The White House dismissed Iraq's offer Monday to let weapons inspectors return there unconditionally -- a move that could be an attempt to split the Security Council and preclude stern U.S. action against Iraq.

The White House released a written statement that called the offer "a tactical step by Iraq in hopes of avoiding strong U.N. Security Council action."

"As such, it is a tactic that will fail," spokesman Scott McClellan said in the statement.

"This is not a matter of inspections. It is about disarmament of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and the Iraqi regime's compliance with all other Security Council resolutions," McClellan said in Washington.

Another White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the letter did not surprise the administration, because of a historical pattern of such 11th-hour communiques and because Bush administration officials had prior indications that Iraq was preparing it.

The administration seeks three things in a new U.N. resolution: a list of Iraqi violations of previous resolutions; steps Iraq needs to take to comply; and consequences Iraq will face if it does not comply.

The new Iraqi offer meets none of the administration's demands, and U.S. officials see no reason to budge from its position, this official said. A second senior official described White House's attitude toward the letter as "very, very dismissive."

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein waited just four days to notify U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan that he will allow unfettered inspections.

Saddam made the offer just as consultations over the wording of a new U.N. Security Council resolution were in the initial stages.

The letter, released early Monday evening, is certain to be seized on by countries opposed to any move by the Security Council to give the United States the green light to depose Saddam militarily if he attempts to limit inspections.

France, in particular, believes the focus of the international community should be on disarmament, not regime change, a point underscored Monday by French Foreign Dominique de Villespin during a luncheon with reporters.

As analysts see it, the letter will have an impact on the coming debate over the wording of the resolution. The Bush administration will attempt to convince fellow Security Council members that nothing has changed.

Officials are still demanding a decree from the United Nations that would make plain that the organization will enforce the 16 resolutions Saddam has broken, McClellan said. The statement did not mention the White House's previous insistence that Iraq allow inspectors to go anywhere in the country, at any time.

It demanded a "new, effective U.N. Security Council resolution that will actually deal with the threat Saddam Hussein poses to the Iraqi people, to the region and to the world."

Secretary of State Colin Powell said the U.N. Security Council is moving toward the U.S. position on Iraq, but France objected strongly to the Bush administration's insistence that Saddam must go.

A senior U.S. official accompanying Powell said the Iraqi inspections letter was flawed partly because it did not include "a promise to disclose or a disclosure of all of Iraq's prohibited weapons programs."

Annan credited President Bush for the Iraqi reversal of policy. He said the president has "galvanized the international community" with his speech last Thursday.

In rejecting the U.S. goal of ousting Saddam, de Villespin said, "We have one goal, which is the fight against proliferation" of weapons of mass destruction.

"There has been talk about working for regime change," de Villespin said. "This is not included in the mandate of the United Nations. If we begin discussing it, where will it end? It's a totally different process."

The goal of removing Saddam from power was adopted during President Clinton's tenure, and President Bush, pursuing the objective, is threatening to use force to achieve it. The U.S. policy is that disarmament in Iraq, as ordered by U.N. Security Council resolutions, will not be possible so long as Saddam remains in power, with or without renewed U.N. inspections.

Powell met Monday with delegates from several Security Council countries, including Britain, Colombia, Mexico and Syria.

At Dubuque, Iowa, Bush pressed his case for deposing Saddam. Outside the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds, he called the Iraqi a "tyrant [who] must be dealt with." About 100 demonstrators held signs that read, "Drop Bush Not Bombs" and "Please No War in Iraq."

"If Iraq's regime continues to defy us and the world, [the United States] will move deliberately yet decisively to hold Iraq to account," with or without the United Nations, Bush said.