WASHINGTON - United Nations inspectors reported yesterday that Iraq was slightly improving its cooperation in their search for weapons of mass destruction, giving France, Russia and Germany new energy in their demands for more time for inspections and forcing the United States to back away from seeking a new U.N. resolution authorizing war.
In a much anticipated report, Hans Blix, one of two chief U.N. inspectors, told the Security Council that Iraq still had not offered information on the whereabouts of large missing stocks of chemical and biological agents, and he said experts had confirmed that Iraq had produced missiles exceeding the range permitted since the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
But he avoided repeating his indictment of Jan. 27 that Iraq had not come to accept the need to disarm.
In addition, he said that Iraq had allowed three private interviews with scientists that "proved informative," was permitting aerial surveillance during inspections and issued a decree yesterday banning nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
Blix also raised questions about charges leveled last week by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell that Iraq had moved suspicious material in advance of inspections.
"In no case have we seen convincing evidence that the Iraqi side knew in advance that the inspectors were coming," Blix said.
Of satellite photos that Powell offered as evidence the Iraqis sanitized a chemical-weapons storage site, Blix said changes "could just as easily have been a routine activity as a movement of proscribed munitions."
Blix's report was an unexpected brake on U.S.-led efforts to topple Saddam Hussein's regime and destroy Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction.
President Bush's national security adviser Condoleezza Rice had met Tuesday with Blix in an apparent attempt to influence him.
Powell and the foreign ministers of all the major countries on the Security Council attended the council session.
But instead of speeding the momentum for war, Blix offered the United States few new arguments to sway a majority of the Security Council that opposes military action.
Veto-wielding members France, Russia and China responded to his report with strong calls for a continuation of the inspections indefinitely.
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin drew rare applause in the chamber when he warned of the perils of war and asserted that in disarming Iraq, "no one can claim that the path of war is shorter" than inspections.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said inspections were "moving in the right direction."
"The inspectors must continue their inspections," Ivanov said. "Force can be resorted to, but only after all other remedies have been exhausted.
"As can be seen from the discussion today, we have not yet reached that point."
Powell, discarding his prepared remarks, responded that the inspectors and his colleagues on the council were misinterpreting Iraq's actions.
"These are all tricks that are being played on us," he said. "These are not responsible actions on the part of Iraq. These are continued efforts to deceive, to deny, to divert, to throw us off the path."
Blix's evenhanded statement came as a sobering jolt to the administration, raising new doubts whether the United States will be able to gain broad Security Council support for going to war.
It will likely accelerate debate in the administration over whether to continue working through the United Nations or, as Bush has threatened, assembling a "coalition of the willing" to invade Iraq independent of the United Nations.
"We have to make some very difficult decisions," an administration official said last night.
For the moment, Blix's report caused an abrupt change in the rhetoric after weeks of escalating war threats from the president and others.
Just hours after TV cameras showed Pentagon and military chiefs at the White House, Powell said in New York that plans to seek a new U.N. resolution authorizing force were on hold.
"I will go back to Washington and consult with my colleagues and the president and make another judgment in the not-too-distant future," Powell told reporters.
"There's still a chance for peace," he told a CNN interviewer, but added, "We will not realize that peace if we ever back off on the pressure, if we ever make it look like we do not have the will to take this to conflict if necessary to disarm Iraq."
He stuck to the president's timetable of "weeks" to resolve the crisis one way or another.
Nine days after declaring inspections virtually hopeless, Powell held out the possibility that the inspections process could be salvaged by ensuring that interviews with Iraqi scientists are conducted without tape recorders or Iraqi eavesdropping devices.
But Powell and White House spokesman Ari Fleischer seized on Iraq's failure to account for chemical and biological weapons stocks as evidence that Iraq was still failing to comply with U.N. mandates.
Powell said the new signs of cooperation reported by Blix amounted to mere process and warned the Security Council not to be swayed.
On Blix's comment about the satellite photo, Powell said he had "quite a bit of information" that the site was a chemical storage facility that had been sanitized by the Iraqis.
Mohamed ElBaradei, who as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency is in charge of monitoring Iraq's nuclear programs, said he still had questions about whether aluminum rods, high explosives and magnets purchased abroad by Iraq were intended for use in nuclear weapons.
Likewise, he said the agency is still investigating Iraq's alleged imports of uranium.
But ElBaradei stressed that even without total Iraqi cooperation, IAEA inspectors could effectively monitor whether Iraq was producing nuclear weapons.
The missile violation mentioned by Blix had previously been reported unofficially and did not appear in itself to be grounds for war because Iraq had disclosed the information that led to Blix's conclusion.
Six independent experts brought in by Blix found that the Al Samoud 2 missile exceeds the 90-mile limit imposed by a 1991 U.N. resolution.