The U.S.-backed nomination of Swedish diplomat Rolf Ekeus to head the new U.N. arms inspection agency for Iraq hit a brick wall today as China and France formally backed Russia's opposition to his candidacy.

The deadlock in the U.N. Security Council made it increasingly unlikely that Ekeus, who headed the first weapons inspection effort from 1991 through 1997, will return in a similar role. It also set the stage for a broader battle in the council over the United Nations' policy toward Iraq.

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, insisted that Ekeus's name is still in play but made it clear that the United States would be willing to consider other candidates.

Holbrooke, who is serving as the council's rotating president, blocked efforts by Ekeus's opponents to ask U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to resume the search for a chief weapons inspector who would be acceptable to Iraq. Holbrooke said Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and other senior U.S. officials would continue high-level discussions on the matter with their foreign counterparts.

While France declared its opposition to Ekeus in a letter to Holbrooke today, China clarified its position that the council should focus on a candidate who has a chance of being welcomed into Iraq.

Russian and Chinese diplomats said they have nothing but admiration for Ekeus. But they said it would be pointless to select a chairman who Iraq would not even allow into the country.

In Baghdad, meanwhile, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz accused Ekeus of allowing the first weapons inspection agency, the U.N. Special Commission, or UNSCOM, to become a secret vehicle for U.S. spying on Iraq.

The weapons agency was set up in the wake of the 1991 Persian Gulf War to search out and destroy Iraq's remaining missiles and facilities used for developing biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.