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World spotlight is suddenly on Angola

LUANDA, Angola — Once-forgotten Angola is suddenly fielding calls from President Bush and other leaders, hosting diplomats and apparently collecting pledges of aid as the world lobbies for its U.N. Security Council vote on the Iraq issue.

President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who in the Cold War opposed the United States, recently took a rare telephone call from Bush and, just a few hours later, from Vice President Dick Cheney to ask for his support of Washington's stance on Iraq.

French President Jacques Chirac phoned to seek Angola's approval for his anti-war stance. Prime Minister Tony Blair, Washington's ally, replied to that with an invitation to Dos Santos to make his first-ever official trip to Britain.

This is a heady change for Angola, which just a year ago was widely written off as another impoverished corner of Africa, locked in a vicious civil war and dependent on international handouts.

Newly freed from the war and sitting on valuable oil reserves, Angola had already been attracting attention from abroad.

"The interest of foreign countries and foreign businessmen in Angola grows clearer every day," commented weekly paper Actual in its latest edition.

Like the two other needy African nations currently holding non-permanent seats on the Security Council — Guinea and Cameroon — events have contrived to give Angola some rare diplomatic leverage.

The three countries are among a handful of non-permanent members being wooed by both the U.S. and anti-war camps as the Security Council prepares to vote on a resolution authorizing use of force against Iraq.

The last time Angola held such a strong hand was during the Cold War, when the superpowers were competing for influence in Africa.

In recent years, the government has taken the mantle of regional power broker, sending some of its 100,000 troops into the Republic of Congo, and Congo, the former Zaire, to help allies stay in power.

The country's civil war ended last year with the killing by the army of UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi, who unleashed his violent power grab after Angola's 1975 independence from Portugal.

Since the Iraq crisis developed, western envoys have been landing at Luanda's bare airport with uncommon regularity.

Angolan officials and diplomats declined requests for interviews, saying the current situation concerning Iraq was too delicate. Observers, though, suspect the foreign suitors have been bearing gifts — most probably financial rewards for the war-ruined Southwest African nation.

"Something's afoot, that's for sure," said Simon Taylor, director of the Global Witness human rights group in London.

When U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Walter Kansteiner came here last month, he disclosed little about his consultations. But his agenda of meetings illuminated what was at stake for Angola.

He joined Dos Santos at Luanda's handsome new presidential palace, overlooking the tin roofs of a dusty shantytown, for private talks.

Then he drove down shabby Cazuno Street to the Finance Ministry, where officials are in a damaging standoff with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

Amid allegations that Angola's ruling elite has pocketed billions of dollars of state funds, those international bodies have so far refused to grant vital development aid until they can take a look at the government's books.

After that, Kansteiner stopped off at the Oil Ministry where officials call the shots on which foreign energy companies are granted access to Angola's offshore oil reserves, estimated by some at 11 billion barrels.

Already, U.S. companies ChevronTexaco and Exxon, together with European rivals BP and TotalFinaElf, are pumping oil off the northwestern coast, making Angola sub-Saharan Africa's second-largest producer after Nigeria.

Most of Angola's oil lies in deep and so-called ultra-deep waters. Getting it out requires cutting-edge technology and billions of dollars. Angola has neither.

The government has promised elections within two years. Meanwhile, it will have to rebuild Angola virtually from scratch, with little more than Portuguese colonial infrastructure to build on.

"For that, they're going to need a lot of foreign aid," said Patrick Rankhumise, deputy director of the Africa Institute, a South African think tank in Pretoria.