Senior Bush administration officials spoke dismissively Wednesday of European calls for more and better weapons inspections to disarm Iraq at the same time the Pentagon took new steps toward war.

"More inspectors aren't the issue. ... The issue is lack of Iraqi compliance," Secretary of State Colin Powell told Congress. He said he intends to press French and German diplomats on whether their proposals amounted to "delaying for the sake of delaying in order to get Saddam Hussein off the hook and no disarmament."

President Bush consulted with Spanish Prime Minister and close ally Jose Maria Aznar on the looming showdown with Saddam and provided a personal briefing for senior lawmakers. Later he declared, "Because of the resolve of the United States, the world will be more peaceful and the world will be more free."

Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, confirmed that discussions had begun at the United Nations over the wording of a new resolution to enforce the one approved last fall ordering Saddam's disarmament. "I don't think it's going to be a complicated matter," Fleischer said. "It still remains somewhat early in U.N. time, but it won't be early in U.N. time for very long."

At the Pentagon, officials said the military dumped another half million leaflets over southern Iraq during the day as part of a psychological warfare campaign. One leaflet showed allied warplanes bombing military tanks outside a mosque, warning civilians to "avoid areas occupied by military personnel."

Additionally, officials said the Pentagon had activated 38,600 National Guardsmen and reservists in the past week, by far the largest such call-up since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

With all the signs of war, about 30 poets took turns reading anti-war verse in front of the White House during the day, part of what organizers said was a nationwide campaign to discourage hostilities.

In Iraq, United Nations chemical weapons experts set out to destroy their first batch of banned Iraqi armaments -- 10 leftover artillery shells filled with burning, disabling mustard gas. Officials said it would take four or five days to eliminate the 155 mm mustard gas-filled shells.

The U.N. specialists worked alongside a team of Iraqis -- the sort of show of cooperation by Baghdad that administration officials have repeatedly dismissed as a charade.

At the same time, international missile experts found that an Iraqi missile exceeds the maximum 93-mile range allowed under U.N. resolutions, U.S. and Russian officials said Wednesday.

U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte said it was up to chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix to recommend what to do about the violation.

There were fresh signs of diplomatic stress as the United States sought to prod other governments to swing behind military action.

France, Germany and Belgium rejected a scaled-down U.S. proposal for NATO preparations in case of war in Iraq, prolonging the alliance's worst internal crisis since the end of the Cold War. Officials for the three countries say they don't want to approve any actions that could undercut efforts to settle the dispute peacefully.

A key portion of the dispute centers on a request from Turkey for assistance in the event of war against Iraq -- protection that the United States has said Turkey will receive whether or not the alliance approves.

Also, despite the dispute at NATO, French President Jacques Chirac's spokeswoman said the leader had told his Turkish counterpart by phone that Paris "would assume its obligations if Turkey were really threatened."

In the Persian Gulf region, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain became the first Arab states to announce they were sending troops and weapons to defend Kuwait against a possible Iraqi attack.

In his appearance before Congress, Powell said he believed it was still possible to "rally the international community" to back up the threat of an earlier United Nations Security Council resolution to use force to disarm Iraq.

But he said the "moment of truth" was approaching, and that the United States was prepared to lead a coalition against Saddam, whether or not the United Nations approved.

The next diplomatic checkpoint at the United Nations is set for Friday, when weapons inspectors Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei are to present a fresh report on Iraqi compliance with international disarmament demands.

The 15 council members will have a chance to discuss the report first at the open meeting, and then in a closed session, said Germany's U.N. Ambassador Gunter Pleuger, the current council president.

On Feb. 18, the council will hold another open meeting to give U.N. member nations who aren't on the council an opportunity to present their views on Iraq, Pleuger said.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Powell would spend the day in New York, and that among the ministers on hand would be Dominique de Villepin of France, Joschka Fischer of Germany and Tang Jiaxuan of China, all of whose governments oppose conflict with Iraq.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in France, reiterated his opposition to using force to ensure that Iraq is rid of weapons of mass destruction, and he repeated a warning made Tuesday that Russia could use its veto in the Security Council to oppose such action.

"We have used this right in the past. We will use it again," Russia's Interfax news agency quoted Putin as saying.

France, Germany and Russia unveiled a plan this week to triple nuclear inspectors in Iraq from the current level of about 110, add surveillance aircraft to the effort and take other steps to bolster the inspection efforts in an attempt to forestall war.

Powell's skepticism about more inspectors was echoed at the Pentagon, where Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said, "I can't quite imagine" what the purpose would be.