Hans Blix, former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is now the leading candidate to head a new U.N. weapons inspection agency for Iraq, diplomats said today.

Blix, a 71-year-old Swede, emerged as a compromise candidate after several members of the U.N. Security Council--including Russia, China and France--objected to the nomination of Rolf Ekeus, a fellow Swedish diplomat who had been the first choice of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Ekeus, now serving as Sweden's ambassador in Washington, was strongly backed by the United States because of his experience as the first chairman of the earlier U.N. weapons inspection agency, known as UNSCOM. But France, China and Russia argued that "new blood" was needed for the new agency, called the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, or UNMOVIC.

According to diplomats here, France first proposed Blix last week, and the United States, Britain and Russia agreed to support him as a consensus candidate. China has yet to respond but is not expected to stand alone.

"I guess we have a deal," said a senior Western diplomat. "The United States has said it will agree if everybody else agrees."

Sources said, however, that Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was awaiting a formal reaction from China before informing Annan that the Security Council's key members have agreed on a candidate.

Diplomats also cautioned that Blix, who retired from the IAEA two years ago and is now touring Antarctica, has not formally accepted the job. They said he was contacted while vacationing in Argentina last week by France and Sweden to ask whether he would consider the post.

"He was obviously reluctant," said one diplomat. "But he said that if he was the only solution to achieving consensus in the council, he would be available."

During his tenure at the IAEA, Blix maintained relatively good relations with the Iraqi leadership despite the agency's efforts to prevent Iraq from developing nuclear weapons. But he came under criticism in U.S. arms control circles for failing to pursue Iraq's nuclear program as aggressively as his counterparts, Ekeus and Richard Butler of Australia, at UNSCOM.

"We think that Mr. Blix is a good suggestion," said Francois Bujon de L'Estang, France's ambassador to the United States, calling the Swede "able, competent and personable."

De L'Estang added that Blix did a "satisfactory job" as head of the IAEA and that, unlike Ekeus, he "has not been blackballed by Iraq." Ekeus, the ambassador said, "would have had no chance of setting foot in Iraq."

According to diplomats, France briefed the Iraqi government today on the emerging consensus in the council. Iraq's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, is expected to travel to Paris for talks later this week. But it remains unclear whether Baghdad will accept Blix.

Iraq's U.N. ambassador, Saeed Hassan, said the nominee is irrelevant because Baghdad will never submit to the new inspections unless it is convinced that sanctions will be lifted and that the U.S. and British bombardment of Iraq's "no-fly" zones will cease. "The issue goes beyond the question of who will be the chairman," he said.

Staff writer Steven Mufson in Washington contributed to this report.

CAPTION: Hans Blix is a compromise candidate to lead the new U.N. weapons inspection agency for Iraq.