President Bush said yesterday that France's efforts to block NATO consensus on preparations for war in Iraq were "shortsighted" and would "affect the alliance in a negative way."

"I don't understand that decision," Bush said of action by France, Belgium and Germany to reject NATO efforts to begin planning for joint protection of Turkey in the event of war with Iraq. "I am disappointed that France would block NATO from helping a country like Turkey prepare."

Bush spoke after a White House meeting with Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who supports what he called Bush's "strong leadership" to disarm Iraq. In unspoken but clear contrast to his feelings about French President Jacques Chirac, Bush described Howard as a "man of clear vision who sees the threats the free world faces."

The NATO controversy was one of several sharp diplomatic challenges to the U.S. war effort yesterday, as weeks of verbal disputes among traditionally close allies crystallized into formal statements of disagreement.

Administration hopes of introducing a new U.N. resolution next week authorizing the use of force against Iraq appeared to founder on a joint declaration issued by Security Council members France, Russia and Germany saying that U.N. inspectors should be given more time. "There is still an alternative to war," the declaration said.

U.S. officials insisted the most vocal opponents were in the minority, and would not derail Bush from a task he told a religious broadcasters' convention yesterday the United States had been "called" to undertake.

In a speech that was rich in religious references, Bush told the broadcasters that among the reasons terrorists hate the United States is that "we can worship the Almighty God the way we see fit."

Charging that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had positioned troops in population centers to blame the United States for civilian casualties in the event of war, Bush said that U.S. forces would act "in the highest moral traditions of our country. We will try in every way we can to spare innocent life."

"We owe it to future generations of Americans and citizens in freedom-loving countries to see to it that Mr. Saddam Hussein is disarmed," he said. Referring to "great challenges" at home and abroad, Bush said, "We're called to defend our nation and to lead the world to peace. And we will meet both challenges with courage and with confidence."

As a Washington Post-ABC News poll indicated a majority of Americans now support military action even without U.N. approval, provided key allies such as Britain and Australia participate, Bush said after his meeting with Howard that he understood reluctance to go to war. "I'm the person who hugs the widows and the mothers if a son or husband dies," he said. "But the risks of doing nothing far outweigh the risks of doing what it takes to disarm Saddam Hussein."

Even as NATO was locked in disagreement, the U.N. Security Council appeared headed for a major rupture when it meets Friday to hear the latest assessment of Iraqi cooperation by U.N. inspection chiefs Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei. U.N. sources said China was likely to join permanent members France and Russia in opposing a cutoff of inspections. That would leave the United States and Britain in the minority among those with veto power.

Germany, a nonpermanent member currently serving as council president, and Syria have also declared their opposition to ending the inspections and moving toward a war resolution.

Although U.S. officials have claimed support from a number of the rest of NATO's 15 members, none but Bulgaria has said so publicly. Several ambassadors said they were trying to keep their heads down, and not declare a position, while the "Perm-5" fight it out. "It's a Mexican standoff," one said. "We're gladly not taking a front-seat position." This diplomat and others said that the situation had overflowed the bounds of diplomacy and become an all-out battle between the two positions that boded ill for future council effectiveness.

As the sparring continued, the Bush administration dismissed a French proposal, being circulated in a nonofficial document at the United Nations, for a beefed-up inspection regime. The proposal, sources said, includes sending U.N. customs officials to all Iraqi ports and entry points to search for banned materials, and to supplement current inspectors searching for weapons of mass destruction with budget and archival experts who could go through Iraqi documents. The proposal also suggests an increase in the number of security personnel protecting the inspectors, some of whom could be left behind to guard sites where the Iraqis have been accused of concealing banned materials during inspections.

Although Blix and ElBaradei said during a weekend visit to Baghdad that they had been disappointed in Iraq's response to demands for broader cooperation, Iraq has continued to make partial concessions, including yesterday's announcement that it would allow U-2 aerial surveillance overflights.

The United States and Britain are mulling different forms of a new resolution, with the most radical being outright authorization to use force against Iraq. Not only would France, Russia and China likely veto such a resolution, it would add to the discomfort of the administration's key council allies, Britain and Spain, which still hold out hope of council agreement.

Other proposals include a declaration that Iraq is in "material breach" of U.N. resolutions, which the United States has said it would take as implicit authorization for force, or a resolution giving Iraq an ultimatum of two to 15 days to comply with U.N. demands, after which it would automatically be considered in "material breach."

"I am disappointed that France would block NATO from helping a country like Turkey prepare," President Bush said of action by France, Belgium and Germany to reject NATO efforts to begin planning for joint protection of Turkey in the event of war with Iraq. The controversy was one of several diplomatic challenges yesterday to U.S. war efforts.