Secretary General Kofi Annan said today he has begun searching for a chairman of a new U.N. arms inspection agency who is "firm" but has the "people skills" to get along with the Iraqi leadership.

The statement signaled that Annan is looking for an arms control chief with a more diplomatic, less aggressive style than Richard Butler, the Australian who chaired the former U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM), which was withdrawn from Iraq on the eve of U.S. and British airstrikes a year ago.

Annan's remarks came as the U.N. Security Council appeared to be on the verge of passing a resolution that would replace UNSCOM with a new arms inspection agency.

After months of contentious negotiations, U.S. officials said today that they expected Russia and China to abstain from voting on the resolution rather than exercising their veto powers as permanent members of the Security Council. But the vote, which briefly had been scheduled for today, was postponed after France asked for more time to decide whether to abstain or cast its vote in favor of the resolution, diplomats said.

Iraq has not agreed to allow the return of arms inspectors, whose job would be to ensure the dismantlement of its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. But Western diplomats have expressed confidence that Iraq will go along if the Security Council shows unity and determination.

The resolution also would provide a strong incentive for cooperation, offering to suspend the nine-year-old economic sanctions on Iraq if Saddam Hussein's government helps the weapons inspectors to do their job and makes progress on key disarmament tasks.

"I hope this [resolution] will enable us at last to move into a more constructive phase in which we can both verify Iraq's disarmament . . . and bring an end to the long ordeal of the Iraqi people," Annan said at a news conference.

He added that his top disarmament adviser, Jayantha Dhanapala of Sri Lanka, would play an active role in the effort to disarm Iraq. He said Dhanapala had already begun recruiting a new team of weapons inspectors. He dodged a question about whether current arms experts from UNSCOM would be welcome in the new agency.

The U.S. government, which was generally pleased with Butler and UNSCOM, has sought to limit the role of the U.N. secretariat in disarming Iraq because of concern that it is too sympathetic to Baghdad's point of view. The United States has also argued in the past that UNSCOM members should remain the core of any future arms control agency because they possess deep knowledge of the Iraqi weapons program.