As U.N. deliberations on Iraq dragged on, Secretary of State Colin Powell declared Wednesday the United States would not permit itself to be "handcuffed" by the world organization.

"At no time will the United States foreclose its ability to act in its interest in accordance with its constitutional obligation to protect the nation and protect the people," Powell said.

With diplomats in New York still unable to reach a consensus on how to deal with Iraq's refusal to disarm, the Bush administration is bracing for further delay and expecting no agreement before next week's congressional elections.

France's resistance to a provision in a U.S.-British draft resolution that could trigger an attack on Iraq if it defies U.N. weapons inspectors is the biggest hurdle to an agreement, a U.S. official said Wednesday.

The United States and Britain, with a scattering of support from other nations, want to threaten Iraq with "serious consequences" if it does not cooperate with inspectors.

Powell said the United States was agreeable to holding talks in the Security Council as soon as inspectors encounter resistance from President Saddam Hussein.

But at any point along the way, President Bush retains the authority to use force against Iraq, Powell made plain in a joint news conference at the State Department with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.

"There is nothing that we would propose in this resolution or we would find acceptable in a resolution that would handcuff the president of the United States in doing what he feels he must do," Powell said.

Condoleezza Rice, Bush's assistant for national security, also said "we'll not be handcuffed" by whatever decision the Security Council might make.

The United States is "determined to take action" if Saddam does not comply with U.N. resolutions, she said in an interview with Scott Hennen of KCNN in Grand Forks, N.D.

Raising hopes of an accord, Powell said he believed that "with a little more hard work on the part of all concerned we can find a way to accommodate the interests of our friends without in any way ... handcuffing the United States."

Fischer, whose government begins a two-year term on the Security Council in January, endorsed the need for "a strong message to the regime in Baghdad."

But, he said, "there is a disagreement about possible military action."

Earlier, Powell tried his powers of persuasion on the telephone with Foreign Ministers Dominique de Villepin of France and Igor Ivanov of Russia, whose governments want to defer any threatening of Iraq until a new round of inspections is conducted.

He also talked to British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, his closest ally in the hard-fought diplomatic campaign.

Bush met at the White House with chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Blix and ElBaradei met also with Vice President Dick Cheney, Rice and Powell.

"I think everybody agrees there is a need for an effective regime," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

Upon his return to New York, Blix said Bush had assured him and ElBaradei of their full support and wanted to make sure "there is no cat-and-mouse game" with Iraq if inspections are resumed after a four-year lapse.

Powell, in an interview on National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation, revised recent estimates that debate on the resolution is likely to be concluded by early next week.

His current assessment is "this will break one way or another" — with agreement on the U.S.-British draft or with the Security Council taking up rival resolutions as well — "towards the end of next week."

Powell said he would be surprised if the negotiations, now in their seventh week, were extended to the week after next.

Congressional elections will be held next Tuesday. If the Security Council has not reached a decision by then, Bush is unlikely to announce a decision on the explosive issue of going to war with Iraq until after the returns are in.

Powell challenged the notion that Europe is opposed to the Bush administration's determination to threaten Iraq with force if it continues to obstruct U.N. weapons inspectors and does not get rid of its weapons of mass destruction.

Britain, Italy, Spain and "a number of the Benelux countries" support the United States, he said. Powell did not identify which of the three Benelux countries — Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg — were lined up.