As it launches an all-out lobbying campaign to gain United Nations approval, the Bush administration has begun to characterize the decision facing the Security Council not as whether there will be war against Iraq, but whether council members are willing to irrevocably destroy the world body's legitimacy by failing to follow the U.S. lead, senior U.S. and diplomatic sources said.

In meetings yesterday with senior officials in Moscow, Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton told the Russian government that "we're going ahead," whether the council agrees or not, a senior administration official said. "The council's unity is at stake here."

A senior diplomat from another council member said his government had heard a similar message and was told not to anguish over whether to vote for war.

"You are not going to decide whether there is war in Iraq or not," the diplomat said U.S. officials told him. "That decision is ours, and we have already made it. It is already final. The only question now is whether the council will go along with it or not."

President Bush has continued to say he has not yet decided whether to go to war. But the message being conveyed in high-level contacts with other council governments is that a military attack on Iraq is inevitable, these officials and diplomats said. What they must determine, U.S. officials are telling these governments, is if their insistence that U.N. weapons inspections be given more time is worth the destruction of council credibility at a time of serious world upheaval.

"We're going to try to convince people that their responsibilities as members of the Security Council necessitate a vote that will strengthen the role of the council in international politics," national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said yesterday. Rice mentioned North Korea and Iran as issues where "the international community has a lot of hard work to do. . . . And so we're going to try to convince people that the Security Council needs to be strong."

Iraq, Rice told reporters in a White House briefing, "is an important issue, a critically important issue for the United States. . . . So nobody should underestimate . . . the importance of America's resolve in getting this done."

The lobbying campaign went into full gear last weekend, as the administration prepared for yesterday's introduction by the United States, Britain and Spain of a new council resolution declaring Baghdad in violation of U.N. demands. Although the resolution does not specifically authorize the use of military force, it is understood among all council members that approval is tantamount to agreement on a war. The administration maintains such approval already exists in previous resolutions, but has bowed to the wishes of London and Madrid, its main council allies, who believe a new vote will quell massive antiwar feeling in their own countries. A number of other countries outside the council have said their support for war depends on a new resolution.

While the council will hear an updated assessment of inspections in Iraq by chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix on March 7, senior administration officials said that his report is largely immaterial to the vote-getting process. Now that the new resolution has been introduced, council rules say "we have the right to ask for a vote within 24 hours," an official said. Although it is likely to fall after Blix's report, the moment of choice will be based on the vote count and little else, the official said.

The administration holds out scant hope of repeating last fall's unanimous council tally, when all 15 members agreed to demand Iraq submit to a tough new weapons inspections regimen. Three of the five permanent members with veto power -- France, Russia and China -- have called for a war decision to be postponed while inspections continue. Of the 10 non-permanent members, only Spain and Bulgaria currently support the U.S. position; Syria and Germany are considered definite no's, and Pakistan either a no or an abstention.

All five of the others -- three in Africa and two in Latin America -- are crucial to obtaining the nine votes necessary for non-vetoed passage. Last weekend, Bush telephoned Mexican President Vicente Fox and Chilean President Ricardo Lagos to ask for their votes but received no firm commitment, officials said.

Bush telephoned Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos earlier this month, and Assistant Secretary of State Walter H. Kansteiner III last weekend began a tour of the capitals of Angola, Guinea and Cameroon.

For some, particularly among the key five non-permanent members, there are additional pressure points beyond an appeal to council unity. "They want support for the resolution," said a diplomat from one of the five. "They are not offering anything," or threatening reprisals, he said. "They are anticipating trouble if there is not support . . . [and] quietly sending the message that the United States would consider it an unfriendly act."

But another council diplomat said: "There is no mention of any sort of threat or pressure. None whatsoever." Instead, he said, "The conversation is very simple. There is a description of why they've presented a resolution, an objection to the piecemeal approach" of ongoing inspections, and insistence that "the council has to demonstrate that it is capable of taking decisions."

Even France, which has led the current council majority asking for more inspections, has repeatedly spoken of unity as the primary council goal. As it sets out to reverse a potential 11 to 4 vote against the new resolution, the administration is hoping that Paris will ultimately decline to be the spoiler and will opt for abstention.

"The argument the Americans are giving us," this diplomat said, "is 'if you support us, that will put pressure on France and they'll dare not apply a veto.' " And if France can be persuaded to abstain, several administration officials said they believe Russia and China will do the same.

Although the administration appears willing to declare victory with a 9 to 2 vote, with four abstentions, other council members said it would be a false victory. "Abstention will mean opposition, it will not mean support," a non-permanent council diplomat said. "If the decision to go to war with Iraq is adopted, it has to be adopted . . . with an important majority, including at least Russia and China, even if France doesn't want to go along."

"This idea of putting three members with veto power on the outside is not something that sounds much like unity," the diplomat said. "Are they going to declare the Security Council 'relevant' by virtue of submission by the smallest states?"

If a nine-vote, no-veto majority cannot be assured, the senior U.S. official said, the administration will make a "tactical decision" as to whether it is better to proceed to war with no vote at all.

Staff writer Mike Allen contributed to this report.