US plans for an imminent invasion of Iraq suffered severe blows when European states led by France, warned they would run interference in the UN and NATO.
Iraqi officials meanwhile tried to avert war by handing over key documents about its weapons programs to UN officials on Sunday.
Germany announced that it and France were working on a proposal to be put to the UN Security Council on Friday that would call for UN peacekeepers to be deployed in Iraq, the number of UN inspectors there to be tripled, and the entire country to be made a no-fly zone.
EUROPEAN PEACE MOVES ANGERS US
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder answer journalists' questions following their talks in Berlin, February 9, 2003. Schroeder and Putin said on Sunday they hoped Iraq could be disarmed peacefully, with Putin saying France, Germany, Russia and China were broadly agreed on Iraq. A European proposal to increase the number of weapon inspectors and send in a UN peacekeeper force would greatly complicate US plans for a unilateral attack on Iraq. REUTERS/Alexandra Winkler
Belgium, which also backs the plan, shot down US hopes of using NATO to immediately bolster defenses in Turkey -- a planned launching pad for part of its invading force into neighboring Iraq -- by saying it and France would block military assistance.
In Baghdad, top UN inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei were given documents on Iraqi biological, chemical and nuclear arms programs as they completed two days of talks with senior Iraqi officials, according to a UN source.
Blix said Saturday the talks had proved "useful... and substantial".
The developments undermined US efforts to rally skeptical allies for a war in the near future to forcibly disarm Iraq, with or without a new UN resolution being drafted by Britain.
They also set the scene for an acrimonious showdown between the five permanent UN Security Council members: the United States and Britain on one side, and China, France and Russia on the other.
Germany meanwhile holds the council's chair this month.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has weighed into the matter by warning the United States it must not go it alone on Iraq, but adding that, if all other options ever become exhausted "the council must face up to its responsibilities."
US President George W. Bush has stated that the world body risks becoming "irrelevant" if it refuses to back his plans to rid Iraq of alleged weapons of mass destruction through force.
Bush again accused Iraqi President Saddam Hussein of having ties to al-Qaeda and of posing a threat to the United States and the world.
"The United States, along with a growing coalition of nations, will take whatever action is necessary to defend ourselves and disarm the Iraqi regime," he said in a weekly radio address.
But, when US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld lobbied European states to join that coalition at a security conference in Munich on Saturday, he was brought up short on learning of the reported Franco-German initiative.
Rumsfeld tried to corner his German counterpart Peter Struck on the matter but was brushed off, according to a senior US official, who added: "This is not the way to have a winning hand with the United States."
Struck said Russian President Vladimir Putin would discuss the plan for a UN peacekeeping presence in Iraq during visits to Berlin and Paris that began Sunday.
He added that Germany was ready to participate in a UN peacekeeping force.
"We hope this initiative will be favorably received by the UN Security Council on February 14," he said in a television interview on the sidelines of the Munich conference.
February 14 is also the date Blix and ElBaradei are scheduled to give their next update on the inspections' progress to the UN Security Council.
The German news magazine Der Spiegel said Russia and China had received an outline of the Franco-German plan, as had the current rotating president of the European Union, Greece.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said in Munich his country could back the proposal and suggested Russian arms experts may be contributed.
"If the UN Security Council supports this idea, I have almost no doubt that Russia would agree with this proposal," Ivanov said.
At the same time, Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel said his country would use its veto power in NATO to block a US request for the military alliance to send men and equipment to defend Turkey.
Speaking on Belgian television, he said a letter would be sent to NATO Secretary General George Robertson by Monday informing him of the decision.
"We are in the process, with France and also, I think, Germany, to write this letter to again exercise our right of veto," Michel said.
Although NATO members are obliged to protect each other in case of attack, Belgium, France, Germany and Luxembourg contend activating that provision right now would simply support US war efforts and preempt a conflict before diplomacy had failed.
Turkey, NATO's only Muslim member, has come under intense pressure from Washington to host tens of thousands of US troops with a view to opening a northern front on Baghdad for an invasion.
A parliamentary debate in Ankara is due to decide whether to meet the US demand, despite overwhelming public opposition.
The United States and Britain have accelerated their flow of troops and fighting machines to the Gulf in preparation on an early war.
The Pentagon announced it has started to lease US civilian passenger and cargo aircraft to ferry soldiers and materiel to the region, while Britain said it had increased its deployment to 42,000 troops.
More than 110,000 US military personnel are already within striking distance of Iraq. Many of them are in Kuwait, taking over two-thirds of the country.
Australia has also joined the growing force, sending 2,000 soldiers and a squadron of F-18 fighters.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard was in Washington Sunday to meet US President George W. Bush and reaffirm his support, despite opposition at home that has earned him an unprecedented censure in the Australian senate.
Britain's Sunday Telegraph newspaper said Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were drawing up their own UN resolution that would give Saddam as little as 48 hours to flee Baghdad or face war.
But a Downing Street spokeswoman downplayed the report, saying: "It is far too early to be talking about that sort of thing.
"We are where we are and we need to let the inspectors get on with what they are doing before we start going down the road of what a resolution would look like."
The rival Franco-German and British resolutions at the UN laid bare Europe's fractured stance on Iraq.
Although most EU members have stated they would need a clear UN resolution to support a war, Britain, Spain, Italy and many eastern European countries have sided with Washington, dividing the continent.
© 2003 AFP