UNITED NATIONS, NOV. 29 -- The Security Council today gave the United States and other countries with forces arrayed against Iraq the most sweeping authorization to engage in warfare under U.N. sponsorship since the 1950 Korean war.

By a vote of 12 to 2, with China abstaining, foreign ministers of the 15-member council adopted a U.S.-sponsored resolution that gives Iraqi President Saddam Hussein what could be his last chance to withdraw peacefully from Kuwait, which he invaded Aug. 2.

The resolution states that unless Iraq, by Jan. 15, fully complies with previous council resolutions calling for its unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait and release of foreigners, member states may "use all necessary means . . . to restore international peace and security in the area."

Passage of the resolution, only the second in U.N. history authorizing use of force to repel aggression, marked a major victory for the Bush administration, which had lobbied other council members over the last month to build the majority by which the resolution passed tonight.

At the White House, President Bush hailed the vote as another sign of the growing international consensus against Saddam.

In an interview with Univision television, he said, "I think up to now we have failed to have Saddam Hussein understand how clearly the whole world feels against what he's doing and I think this new approach will guarantee he does understand it."

After the vote, Iraq's U.N. ambassador, Abdul Amir Anbari, challenged the council's authority to authorize force and said defiantly that "Iraq will fight and not kneel." There was no immediate reaction from Saddam, but speaking hours before the vote, he was quoted on Baghdad radio as saying, "If war breaks out, we will fight in a way that will make all Arabs and Moslems proud."

In voting for the resolution, the ministers individually stressed that the term "all necessary means" does not imply that military operations automatically will be set in motion against Iraq if it ignores the Jan. 15 deadline.

Instead, the ministers pointed out as they cast their votes, the intention is to put additional pressure on Saddam to force him into realization that the international community will use whatever measures are necessary, possibly including military force, to compel him to relinquish his much smaller neighbor that he has made a province of Iraq.

Except for China, the other permanent council members with power to veto a resolution -- the United States, Soviet Union, Britain and France -- all enthusiastically supported the measure. China, while saying it thought the search for a peaceful solution should be pursued longer before turning to military force, nevertheless withheld its veto. The only votes against came from Yemen and Cuba, which have opposed or abstained in most earlier votes against Iraq.

Both Bush and Secretary of States James A. Baker III traveled extensively throughout Europe, the Middle East and the Western Hemisphere to marshal the necessary votes before the end of November. The United States, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the council, now yields the gavel to Yemen.

Baker presided over today's meeting, which was attended by foreign ministers from every council member except Yemen and the Ivory Coast. He opened the session by quoting Ethiopia's late emperor Haile Selassie when he appeared before the League of Nations in Geneva in 1936 to plead for help against Italy's invasion of his country.

"Sadly, his appeal to the League of Nations fell ultimately upon deaf ears," Baker said. "The League's efforts to redress aggression failed, and international disorder and war ensued. History now has given us another chance.

"With the cold war behind us, we now have the chance to build the world envisioned by the founders of the United Nations. . . . But if we are to do so, we must meet the threat to international peace created by Saddam Hussein's aggression. That's why our debate today will rank as one of the most important in the history of the United Nations.

"It will surely do much to determine the future of this body."

Following the vote, Baker said the council had "passed a watershed in U.N. history" because it had shown its willingness to do whatever is necessary to counter "Iraqi crimes incompatible with any civilized order." He noted that Iraq has taken thousands of foreign civilians in Kuwait hostage and has systematically sought to obliterate Kuwait's identity. "A once prosperous country has been pillaged and looted; a once peaceful country has been turned into an armed camp; a once secure country has been terrorized," he said.

Following Baker's statement, Sabah Ahmed Sabah, foreign minister of the exiled Kuwaiti government, made an impassioned plea for the United Nations to save his country from "the atrocities of an Iraqi regime which has run amok."

He was followed by Iraq's Anbari, who charged that the Security Council lacked the legal authority to authorize force against his country. He then made a lengthy attack on the United States, which he called an imperialist power that has taken control of the United Nations and now seeks "to issue orders as though Iraq were a branch of the American executive."

His words failed to dissuade the council members from passing the 12th resolution aimed at pressing Iraq since the outbreak of the crisis. In casting their votes, every minister echoed in one way or another the hope expressed by British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd. He said the best solution would be for Iraq to agree to a peaceful settlement that would negate the need to resort to force and spare possible massive bloodshed. "The Iraqis now have every incentive to choose the path of peace and reason," Hurd said. But later, he declared that "the military option is reality, not bluff. If it has to be used, it will be used, with the full backing of the council."

Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze said that the resolution "gives time to think again. . . . At the same time, we are giving the victims in this crisis a firm pledge that they will not have to wait much longer, and help is on the way. Today, we have started a countdown."

Earlier, in Moscow, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev said that, if other measures failed to persuade Iraq to withdraw, "everything must be done, even pressure of a military nature." He said, however, that "our aim is unchanged, to achieve a political solution."

At a news conference later, Baker, asked about next steps, said he was going to have "a quiet, off-the-record dinner" with the other foreign ministers tonight to exchange ideas about what can be done to achieve a peaceful settlement in the 45 days remaining before Jan. 15.

In response to questions about mounting unease in Congress over possible use of the war option, Baker said he agreed that the issue should be debated thoroughly between the administration and Capitol Hill. But he added, "I hope there'll be some attention paid to what happened here tonight in the action of the international community."

Asked about reports that Bush is considering calling a special session of Congress to discuss the gulf crisis, Baker said, "There is no plan I'm aware of to call a special session."

French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas said after the vote, "If Iraq chooses to remain deaf to the appeal to reason and respect for law, that is to say remains locked into the use of force, what other choice are we left with but to resort to the same means which appear to be the only ones it recognizes?"

The resolution, known formally as Security Council Resolution 678, notes that "despite all efforts by the United Nations, Iraq refuses to comply with its obligation to implement {U.N. calls for withdrawal}, in flagrant contempt of the council." It then states the Jan. 15 deadline and the authorization "to use all necessary means" after that date. It "requests all states to provide appropriate support" for any actions that might be undertaken by U.N. members seeking to oust Iraq from Kuwait.

Iraq invaded Kuwait, a much smaller sheikdom on its southern border, after breaking off negotiations in which it sought rights to oilfields at their common border as well as two strategic islands at the head of the Persian Gulf, and cancellation of debts owed Kuwait for aid to Iraq in its eight-year war with Iran.

While the resolution puts a U.N. stamp of approval on any possible military operations, the council did not act under the provisions of Article 42 of the U.N. Charter. That article enables the Security Council to authorize military action to deal with aggression or threats to world order.

Invoking Article 42 likely would have required the council to create a unified U.N. command over all forces engaged against Iraq. The United States, which has at least 230,000 troops in the region, and its principal allies who have deployed forces there, want to retain command of their own forces, and for that reason the Bush administration resisted pressures to have the resolution seek some kind of unified U.N. structure.

Today's resolution follows closely the council's action on Aug. 25 authorizing countries engaged in the maritime blockade of Iraq and Kuwait to use force in enforcing the embargo. That limited action relating to the use of sea power marked the first time before today that the council had authorized military action since the Korean war.

When Chinese forces invaded Korea in 1950, the Chinese seat on the Security Council was still held by Taiwan. The Soviet Union, in protest, was boycotting the council. This facilitated adoption of resolutions authorizing use of force under the U.N. flag, and the Security Council then effectively farmed out the conduct of the war to the United States, whose troops formed the bulk of the 17-nation force.

Baker attended to another U.N. matter today, delivering a check for $186 million in back dues resulting from a partial boycott begun in 1985. Last year, the United States began payments reducing its arrears, which now are down from almost $1 billion to $296 million.