The Iraq disarmament crisis returned to the United Nations Security Council Friday. U.N. weapons inspectors gave another mixed picture of Iraqi compliance, and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell warned against letting the inspections process be "endlessly strung out."

The focus of the council meeting was the report by chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix. It differed little from the mixed assessment of Iraqi compliance he delivered January 27 though if anything, had a less-critical tone with regard to Iraq than the previous report.

Mr. Blix said Iraq continues to cooperate on matters of process, giving access to sites of interest around the country "without problems." However he again faulted Baghdad's cooperation on substance, and said inspectors are not getting the unconditional support demanded in last November's disarmament resolution.

Among specific findings, he said two ballistic missiles being developed by Iraq appear to have ranges in excess of those permitted by U.N. resolutions. And he said many banned weapons known to have been in Iraq hands in past years have still not been accounted for.

"To take an example, a document which Iraq provided suggested to us that some 1,000 tons of chemical agent were unaccounted for. I must not jump to the conclusion that they exist. However that possibility is also not excluded. If they exist, they should be presented for destruction. If they do not exist, credible evidence to that effect should be presented.

In a companion report, International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohammed ElBaradei said no evidence of prohibited nuclear-related activities had been found to date in Iraq but that "a number" of issues were still under investigation.

The inspectors' reports were followed by sharply differing interpretations of the findings by foreign ministers of the Security Council member states including Secretary of State Colin Powell. He said Iraq has not, was not, and would not comply with U.N. disarmament demands, and that the time was fast approaching for the council to consider military action to enforce its will.

"Force should always be a last resort. I have preached this for most of my professional life as a solider and as a diplomat. But it must be a resort. We cannot allow this process to be endlessly strung out as Iraq is trying to do right now," he said. "String it out long enough and the world will start looking in other directions. The Security Council will move on. We'll get away with it again. My friends, they cannot be allowed to get away with it again."

Mr. Powell got support from British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who said only a "dramatic and immediate change" by Saddam Hussein could bring a peaceful solution to the issue.

"This will only be achieved if we, the Security Council, hold our nerve in the face of this tyrant, give meaning to our words and to the decisions which we've already collectively taken, and make ourselves ready to insure that Iraq will face the serious consequences which we all decided would have to happen if Iraq's defiance did not end," he said.

However French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said in a speech that drew applause from the spectators' gallery that the use of force is not justified at this point. Speaking through an interpreter, Mr. de Villepin urged that inspectors be given more time and that there be another ministerial-level council meeting March 14.

"The option of inspections has not been taken to the end. It can provide an effective response to the imperatives of disarming Iraq. Secondly, the use of force would be so fraught with risk for people, for the region and for international stability, that it should only be envisioned as a last resort," he said.

In response to U.S. commentators who have criticized his government for ingratitude in the current crisis, Mr. de Villepin said France knows its wartime debts to freedom-fighters from the United States and elsewhere, yet believes in its own ability to work for a better world.

The call for continued inspections and a political solution was endorsed by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, another veto-wielding council member, and by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, whose government has opposed the use of force under any circumstances:

"Military action against Iraq would, in addition to the terrible humanitarian consequences, above all endanger the stability of a tense and troubled region. The consequences for the Near and Middle East could be catastrophic," he said.

As was the case last week after Mr. Powell presented U.S. evidence on Iraqi violations, Iraq's U.N. ambassador Mohammed al-Douri was invited for a rebuttal and again denied his government has any banned weapons.

Before leaving New York, Mr. Powell said he will consult with President Bush and hold more consultations with Security Council members on the next step in the crisis, including a possible new council resolution that would amount to an ultimatum to Iraq to fully comply or face military action.

The Secretary said such a measure would be consistent with last November's resolution 1441 and provide the political support some council members are looking for.

But he reiterated the United States' willingness to lead a coalition to disarm Iraq outside the U.N. framework if necessary, and told an interviewer the fateful decisions will come in a matter of weeks.