As the Bush administration heads toward a crucial United Nations Security Council meeting at the end of this month, a strong council majority appears less willing than ever to agree that early military action against Iraq is justified.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said last week that U.S. intelligence information "we'll be providing to the world," along with U.N. reports and gaps in an Iraqi arms declaration, would make a "persuasive case" at the Jan. 27 council meeting that Baghdad has failed to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspections. Once that case is made, Powell said, there will be "a judgment as to what the council should do."

But to the administration's rising frustration, many council members have already declared themselves not persuaded. In the 10 weeks since it agreed that Iraqi failure would bring "serious consequences," the likelihood that the council will authorize a U.N.-backed invasion anytime soon has steadily receded.

As a result, the United States may soon find itself faced with deciding whether to go to war with minimal international support in order to take advantage of what it sees as an optimum military and political timetable. Although administration officials have said that a number of countries have indicated they would participate, with or without a U.N. mandate, only a handful have said so publicly. Many, including some considered important to the effort, have publicly declared they would not.

According to a number of senior council diplomats from a range of countries interviewed over the past week, the case for using force has become less, rather than more, compelling. "It is much murkier and less clear-cut than it was in November," one diplomat said.

Baghdad's at least passive cooperation with inspections, rising public opposition abroad to an attack, and a feeling that the United States is trying to bully the council into approving a deadline determined in part by Mideast weather conditions have all strengthened the view that the use of force in the near future is both unwise and unnecessary, the diplomats said.

The United States may have an impressive case to present, and may even be able to twist a significant number of council arms, said another ambassador, but "our preference is to have the facts delivered through the inspection process."

The council resolution adopted Nov. 8 was a model of what its authors called "constructive ambiguity," allowing those favoring military action to say further U.N. agreement was not required, and those against action to say the opposite. Powell said last week that "the United States . . . and each nation separately will have to make its own judgment as to what it should or should not do."

But following the weeks of painstaking negotiations last fall and the euphoria of a unanimous council vote, few in the administration believed the extent and immediacy of the Iraqi threat would not be quickly obvious to the world, or that they would find themselves back in a small minority favoring military action less than three months later.

Even close U.S. allies worry the administration risks appearing unreasonable and obsessed. "An artificiality has crept into [U.S.] decision-making," lamented a sympathetic council diplomat. "There is no arms control reason at present to move," as inspectors have found nothing substantive and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is thought unlikely to use any weapons of mass destruction while under such tight U.N. surveillance, he said. Although U.S. military deployments to the region will reach their peak by mid-February and planners believe it will be difficult to launch an attack once the spring heat begins, "there is no reason not to calibrate the military vis-a-vis inspections to come to a conclusion by October," when cool weather returns to the Middle East.

That kind of talk infuriates many U.S. officials, especially those who were opposed to taking the Iraq case to the United Nations in the first place on grounds that it would trap the United States in a quicksand of international bureaucracy and compromise. President Bush, said a senior U.S. official, is determined not to allow an Iraq-laid trap of seeming compliance to leave the council paralyzed with the indecision of the last 12 years.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld complained last week that some had seized on the recent statement by chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix that "no smoking gun" had yet been found in Iraq to argue for patience. If inspectors had found something, Rumsfeld groused to reporters, "the argument might then have been that inspections were in fact working and, therefore, they should be given more time to work."

"I guess for any who are unalterably opposed to military action, no matter what Iraq may do, there will be some sort of an argument," Rumsfeld said. Hussein was so skilled at deception, he said, that failure to find weapons the United States has insisted exist could be considered proof of Iraqi lack of cooperation.

Bush also expressed some irritation, saying that "time is running out" for Hussein and Bush was "sick and tired of games and deception. And that's my view of timetables."

In addition to the inertia brought about by inspections that have been relatively uneventful so far and only recently gotten up to full steam, a year-end round of musical chairs at the council has had an effect. Instead of compliant Colombia, which was chairman of the council last month, the current chairman is France, which has led the forces of "wait and see." On Friday, French President Jacques Chirac repeated his belief that there should be no attack unless the Security Council agrees, and he said he saw no justification based on what the inspectors have reported thus far.

"The inspectors have asked for more time to go on working," Chirac said after a meeting in Paris with Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which shares inspection duties with Blix's U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC). ElBaradei said it would be worth searching "a few more months" if that would prevent a war, and Chirac noted it was "only wise to agree to this request."

Russia, one of the five permanent Security Council members who can veto any council action, along with France, China, Britain and the United States, said last week it saw no reason to consider war. Moscow signed three agreements with Baghdad on Friday for exploration and development of oil fields in southern and western Iraq.

One of the rotating council seats reserved for Europe is now held by Germany, a staunch opponent of using force and a much more formidable voice than Ireland, the country it replaced. Germany takes over the chair of the council in February; Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said yesterday that not only would Germany not take part in any "military intervention in Iraq, that is exactly how our voting behavior will be in all international bodies, including the United Nations."

A council diplomat said, "Before, the five [permanent members] could meet without serious problems from the rest. They didn't have to think about the Irish. But that's not so with the Germans, particularly for the Europeans." Other new members include Pakistan, Chile and Angola, all U.S. friends reluctant to approve a war, and Spain.

Several nonpermanent members said that although it had not yet begun, they were sure U.S. pressure was on the way. "It will be bilateral, and it will be personal," most likely in the form of calls from Bush to other heads of government, said one ambassador who was expecting a call to his president.

The United States, said another nonpermanent ambassador, "has a very nice attitude. They assume you are with them. And then when the moment comes that you raise a question, they just look at you and say 'Excuse me?' " Public opinion in his country is "resolutely" against participation in a war, he said. "People believe that this enormous [U.S.] war machine makes the council and all its fevered machinations look ridiculous. But there will be a moment when we have to make a decision."

The closest U.S. allies on the council, including Britain, have advised the administration to wait, on grounds that U.N. backing is what one diplomat called "more than just the sugar-coating on the pill." Multilateral action, he said, "is a much more powerful instrument" than a largely U.S.-orchestrated assault, even if some other individual countries sign on.

"Realities tend to come in rather late," this diplomat said of the administration. "They are thinking 'We have the power, the will and the bases. Let's do it ourselves.' " But he said he hoped the Americans were "beginning to realize that it's all connected -- the Mideast, Afghanistan, oil, Russia, China, North Korea, the economy."

A senior Arab official, whose government is deeply involved in the Iraq issue but not presently on the council, put it another way. "If I were in the president's, or [political adviser] Karl Rove's position, . . . I'd weigh the options and say, 'What do I gain by doing this? If [war] lasts two days and works beautifully, the American public will slap me on the back and say 'great job.' But the bill could be $100 billion, oil could go up to $40 a barrel and gas prices to $2.50 a gallon, and there goes the economy.' "

"Do you really want to be in the position where . . . the American public will be happy for three months, and then start saying 'Where are the jobs?' " he asked.

"And that's the best-case scenario. More likely, it will take months. The Arab world and the Israelis will go berserk. Where's the up side? Is it really worth doing?"

There is widespread international appreciation of the fact that inspectors would not be in Iraq today if the United States had not used its overwhelming military and diplomatic power, the official said. Bush could easily declare victory now and save himself a potential debacle. "He's shown seriousness, and Saddam caved," the official said. "If you ask whether the world is in a better position vis-a-vis Saddam Hussein than it was a year ago, the answer is 'Absolutely.' Is that victory? Yes, if you want it to be."