In a surprise move, Russia and France began circulating proposals to significantly water down a U.S. draft resolution on Iraq, removing language some say could authorize military force against Baghdad and limiting inspections on presidential sites, diplomats told The Associated Press on Friday.

Both Russia and France had strongly opposed elements in the U.S. draft and six weeks of negotiations failed to win them over.

The introduction of rival proposals was seen as the opening salvo in a new round of negotiations, which diplomats said are likely to continue into next week.

The United States countered by formally submitting its text to the Security Council to ensure it was the basis for discussions. The French and Russian proposals could also be introduced, but the U.S. move meant its resolution would likely be voted on first.

The Russia text was more stridently opposed to the U.S. draft resolution, while diplomats close to the negotiations said the French paper tried to bridge the American and Russian drafts in an effort to reach consensus within the Security Council.

"I think it shows that they're genuinely trying to conduct a negotiation," said Britain's U.N. Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock, whose country is a co-sponsor of the U.S. draft resolution.

"But I think they need to realize that the United States and the United Kingdom are pretty firm about what they want to see in the text," he said.

Both the Russian and French texts eliminate references in the U.S. draft to Iraq being in "material breach" for violating U.N. resolutions, a phrase some legal experts said could lead to military action. The Russian text also gets rid of a U.S. warning of "serious consequences" if Iraq doesn't comply with U.N. weapons inspections.

"The whole thrust of the [U.S.] concept is anti-Iraqi and aimed at possible military action against Iraq in case of any omissions or misunderstandings," said Russia's deputy U.N. ambassador Gennady Gatilov. "We did this just to illustrate that there are some other ideas about how we can deal with the Iraqi situation, and what we can do in order to send the inspectors back on the ground as soon as possible."

The competing drafts were circulated to Security Council members ahead of a new round of discussions at a closed council meeting Friday on the U.S. text. Council diplomats said the United States intended to collect views from the 15 members and then look at the next steps, not negotiate.

Colombia's U.N. Ambassador Alfonso Valdivieso, an elected council member who favors one "very tough" resolution, said the rival proposals show there are still issues to be decided.

The issue of a new resolution has been at the United Nations since President Bush addressed the General Assembly on Sept. 12 and warned that if the Security Council didn't act decisively to disarm Saddam Hussein, the United States would take action on its own. A few days later, Iraq announced that it would allow U.N. weapons inspectors to return after nearly four years.

The United States put forth its draft Wednesday after six weeks of negotiations and sought speedy approval. It would toughen inspections and warn Iraq of "serious consequences."

Russia and France favor a two-stage approach that would give Iraq a chance to cooperate, and only authorize force in a second resolution if Baghdad obstructed inspections.

Among the five veto-wielding members of the Security Council, Russia appears to be the biggest obstacle. France, the most vocal opponent of earlier U.S. drafts, was ready to work for council unity and wouldn't block the resolution's passage, French diplomats said.

"In the current text there are some ambiguities," a French official said Friday in the margins of a European Union summit in Brussels. "Both war and peace can be triggered by ambiguities."

Russia on Thursday warned that putting the resolution to a quick vote would be counterproductive. Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Yuri Fedotov reiterated that the latest draft contains provisions which are "impossible to implement" and could "thwart" the work of inspectors.

U.S. officials said the real threat was inaction.

"The real hidden trigger is the absence of a resolution," said Richard Grenell, spokesman for U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, also said that if there is no resolution, there is no other option but military action.

While the focus thus far has been on the debate between the five veto-wielding members, the 10 elected council members also are important because to be adopted, a resolution must receive nine "yes" votes and no veto by a permanent member.

"I think everybody feels that it needs some work," said Jagdish Koonjul, the U.N. Ambassador from the tiny Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. "We'll try to build consensus around some language that would be acceptable to everyone. ... We are trying to build bridges rather than break them."

The elected 10 were given copies of the new French bridging proposal ahead of Friday's council meeting, diplomats said.

The council asked chief weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohammed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency to brief members on Monday to hear their views on the U.S. text.

In Lebanon, Arab justice ministers on Friday condemned U.S. threats to use force against Iraq, saying the Baghdad government has agreed to allow U.N. inspectors into the country.