UNITED NATIONS – France, hoping to provide the U.N. Security Council with an alternative to imminent military action against Iraq, is circulating a plan that calls for extended and more aggressive weapons inspections.
The move marks another step toward what is shaping up as a showdown on Friday among Security Council nations -- between those in favor of extending inspections, which include France, Russia and Germany, and those pushing for disarmament of Iraq by force, namely, the United States and Great Britain.
The United States is expected to seek U.N. authorization to go to war against Iraq, and council diplomats said Britain might introduce a second similar resolution as early as Friday. But London and Washington may also decide to wait, the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The crisis with Iraq has already brought the world's most powerful diplomats to the Security Council twice this year, and the foreign ministers of China, France and Russia are all planning to return again Friday to hear a crucial report from the chief weapons inspectors that will likely set the tone for a heated debate about war.
It was not clear whether Secretary of State Colin Powell would attend the meeting.
France, China and Russia have all said they want to see Iraq disarmed peacefully through inspections. The United States and Britain say Saddam Hussein has failed to cooperate with the process and must be disarmed by force, if necessary.
In Paris, the French foreign ministry said Dominique de Villepin was expected to attend Friday's meeting. Russian news agencies said Igor Ivanov would also attend. And in Beijing, the Xinhua news agency said Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan would attend the Feb. 14 meeting to set forth China's position on Iraq.
In Berlin, officials said German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer was expected to attend Friday's Security Council session.
The high-level attendance comes as France, backed by Russia and Germany, went on the offensive against the United States, unveiling its plan to strengthen weapons inspections to counter the expected U.S. push for military action.
In the policy paper distributed to council members, France said it intends to implement its proposals to strengthen inspections in close consultation with U.N. inspectors. It did not call for any kind of U.N. force to accompany inspectors -- so a new resolution would not be needed.
The French plan calls for an immediate doubling of the number of inspectors, and a quick tripling to make inspections more targeted and intrusive, thereby increasing their effectiveness. There are currently about 110 inspectors examining Iraq's chemical, biological and long-range missile programs, and nine nuclear inspectors.
France also called for significant reinforcement of security units, presumably U.N. security officers, to monitor suspicious sites. France also seeks more Arabic translators and mobile customs teams and stepped up aerial surveillance.
"Our approach is based on the need to compel Iraq to cooperate by taking the peaceful approach of intrusive inspections," the paper said.
France said U.N. inspectors should draw up a complete list of unresolved disarmament issues in order of importance, and set a time frame to find the answers.
"It is important to push the Iraqis up against a wall and not leave them any way out regarding the questions which they must answer and on which really active cooperation is expected," the paper said. "Such an exercise would also be useful in evaluating the nature of the threat Iraq represents."
Russia, Germany and other council members support stepped-up inspections. But Richard Grenell, spokesman for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, dismissed the French proposal for more inspectors.
"If the Iraqis would cooperate with the Security Council's latest resolution, then that's exactly what we would have -- tougher inspections," he said.
Blix said the number of inspectors could be increased "but it still remains vital that you have ... good cooperation from the Iraqis on substance."
He urged two Iraqi commissions searching for banned weapons material and new documents to "produce results" before he reports to the Security Council on Friday.
"We are of the view that they need to work very fast, very prompt, to come forward and put matters on the table to be helpful," he told reporters after briefing Australian Prime Minister John Howard on his weekend trip to Baghdad.
Blix also discussed his Baghdad trip during an hour-long meeting Tuesday with U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice at the U.S. Mission.
The two inspection chiefs have said their Baghdad trip produced the beginning of a change in Iraq's attitude -- but no breakthrough. "There is some cooperation on substance but I'd like to have more," Blix said Tuesday.
Asked what he would like to see Iraq do before Friday's report to the council, Blix said: "I hope these commissions will produce results very promptly. That will be helpful."
In Baghdad over the weekend, the Iraqis gave the chief inspectors documents said to clarify lingering questions about 1980s chemical and biological weapons.
Blix said there were some "interesting" results that he would report to the council on Friday. Iraq also provided "some more focused explanations on central issues" like VX nerve agent and anthrax, and handed over "one original document," he said.
The Iraqis have accepted three types of surveillance flights -- by American U-2 aircraft, French Mirages, and Russian planes, Blix said.
But a U.S. official said the Iraqis have imposed unacceptable conditions on U-2 flights -- demanding the time and point of entry of all flights, their speed and the plane's call signal to ensure communication with the pilot when necessary.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.