Mexico appeared to be the first among a handful of undecided U.N. Security Council members to shift toward the U.S. position on Iraq as Canada sought to find a middle ground among members split between disarming Saddam Hussein by force or giving weapons inspectors more time.
The change in policy for Mexico -- one of the most outspoken supporters of continued weapons inspections instead of war, echoing French and German desires -- was first presented in a key address by Mexican President Vicente Fox on Tuesday and then outlined in a new and confidential foreign policy directive obtained by The Associated Press.
Canada, meanwhile offered a plan that could reconcile the bitter differences posed by the U.S.-British-Spanish resolution, which is seeking U.N. authorization for war, and a French-Russian-German proposal to continue weapons inspections at least into July.
Canada, which held a rotating seat on the council two years ago, has circulated a two-page proposal suggesting Iraq be given until the end of March to complete a list of remaining disarmament tasks identified by the inspectors. The council would then be asked to vote on whether Iraq was complying with its U.N. obligations, diplomats told AP.
A senior Bush Administration official said it was unlikely Russia would veto the U.S.-British-Spanish draft despite Moscow's repeated statements that it opposes war.
In Washington, a top aide to President Vladimir Putin was being received at the highest levels -- including a meeting with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that included a drop-in visit by President Bush. Alexander Voloshin, Putin's chief of staff, was also expected to confer with Secretary of State Colin Powell, Vice President Dick Cheney and other top administration officials.
U.S. officials were close-mouthed about Voloshin's unannounced visit, which coincided with an equally secretive trip by former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov to Baghdad and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov's consultations in Beijing.
The Canadian ideas were well received by some of the swing voters the United States is trying to court, but it was unclear how the five veto-holding powers would react.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder discussed the proposal by telephone with Canada's Prime Minister Jean Chretien but was not moved from his anti-war stance, spokesman Thomas Steg said Wednesday. Chretien was to travel later Wednesday to Mexico for talks with Fox.
"There is no need for either a new resolution or any thoughts about any kind of compromise," Steg said, adding that "Iraq is being better controlled than ever before" under existing Resolution 1441.
In the meantime, chief weapons inspector Hans Blix said Iraq is providing new information about its weapons and has reported the discovery of two bombs, including one possibly filled with a biological agent -- moves that he said signaled real cooperation.
Bush, however, predicted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein would try to "fool the world one more time" by revealing the existence of weapons he has previously denied having. He urged the United Nations to back U.S. action against Iraq.
Mexico's shift comes after a weekend phone call to Fox from Bush and numerous visits to the country by senior U.S. officials. It could help Washington push a deeply divided council to adopt a resolution authorizing war in Iraq.
Mexico's U.N. mission refused to comment on the new directive.
The United States currently has the support of Britain, Spain and Bulgaria but is struggling to find the other five votes it needs in the 15-member council.
France, Russia, Germany and China all support continued weapons inspections, while Pakistan and Syria, the two Muslim countries on the council, are not expected to support the resolution. That leaves the United States fishing for the support of Angola, Guinea, Cameroon, Mexico and Chile.
There were signs Tuesday that Angola could be swayed to the U.S. position when Angolan Ambassador Ismael Gaspar Martins said he wanted more "dialogue with the United States to see how we can accommodate each other."
But to the Bush administration's frustration, Mexico has proven the most difficult vote to get.
While the two-page directive, in the form of talking points, doesn't explicitly commit Mexico to voting for the U.S.-backed resolution, it comes close by saying that Mexico agrees the resolution's sole aim is to disarm Iraq.
"We know that this issue is of critical importance to the United States and to the Bush administration," the directive said.
The talking points were written hours after Fox told U.S. and Mexican business leaders that Mexico supports the urgent "efforts to achieve the elimination of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."
Shortly after the speech, Mexico's foreign ministry issued the directive to its embassies outlining a new position based entirely on Mexico's primary "national interest," which is its relationship with the United States.
The talking points don't mention weapons inspections at all. Instead the policy paper declares that Mexico will now focus its position entirely on the immediate disarmament of Iraq.
"Nothing is more urgent, no time can be lost in achieving this objective," it says.
The final point in the document emphasizes Mexico's valued relationship with the United States and the need to define policy based on Mexico's national interests.
Mexican businesses, which rely heavily on U.S. trade, had been pushing Fox not to alienate Mexico from Washington over Iraq.
But the most intense pressure came directly from Washington.
In the past three weeks, State Department officials including Kim Holmes, the assistant secretary of state for international organizations, visited Mexico City, said Richard Grenell, spokesman for the U.S. Mission.
Charles Barclay, a spokesman with the State Department, denied that Holmes went to Mexico. "We've expressed our opinion to Mexico on how important this issue is and we hope for their support," Barclay said, adding that the United States wasn't engaging in any arm twisting.
Mexican diplomats have previously described their conversations with U.S. officials 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 heavy price,"' one Mexican diplomat said recently.