco-German-Russian axis of peace. But Chile has just signed a free-trade agreement with the US and is about to sign another agreement to buy F16s at discount rates.

Chile couldn’t take it any more and went public on its extreme discontent about the very short deadline of March 17. This has already forced the US, UK and Spain to adopt a detailed so-called “shopping list” of disarmament to be presented to Saddam Hussein’s regime.

A key development since Hans Blix’s report on Friday is that now the US-UK-Spanish camp is not insisting any more on disarmament by the March 17 deadline. Blix in his latest report said there are no fewer than 115 key questions that Saddam’s regime has to answer to convince the arms inspectors that it really is getting rid of chemical, biological and conventional munitions.

So a short list is now in the cards. The regime will have to answer very precise questions on, among other items: the whereabouts of 50 Scud-B warheads; a propellant program for prohibited missiles; the discrepancy between Iraq’s admission to have illegally imported 131 Volga engines for its al-Samoud 2 missiles and a total number of 380 known to the UN; the total number of al-Samoud 2 missiles; 550 155-millimeter shells filled with mustard gas; 350 or so R-400 bombs; 6,500 bombs filled with chemical agents; unmanned-air-vehicle programs, spray tanks and chemical/biological warheads for Scud missiles; the weaponization of VX nerve gas; precursor chemicals for the nerve agents tabun, sarin, cyclo-sarin and VX; 80 tons – or more – of mustard gas; 10,000 liters of anthrax; production capacity of 6,000-16,000 liters of anthrax; 3,000-11,000 liters of botulinum toxin; and production of botulinum toxin and research into aflatoxin.

The UN vote will happen some time before the end of the week. All bets are off. The US is ready for war. With or without the UN’s endorsement? The answer lies with Guinea, Cameroon and Angola.

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