A diplomatic dispute among key members of the U.N. Security Council appears to have deepened. The dispute is over whether military force should be taken against Iraq, if as expected, U.N. weapons inspectors report next week that Baghdad has failed to account for all of its banned weapons of mass destruction. The United States and Britain appear to be increasingly isolated on the Iraq issue even as they warn that time is running out for a diplomatic solution. A majority of the Security Council's five permanent members, China, Russia and France, all agree insufficient evidence exists to justify an attack on Iraq. This, in sharp contrast to the United States and Britain, two council members who have already concluded Baghdad is not cooperating with weapons inspectors. Both countries are continuing a massive military build-up in the Persian Gulf in preparation for a possible attack.

This split among Security Council members prompted U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and his visiting British counterpart Jack straw to use unusually sharp language Thursday to single out France and Germany as backing away from Security Council resolution 1441, which threatens 'serious consequences' if Baghdad fails to disarm.

"And everybody signed up to it, to include the Germans by extension at the NATO summit as Secretary Straw said. And that was clear, they [Iraq] are in material breach now. They have been in the past. They have a chance to fix the situation by disarming themselves," he said.

British Foreign Secretary Straw went even further in criticizing France. "Everybody knew, too, that serious consequences means only one thing, force. President Chirac is on record himself, as accepting that force may have to be used in order to enforce the will of the United Nations," he said.

On Monday, chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix will present a crucial report to the Security Council, expected to outline what his teams have found in hundreds of searches carried out since November, as well as how much cooperation Iraq has provided. "There are things that have gone well, like the prompt access. But there are other areas where we are not satisfied," he said.

But whether this report will convince wary U.S. allies that force is necessary is still an open question as is whether the Security Council would agree to vote on a second resolution authorizing military action or simply decide to let inspections continue. A European diplomat tells VOA Germany may now ask Hans Blix for a second report sometime in February, when Germany will hold the rotating presidency of the Security Council.

But Secretary of State Powell continues to believe the United States already has the authority to invade Iraq under existing resolutions and that other nations will ultimately agree, even if key allies do not.

"I'm quite confident that if it comes to that, we'll be joined by many nations. Many nations have already expressed a willingness to serve in a coalition of the willing," he said.

Iraq's Arab neighbors meanwhile issued a call Thursday for President Saddam Hussein to fully cooperate with weapons inspectors. The foreign ministers of six countries issued a statement after a meeting in Turkey saying the region does not want to see another war and called on Baghdad to assume its responsibilities toward disarmament.