China refuses to say whether it supports a new draft of a U.N. Security Council resolution aimed at eliminating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. China is the only one of the five key nations on the council that has not taken a firm position.

The resolution, submitted by the United States, demands that Iraq allow unconditional inspections of its suspected programs to build weapons of mass destruction. It threatens serious consequences if Baghdad fails to comply, but does not automatically authorize military action. China remains reluctant to issue a direct comment on the draft resolution. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Liu Jianchao on Thursday repeated what Beijing has previously said about Iraq.

Mr. Liu told a news conference in Beijing that China hopes U.N. weapons inspectors will be able to return to Iraq as soon as possible to resume their work. He said the U.N. Security Council should decide on its next step after examining the results of the arms inspections.

Mr. Liu said the Chinese foreign minister has discussed Iraq with his French counterpart in a telephone call. He added that China is closely consulting with various countries about Iraq, and supports a political settlement within the framework of the United Nations. As one of the five permanent members on the Security Council, China can veto any resolution. Washington hopes China will support the proposal, or at least abstain from voting.

Russia, also a permanent member, opposes the resolution, saying it gives the United States the right to use force. France is critical of the report, saying all other means must be used to disarm Iraq first. Britain backs the U.S. draft resolution - the only permanent Security Council member to do so.

Iraq says it dismantled its programs to build biological, chemical and nuclear weapons after the Gulf War. U.N. inspectors, however, have not been able to verify that claim and have not been to Iraq for several years. The United States says Iraq has repeatedly violated U.N. resolutions barring it from having the weapons.

Many analysts think China is likely to play down differences with the United States over Iraq while a Sino-American summit is under way. Chinese President Jiang Zemin meets President Bush at his Texas ranch Friday, and Iraq is expected to be high on the agenda.