French President Jacques Chirac has laid out a scenario for a three-week deadline that could open the way to using force against Iraq, joining a growing list of leaders who say they could envisage military action against Baghdad -- with conditions attached.

Spain and the Netherlands on Monday joined other anxious allies who, while not signing on to President Bush's conviction that military action is necessary, are not closing the door.

Britain squarely backs Bush's view that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein must be ousted by force, and Italy has also shown support. Germany has categorically rejected any military action, and Russia has said it opposes the use of force.

In an interview with The New York Times published Monday, Chirac suggested a two-step plan by which the United Nations might permit the use of force -- via a Security Council resolution giving Iraq a three-week deadline to allow the return of U.N. weapons inspectors.

The inspectors must have a free hand. If that were refused, a second resolution on whether to use military force would be passed, Chirac said.

U.N. inspectors trying to determine whether Iraq possesses biological, chemical or nuclear weapons left Iraq in 1998 and have been barred from returning since.

Chirac, in the interview, was cautious about not saying whether, even then, France would join in military action. But Chirac's plan appeared to be the closest he has come to allowing for the eventual use of force, and the most outspoken he has been against Iraq's leader, calling him "especially dangerous to his own people."

"Nothing is impossible, if it is decided by the international community on the basis of indisputable proof" of the existence of weapons of mass destruction, Chirac said. "For the moment, we have neither proof nor decisions."

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who met Chirac last week, did not comment on the deadline proposal. But Annan on Monday insisted the U.N. Security Council, "which has been seized with this Iraqi issue for so long, should have something to say."

"I think it is appropriate that the Council pronounces itself on the issue," he told reporters.

In the past, France was a key Western trade partner of Iraq, and Paris jealously guarded those ties. France nevertheless joined the multinational coalition in the Gulf War against Iraq.

With Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair saying they were confident they can persuade other nations to back their Iraqi policy, Baghdad insists the two leaders are lying about alleged evidence of Iraqi weapons programs.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa urged Washington on Monday to give inspectors a chance, saying there is "a strong possibility" Iraq would let them in.

Dutch Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende said that military action was a last resort, and that Iraq should accept weapons inspectors to avert war, he told the newspaper Parool.

"Saddam Hussein is bringing destruction on himself," the Dutch leader said, adding that any proven connection to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network, could also be cause to "expand the struggle against terrorism to Iraq."

Spain, like the Netherlands and France, did not rule out the use of force in Iraq, but urged diplomatic action be stretched to the maximum.

"It's evident that the world would be better without Saddam Hussein," Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio said in an interview with Telecinco TV.

In Moscow, U.S. ambassador Alexander Vershbow said Russia's investments and economic interests in Iraq would be "better protected" if Saddam were removed.

He noted that Saddam "has not paid a single kopeck" of the billions of dollars Iraq owes Russia in Soviet-era debt.

Still, a sense of caution about an attack on Iraq prevailed among European nations.

"The stakes are very high," French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said on France-Inter radio. He pointed to possible dangers to the unity of Iraq and the security of the already fragile Middle East region.

Chirac also said that he fears the international coalition against terrorism might fall apart and that intervention without international backing would set a bad precedent.

"As soon as one nation claims the right to take preventive action, other countries will naturally do the same," the French president said. "If we go down that road, where are we going?"