Britain and France want to turn the U.N. inspection force that worked in Iraq before the war into a permanent agency authorized to investigate biological weapons and missile programs worldwide, The Associated Press has learned.

The United States opposes the idea, diplomats and U.N. officials said, putting Washington at odds with its wartime ally Britain and in the same camp as Pakistan and Syria — Security Council (search) members whose suspect weapons programs have caused international concern.

For the Bush administration, support for the secret initiative could prove embarrassing after it criticized U.N. inspectors for failing to find the same illicit Iraqi weapons the U.S. search hasn't come up with yet.

But a formal rejection could also be awkward since the initiative is based on a recognition that one of Washington's biggest fears — that weapons of mass destruction could get into the wrong hands — is a prime concern for the United Nations as well.

For most of the council and the European Union, saving the agency known as UNMOVIC (search) and returning it to Iraq is an acknowledgment that inspections work.

Britain's position has always been to get the inspectors back into Iraq. Not so for the United States.

"The coalition has taken on the responsibility for inspections and the search" for weapons in Iraq, U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte has said.

Noting that the Security Council is bound by a resolution to discuss UNMOVIC's future regarding Iraq, Negroponte said this summer: "We haven't ruled anything in or ruled anything out at this particular time."

American officials said the United States won't formally discuss UNMOVIC until after the U.S. weapons search in Iraq is complete. That could leave the U.N. agency in limbo until June, when David Kay, the CIA's man leading the hunt, is expected to finish his work.

Members of UNMOVIC, the outgrowth of an inspections process created after the 1991 Gulf War, are considered the only weapons experts specifically trained in biological weapons and missile disarmament. They also investigated Iraq's chemical weapons programs, but international chemical inspections are done by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (search), based at The Hague, Netherlands.

Britain and France, with help from Russia, Canada and the European Union, are working on a way to turn UNMOVIC into an international inspection team for biological weapons and missiles, diplomats and U.N. officials said on condition of anonymity.

The plan would require a new Security Council resolution and Washington's support for approval. Diplomats said the matter is sensitive for the Bush administration now but they hope Washington will come around.

"We think the Iraq experience has helped Americans recognize the potential utility of having someone other than themselves do this kind of work," said one senior Western diplomat. "The costs are high, the work is hard and even Congress has said the U.N. inspectors had some better intelligence than the CIA did."

The biggest challenge would be financing. UNMOVIC's operations were funded by Iraqi oil money. The agency had budgeted $80 million for one year of inspections. The Bush administration asked Congress in October for $600 million to cover up to eight more months of weapons searches.

Details of the initiative were discussed during an Oct. 23 meeting of the U.N.'s disarmament committee and are loosely based on a June declaration by the European Union on weapons of mass destruction.

Carlo Trezza, the Italian representative who addressed the committee on behalf of the EU, said Europe backed the idea of inspections, "especially making use of" UNMOVIC.

Elisabet Borsiin Bonnier of Sweden said events of the past year had demonstrated the need for better global monitoring and she called on UNMOVIC to step up to the task for missiles and biological weapons.

"Its legitimacy and expertise would make it an ideal player to counter the threat of states refusing to comply with international disarmament and nonproliferation treaties," she said.

She suggested UNMOVIC be made a permanent section of the United Nations Secretariat, or an organ of the Security Council.

According to a transcript of the meeting, Robert L. Luaces, the U.S. representative, didn't engage in the discussion about UNMOVIC.

Some countries, including Britain, have suggested a possible name change and relocating UNMOVIC — which stands for U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission — from New York to Vienna, where U.N. nuclear inspectors are based.

The United States blocked UNMOVIC and the International Atomic Energy Agency from taking part in the U.S.-led weapons hunt in Iraq and has refused to share information with U.N. inspectors despite Security Council resolutions, written by the Bush administration, ordering it to do so.

At the start of the war, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he expected UNMOVIC to return to Iraq, saying the agency still had a mandate to complete. Security Council members, particularly Russia and France, expressed reservations over a U.S.-led disarmament effort, saying it was up to UNMOVIC to determine whether Iraq had weapons or had been disarmed.

Pakistan and Syria, in opposing the idea, argue that UNMOVIC was created to deal with Iraq and that it should now be disbanded.

The United States accuses Syria of pursuing the development and production of biological and chemical weapons.

Pakistan went nuclear in 1998 when it conducted an atomic test. Its scientists and researchers have long been suspected of aiding other countries such as North Korea and Iran in developing atomic weapons.

In the early 1990s, U.N. inspectors uncovered hidden nuclear and biological weapons programs in Iraq but found virtually nothing new after 1996. Two years later, Baghdad insisted it no longer had any weapons, accused the United States of using inspections to spy on the country and Saddam Hussein banned inspectors from continuing their working.

In September 2002, after President Bush called on the United Nations to get tough with Iraq, Saddam agree to let the inspectors return. They worked for nearly four months but found no evidence of any of the weapons the Bush administration said it went to war to destroy.