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Under United Nations rules, Latin American governments are entitled to pick a country from the region to fill the rotating seat that comes open next year. Venezuela has been campaigning for the post. But the Bush administration is urging Latin American countries to vote for a U.S. ally, Guatemala, instead, warning that the populist government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez cannot be trusted on crucial issues such as Iran’s nuclear program, given its "disruptive and irresponsible behavior" in international organizations.

Behind the scenes, U.S. officials have been applying pressure, even to close allies, Latin American diplomats say. For example, Washington has agreed to sell F-16 fighter jets to Chile, but are warning that Chilean pilots will not be trained to fly them if the government supports Venezuela’s Security Council bid, the diplomats said.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other top State Department officials have been taking part in lobbying efforts.

Relations between the U.S. and Venezuela have been rocky since Chavez won election in 1998 and deteriorated further during a failed coup attempt against him in 2002 that appeared to have the Bush administration’s support. Chavez frequently refers to President Bush as an idiot, supports fellow leftist candidates for top offices in Latin America and has sought closer ties with Cuba and Iran.

As those tensions have increased, Latin American neighbors have worked hard to avoid taking sides. The Security Council issue, however, is making that impossible.

"No one wants to choose between the United States and Venezuela, but that’s what it’s come down to," said a diplomat from one Western Hemisphere country, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. The Americans "have made it quite clear this is a top priority."

If Venezuela wins the rotating seat for the designated two-year term, it would be one of 15 members on the Security Council. Only the five permanent members have veto power, but each council member’s vote can be important in disputed issues. If Venezuela takes a stand opposing a U.S.-backed initiative, that could provide cover for other countries to do the same.

In addition, Venezuela would serve a one-month stretch as president of the Security Council during its term, a position that would give it a role in setting the agenda. Such influence could be important if the Security Council next year debated whether to impose sanctions on Iran in the hope of forcing Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

Iran is considering an international offer of incentives and talks that would include U.S. officials, but the Bush administration wants to leave options open for punitive measures through the U.N.

U.S. officials think the question of whether the Security Council seat will end up going to Guatemala or Venezuela remains open. But some Latin American diplomats think Venezuela may have the upper hand.

Caribbean countries, as well as Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina are expected to side with Venezuela. But Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Central American countries are leaning toward Guatemala, meaning the issue could wind up deadlocked.

If there is no consensus by October, the issue will move to the U.N. General Assembly. Although the U.S. has been lobbying European and Asian allies, some Latin American diplomats think developing countries, which hold a General Assembly majority, are likely to go with Venezuela.

"Everyone who wants to see balance in the Security Council, who wants to see the United States constrained, will vote for Chavez," said one Latin American diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Diplomats say U.S. officials have put special pressure on Chile, which has one of South America’s strongest economies and which has been a close U.S. trading and political partner.

When Rice met with Chilean Foreign Minister Alejandro Foxley in Washington in April, she devoted most of the closed session to a discussion of the Security Council issue, Foxley told La Tercera, one of Chile’s largest newspapers.

Rice was quoted as telling Foxley that the issue was "singular because it aims at the heart of U.S. interests." The U.S. would not understand a vote for Venezuela, she said, and warned that such a vote would lump Chile with a group of "losers" separated from the U.S., Mexico, part of Central America and most of Europe, the newspaper reported.

Chile’s ambassador to the U.N., Heraldo Munoz, said that Chile was a strong but independent U.S. ally: It opposed Washington on Iraq, was poised to ratify the U.S.-opposed International Criminal Court and would make up its own mind about the Security Council seat. But he said he hoped Latin American countries could agree on a candidate to avoid a divisive vote.

"We have not taken a decision yet," he said. "We will decide based on the merits of the candidates."