The Anglo-American alliance took on Continental Europe Thursday, as the top U.S. and British diplomats met to plot strategy against newly resuscitated French and German opposition to moving forward against Iraq.

After their meeting at the State Department, Secretary of State Colin Powell and his British counterpart, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, were to rendezvous with Vice President Dick Cheney for more discussions.

France on Monday announced that it might use its Security Council veto to kill any resolution authorizing immediate war against Iraq.

Germany, a member of the council for the next two years, quickly followed with a declaration that it opposed military action of any sort, U.N.-sanctioned or not.

In a rare undiplomatic moment of candor, Powell on Wednesday questioned whether France and Germany took the Iraqi threat seriously.

"There are those who feel that if the inspectors just had more time, they would find everything," the secretary of state said on PBS' NewsHour With Jim Lehrer. "But frankly, Jim, there are some nations in the world who would like to simply turn away from this problem, pretend it isn't there."

The United States and Britain maintain that Iraq is developing nuclear, biological and chemical weapons in defiance of U.N. resolutions passed after the Gulf War of 1991 and must be disarmed, either by diplomacy or by force, before its arms programs are completed.

Many other nations take the position that while Saddam Hussein's government may be a local irritant, it is not a global menace.

"We cannot let [Iraq] stretch this game out until the world loses interest in this issue," Powell told Lehrer. "The United States will not lose interest in this issue."

The crux of French opposition lies in the timetable of weapons inspections. Since the U.N. monitors returned to Iraq in November, they have issued two interim reports on their progress, and plan to give the Security Council a third on Jan. 27.

The United States says that third report should be enough to establish that Iraq is not complying with the requirements laid down by Security Council Resolution 1441, which gave the inspectors the ability to go anywhere in Iraq without notice and warned that defiance could lead to "serious consequences," diplomatic code for war.

The weapons teams themselves say the inspection process will not be complete until their final report is issued sometime in March. France supports that position and argues that no military action should take place before then.

French President Jacques Chirac on Wednesday re-emphasized this point, saying "an extra delay is necessary" for U.N. weapons inspectors to make searches.

Although the White House has argued that Resolution 1441 in itself authorizes military action, the U.S. realizes that in all likelihood another resolution would be necessary for Security Council approval.

Last fall, France and Russia held out for eight weeks before finally supporting Resolution 1441, which was largely authored by the U.S.

Responding to a question about whether the U.S. and Britain would be willing to take on Iraq alone, Powell replied, "There will be other nations that will be joining us, whether part of a U.N.-approved action under a second resolution, or [not]. ... It will not just be the United States and the United Kingdom."

As for Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's united opposition to moving forward at this time, Powell said, "perhaps they should wait and see what the inspectors have to say on Monday."

Meanwhile, NATO has postponed its planning for a possible war in Iraq under pressure from Germany and France.

However, diplomats stressed that the 19 allies agreed Wednesday in principle that NATO should provide a support role should war break out, even though active planning is being delayed.

NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson on Thursday played down differences among the allies.

"This is not some sort of bust-up," Robertson told a news conference. "It is a disagreement on timing, not on substance."

Anti-war demonstrations drew tens of thousands to Washington last weekend and recent polls suggest President Bush has failed to convince most Americans there is justification for military action to topple Saddam.

More than half — 53 percent — responding to a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press said the president has not yet explained clearly what's at stake to justify war.

Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that American forces had the training and flexibility to initiate combat operations at any time.

"We're ready now," Myers said. "The Iraqi regime should have no doubt."

The enormous buildup of U.S. troops on Iraq's periphery — to exceed 150,000 within weeks — is designed not only to give Bush the option of using force to disarm and oust Saddam but also to heighten the pressure on the Iraqi leader to give up without a fight.

Myers also said, without elaboration, that "there are some indications of unrest in some of the Iraqi leadership, but just hints." He added that Saddam has not made substantial changes in the positioning or readiness of his military forces, and that lines of military authority showed no signs of fraying.

The Australian government, meanwhile, announced it was dispatching air, land and naval forces to the Gulf region.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, joining the trans-Atlantic debate over inspections, said Germany and France were "a problem," but that the vast majority of other countries in Europe backed the United States.

Rumsfeld said a war with Iraq could last "four days, four weeks or four months," and that it seemed reasonable to expect that large numbers of Iraqi troops would surrender early as they did in the 1991 Gulf War, reducing the number of battlefield casualties.

Myers, who held talks with Turkish officials in Ankara on Monday, said: "I am told the United States is impatient with Turkey. That's not the case."

Turkey and Saudi Arabia provided important support to the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

Their assistance is being solicited again.

Speaking Wednesday at a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar, declined to say whether the Arab kingdom would give similar help this time.

But, he said: "I can assure you that your government and my government are happy about the cooperation."

Asked about reports Saudi Arabia had refused to permit U.S. overflights of its territory, Bandar replied: "Do not believe what you read."

In Germany, Schroeder told a rally of his Social Democratic party Tuesday night: "Don't expect Germany to approve a resolution legitimatizing war. Don't expect it." Schroeder also said supporters of war with Iraq "are on the wrong path."

Powell said he did not see the point of further delay for more inspections.

"How much longer should inspections go on?" he asked in an interview with representatives of a group of American newspapers. "One month, two months, three months? What will be the difference if they [the Iraqis] are simply trying to get time in order to frustrate the purpose of the inspections?"

The Associated Press contributed to this report.