In an upbeat preview of his report on Iraq, the chief U.N. inspector said Baghdad is now cooperating "a great deal more" in providing evidence about its weapons programs and he would welcome more time for inspections.

But with 230,000 U.S. troops in the region preparing for a possible war against Iraq, Hans Blix told a news conference Wednesday he's made contingency plans to evacuate the inspectors if necessary within 48 hours.

Nonetheless, Blix painted a far more positive picture of Iraq's recent compliance than he did in his last report to the council. His comments Wednesday were a preview of the crucial report he will give to the Security Council on Friday.

His assessment was in sharp contrast to Secretary of State Colin Powell's.

Powell on Wednesday called inspections futile and said Iraq's "too-little, too-late gestures are meant not just to deceive and delay action by the international community" but rather to create divisions.

In a press conference that lasted more than an hour, Blix lamented it was only under intense military pressure in the last month or so that Iraq has become "active, even proactive" in addressing disarmament issues.

He expressed hope that it wasn't too late to avoid war.

"There is a great deal more of cooperation now. The threat certainly has brought it there. I hope it's not too late," he said.

"If war breaks out, of course, I think that it is a serious failure for the approach through inspection to disarmament," he said. "The shadow falls upon us, upon the U.N. system and the Security Council, and divisions may follow from this."

Blix sidestepped a question on whether Saddam still poses a danger to the world because of his weapons of mass destruction -- an issue for some council members.

But he said "everyone agrees that (the Iraqis) have a much, much smaller ... capability than they had in 1991" when they were routed from Kuwait by a U.S.-led coalition force.

With the Security Council bitterly divided, Britain is exploring the idea of giving Saddam a short deadline to completely disarm as a possible compromise to get the council to agree to a resolution authorizing a war against Iraq, council diplomats said late Wednesday.

Blix said he would welcome the continuation of U.N. inspections for some "more months" and mapped out plans well into the summer. But he reiterated that he will not ask the council to let his teams keep doing their work in disarming Iraq's weapons of mass destruction -- because that's a decision for the council.

In a written report to the council last Friday, Blix said Baghdad's disarmament efforts had been "very limited so far." But since that report was written early last week, he said Iraq has made greater efforts "and I think that responds to some demands in the Security Council that Iraq should be active, and we should verify."

The crushing of some of Iraq's Al Samoud 2 missiles, which began Saturday, "is the most spectacular and the most important and tangible" evidence of "real disarmament," he said. "Here weapons that can be used in war are being destroyed in fairly large quantities."

He said Powell had not given inspectors any evidence about new U.S. claims that Iraq plans to clandestinely continue production of Al Samoud 2 missiles.

Blix said he is still planning to present the Security Council with a list of key remaining disarmament tasks that Iraq must answer by March 27, a requirement under the December 1999 U.N. resolution that established his inspection commission.

As a prelude, he said he will give council members a memo Friday on 29 key areas related to Iraq's weapons programs where there are still outstanding questions. The most important tasks that Iraq must complete will be culled from this list.