A Jan. 21 article quoted German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer as saying that Iraq "has complied fully" with all U.N. resolutions and cooperated with U.N. inspectors. Fischer actually said Iraq has to "comply fully" with U.N. resolutions and to cooperate with U.N. inspectors. (Published 1/22/03)

France suggested today it would wage a major diplomatic fight, including possible use of its veto power, to prevent the U.N. Security Council from passing a resolution authorizing military action against Iraq.

France's opposition to a war, emphatically delivered here by Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, is a major blow for the Bush administration, which has begun pouring tens of thousands of troops into the Persian Gulf in preparation for a military conflict this spring. The administration had hoped to mark the final phase in its confrontation with Iraq when U.N. weapons inspectors deliver a progress report Monday.

But in a diplomatic version of an ambush, France and other countries used a high-level Security Council meeting on terrorism to lay down their markers for the debate that will commence next week on the inspectors' report. Russia and China, which have veto power, and Germany, which will chair the Security Council in February, also signaled today they were willing to let the inspections continue for months.

Only Britain appeared to openly support the U.S. position that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has thwarted effective inspections.

"If war is the only way to resolve this problem, we are going down a dead end," de Villepin told reporters. "Already we know for a fact that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs are being largely blocked, even frozen. We must do everything possible to strengthen this process."

The United Nations, he said, should stay "on the path of cooperation. The other choice is to move forward out of impatience over a situation in Iraq to move towards military intervention. We believe that today nothing justifies envisaging military action."

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in the face of such comments, departed from his prepared text on terrorism and implored his colleagues to remember that the Security Council resolution passed unanimously Nov. 8 gave Iraq "a last chance" to meet its obligations. "We must not shrink from our duties and our responsibilities when the material comes before us next week," Powell said. He used a variation of the phrase "must not shrink" three more times as he addressed the council.

During the weeks of debate on the Iraq resolution, French officials had indicated they were open to some sort of military intervention if Iraq did not comply. But now the French appear to have set much higher hurdles for support.

Rising opposition to war, particularly in France, appears to have played a role in the hardening positions on the Security Council. Foreign officials are also aware of polls in the United States suggesting that support for a war drops dramatically if the Bush administration does not have U.N. approval.

While the United Nations was debating today, U.S. military officials announced that the Army is sending a force of about 37,000 soldiers, spearheaded by the Texas-based 4th Infantry Division, to the Persian Gulf region. It is the largest ground force identified among an estimated 125,000 U.S. troops ordered to deploy since Christmas Eve, the Associated Press reported.

At the United Nations, several foreign ministers said a war in Iraq would spawn more terrorist acts around the globe and, in the words of Germany's Joschka Fischer, have "disastrous consequences for long-term regional stability."

"Terrorism is far from being crushed," said Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. "We must be careful not to take unilateral steps that might threaten the unity of the entire [anti-]terrorism coalition. In this context we are strictly in favor of a political settlement of the situation revolving around Iraq."

Powell replied: "We cannot fail to take the action that may be necessary because we are afraid of what others might do. We cannot be shocked into impotence because we are afraid of the difficult choices that are ahead of us."

But when the foreign ministers emerged from the council debate and addressed reporters, it appeared that Powell's pleas had made little impact. Although President Bush said last week he was "sick and tired of games and deception," Fischer said the inspections were a success.

"Iraq has complied fully with all relevant resolutions and cooperated very closely with the U.N. team on the ground," Fischer said. "We think things are moving in the right direction, based on the efforts of the inspection team, and [they] should have all the time which is needed."

Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan said Monday's report should be regarded as a "new beginning" rather than an end to inspections. The chief weapons inspectors "have been talking about that there is more work to do in terms of the inspections and they need more time. I think we should respect their opinion and support their work."

De Villepin, in a lengthy and at times theatrical news conference, was asked whether France would use its veto power to thwart Washington's campaign for quick action. He said France "will shoulder its responsibilities, faithful to the principles it has."

France would never "associate ourselves with military intervention that is not supported by the international community," de Villepin added. "We think that military intervention would be the worst possible solution."

France, as chair of the Security Council this month, had organized today's meeting on terrorism in part to draw attention to its contention that the Iraq situation has detracted from the more pressing need to confront international terrorism.

De Villepin reacted coolly to suggestions, made by senior Bush administration officials Sunday, that Hussein and his top advisers be offered political asylum outside Iraq to avert a war. "The problem is something more difficult than a question of change of regime," he said. "Let us not be diverted from our objective. It is the disarmament of Iraq."

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan also indirectly criticized the prospect of war when he addressed the council on terrorism. "Any sacrifice of freedom or the rule of law within states -- or any generation of new disputes between states in the name of anti-terrorism -- is to hand the terrorists a victory that no act of theirs could possibly bring," he said, alluding to frequent U.S. assertions that the confrontation with Iraq is part of the larger war on terrorism.

The only sign of support for the U.S. position came from its closest ally, Britain. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said "time was running out" for Hussein and his "cat and mouse" game. But Straw added that Britain preferred a U.N. resolution authorizing force.

"Iraq has a responsibility now to avoid a conflict, to avoid a war," Powell told reporters. "There is no question that Iraq continues to misunderstand the seriousness of the position that it's in.

"If the United Nations is going to be relevant," he added, "it has to take a firm stand."

"We think that military intervention would be the worst possible solution," French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said at a news conference.Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, right, leans over to listen to British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw at a Security Council meeting on counterterrorism. Straw said "time was running out" for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.