With a United Nations Security Council vote on the Iraq crisis imminent, Nick Morrison looks at the divisions which threaten to tear apart the international community.

IT'S a chance for the international minnows to have their place in the sun. Otherwise ignored and neglected, a coveted seat on the United Nations Security Council gives them a rare opportunity to have their voices heard at the highest counsels.

Guinea, one of the poorest countries in the world; Angola, still recovering from a long and brutal civil war; Cameroon, tainted by a dubious record on human rights - these are among the countries holding the fate of a UN resolution on Iraq in their hands.

But as the cajoling turns into arm-twisting, the persuading into thinly-veiled threats, the diplomatic pressure into blatant blackmail, their seat at the top table may seem to be something of a poisoned chalice. Taking sides is fraught with danger; defying the US could be a recipe for disaster.

Of the 15 countries represented on the United Nations Security Council, four are certain to vote for the combined US/UK resolution leading towards war, expected to be tabled this week. As well as the US and UK themselves, Spanish premier Jose Maria Aznar is now Tony Blair's staunchest ally in Europe, and Bulgaria, like other former communist states in Eastern Europe, is eager to please the Americans.

Lining up on the other side are France and Russia, both permanent Security Council members who have threatened to use their veto, effectively scuppering UN authorisation for using force against Iraq. Syria will also oppose a US resolution, with Germany likely to vote against or abstain, and China, critical of US action but wary of upsetting their long-term relationship with Washington, likely to abstain.

That leaves the six other non-permanent members, the waverers, those whose votes are still up for grabs, dubbed the Middle Six, no doubt because that is where they find themselves caught.

It is these six which have been caught in the most frenetic bout of diplomatic activity probably in the history of the UN. George Bush telephoned no fewer than eight world leaders on Monday to press the case for war. UK Africa minister Baroness Amos is visiting the three African members of this group - Angola, Cameroon and Guinea - following a visit by the French foreign minister earlier in the week.

But the diplomacy isn't confined to gentle persuasion. Countries heavily dependent on US trade - or aid - have been left in no doubt of what their non co-operation could mean.

When Yemen was one of the two countries to vote against a UN resolution authorising the last Gulf War, in 1990, its ambassador was told it was the most expensive vote they ever cast. Days later, Washington cut off £70m in aid to Yemen.

"The US doesn't want to be seen to be isolated, but they don't have the natural agreement of a sufficient number of countries, although they do have the ability to do very successful financial arm-twisting," says Pat Chilton, professor of international relations at Sunderland University. "It makes it very difficult to take at face value any further steps taken by the UN towards war. There is tremendous pressure on those countries which are still to decide how to vote - they're no doubt wishing they had never been anywhere near the Security Council."

While George Bush has already said he doesn't need a UN resolution to attack Iraq, for Tony Blair it is crucial if he is to avoid a potentially calamitous split in his party, and it is for this reason that Bush has gone along with seeking UN approval.

War without Security Council backing spells trouble for the UN, already seen by successive American administrations as a meddling nuisance, so, along with the economic pressure, those Middle Six countries may also feel an obligation to support the US, even if they don't agree with its policies, simply so as not to make the UN appear in a bad light.

For these six, along with their power and prominence has come a tremendous burden. For these diplomatic minnows, it may seem less like a seat at the banquet, than a place in the restaurant fish-tank, waiting to be picked out by a hungry diner.

How to pass a Security Council resolution

There are 15 members of the Security Council: five permanent and ten which are elected by the General Assembly for two-year terms.

The five permanent members are: China, France, Russia, UK, US.

The ten rotating members are: Angola, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Chile, Germany, Guinea, Mexico, Pakistan, Spain, Syria.

For a resolution to be adopted by the Security Council, it needs a minimum of nine 'yes' votes, and must avoid a veto by one of the five permanent members.

If a resolution receives nine or more votes, but is vetoed by one of the five permanent members, it is not passed.

If a resolution receives nine or more votes, neither abstentions by permanent members, nor 'no' votes by rotating members, count as a veto and the resolution is passed.

If a resolution fails to get nine votes, it is not passed.