THE UNITED NATIONS Security Council may have reached an impasse on Iraq. Saddam Hussein's refusal to accept the "last chance" for voluntary disarmament offered by the council's Resolution 1441 has split the council into two opposing camps. One, led by the United States, takes seriously the council's threat of "serious consequences" in the event of Iraqi noncompliance -- meaning, very likely, a military campaign to remove Saddam Hussein's vile regime. The other, including France and Germany, in the face of war would abandon 1441 and fall back on a strategy of "containing" the Iraqi threat through continued inspections. Unless this divide can be overcome, the Bush administration will have to choose in the coming weeks between giving up on Iraqi disarmament and leading a military campaign without further approval from the United Nations. President Bush signaled yesterday that if pressed he will choose to act with a "coalition of the willing" rather than be blocked by the council's failure of nerve. That was the right message to send.

The report to the Security Council due Monday by the chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, could well touch off an acrimonious debate about whether Iraq has or has not complied with the council's last order for disarmament -- particularly as Mr. Blix, who sees his mission as heading off a war at any cost, is likely to duck the central issue. That question is relatively simple: Has Iraq agreed to immediately and voluntarily disclose and dismantle its weapons of mass destruction, and to allow inspectors to verify those actions? The answer is equally plain: It has not. In fact, it has denied that it has any weapons to dismantle, submitted a declaration to the council that even Mr. Blix had to concede was manifestly false, and done its best to prevent the inspectors from uncovering its lies, in part by bottling up its scientists. Meanwhile, evidence is leaking out anyway: Undeclared chemical warheads have been found, illegal imports of missile parts discovered, explosives that could be used in nuclear warheads gone missing. The only way to avoid the conclusion that Iraq is again refusing to disarm, and that action must thus be taken, is to ignore all these facts or recast the U.N. mission.

France and Germany have chosen the latter course, with the tacit cooperation of Mr. Blix. War against Iraq, they argue, would create unacceptable risks: It could increase terrorism, widen the gulf between the West and the Islamic world and destabilize the Middle East. Why take those risks, they argue, when just stationing inspectors in Iraq would likely ensure that Saddam Hussein did not use his arsenal? "Already we know for a fact that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs are being largely blocked, even frozen," French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin argued Monday. It's true that any war will bring risks and painful costs. But Mr. de Villepin's strategy has been tried before. The results were these: Iraq never fully disclosed its weapons, and inspectors were never able to find many of them. France soon turned from supporting the inspectors to demanding that their mission be wrapped up. Eventually Saddam Hussein succeeded in driving the inspectors out, while keeping biological and chemical warheads as well as a nuclear weapons program.

"This looks like a rerun of a bad movie," President Bush said yesterday. He's right; and the United States cannot afford to allow the French script to be replayed. Instead, Mr. Bush should offer a detailed public explanation of what the United States knows about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and challenge the United Nations, one last time, to preserve its relevance by acting to implement Resolution 1441. In the meantime, the administration should continue to prepare the military coalition that even now is taking shape in the Persian Gulf. It would be best if that coalition could act with full Security Council support; but it can, if necessary, succeed without it.