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War in Iraq Sparks Rise in Mexican Anti-Americanism - 2003-04-04

As the war rages in faraway Iraq, anti-Americanism is rising in a country that shares a border with the United States, Mexico. Disagreement over the war has created tensions and revived old resentments.

There is a sign posted on a security fence outside the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City that says "Today Iraq, Tomorrow Mexico." While this may seem absurd to the average American, in Mexico such sentiments still resonate.

Mexico lost about half of the territory it claimed in 1847 to an invading U.S. Army. Mexicans have long harbored resentments and suspicions about their powerful northern neighbor, and the war has brought these feelings to the surface.

While people north of the border view the war in Iraq in tactical terms, following the news from the front about battles and troop movements, news reports in Mexico tend to concentrate on gruesome images of Iraqi victims, including dead babies and badly injured civilians.

An anti-war music video opens the newscast for TV-Azteca these days, and much of the news presented on this and Mexico's other television network, Televisa, concerns the war. In addition to the reports about civilian victims, the Mexican newscasters also focus attention on families of U.S. soldiers killed in action who have family links to Mexico.

At least four Mexican-Americans have died so far in the war, and reports in the Mexican press have at times falsely stated that the United States has been luring young Mexican men to join the armed forces in exchange for promises of legal residence or citizenship. The U.S. Embassy has repeatedly denied these stories, noting that only U.S. citizens or people who are already legal residents may join the military. In spite of this, embassy spokesmen say, young Mexican men are contacting the embassy on a daily basis, seeking information about joining the U.S. military.

The embassy is currently cordoned off by police barricades and fences, but protests have been, for the most part, small and peaceful. Very few Mexicans feel strongly enough about the war to march in the streets, but public opinion polls show more than an 80 percent disapproval of the war.

Mexican President Vicente Fox has bolstered his popularity by expressing anti-war sentiments and having his ambassador to the United Nations support a multilateral effort to bring about peace. Mexico holds a non-permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and also holds the presidency of the council this month.

Because of the Mexican populace's anti-war sentiment, President Fox's handling of the war issue could help his party, the National Action Party, in mid-term elections in July. But many political analysts also worry that there could be long-term negative consequences for U.S./Mexico relations.

Just before the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001, Mr. Fox and President Bush seemed poised to create an agreement on immigration that would have given the three or four million undocumented Mexican workers in the United States some form of legal status. That effort was pushed aside by security concerns in the wake of the attacks, and the cooling of relations between Presidents Bush and Fox over the war issue has dimmed hope for any progress on the immigration matter.

But no one expects the current rift to have serious consequences for the bilateral relationship that already exists, much of which is set in concrete by treaties and agreements, most notably the North American Free Trade Agreement. Mexico sends 90 percent of its exports to the United States in large part because of that agreement. There are also strong family ties between Mexicans and their family members in the United States, many of whom are strong supporters of President Bush and the war. So, while disagreements may deepen on this and other issues, relations between the two countries are not likely to worsen substantially, regardless of what happens in the conflict half a world away.