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LONDON -- The angry dispute over Iraq festered in Europe on Tuesday as British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw denounced calls for expanded U.N. inspections and NATO allies again failed to agree on whether to proceed with war planning.
Straw, condemning a plan backed by France, Germany, Russia and China, said that implementing their calls for tougher weapons inspections rather than a military attack to disarm Saddam Hussein was "a recipe for procrastination and delay."
He said that even multiplying the number of inspectors by a thousand would not provide any more security for nations threatened by Iraq's chemical and biological weapons unless Hussein changes course and stops trying to hide his weapons of mass destruction.
"If Saddam bows to the U.N.'s demands and cooperates promptly, what is the need for greater numbers of inspectors?" Straw asked in a speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "But if he maintains his refusal to cooperate, how will higher numbers help? Lethal viruses can be produced within an area of the size of the average living room."
In an interview with French television, Russian President Vladimir Putin defended the proposal for stepped-up inspections.
"We are trying to find a peaceful solution to a grave international crisis and, I repeat, we will be heard," he said, adding that an attack on Iraq without U.N. support would be a "grave error."
Putin said he saw no need at present for Russia to use its veto as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. But asked if Russia would support France if it uses its veto, Putin said: "If today a proposition was made that we felt would lead to an unreasonable use of force, we would act with France or alone."
Chinese President Jiang Zemin told French President Jacques Chirac during a phone conversation that U.N. inspections were working and that it was vital to avoid war.
"The inspection in Iraq is effective and should be continued and strengthened," the Chinese government's news agency Xinhua quoted Jiang as saying. "Warfare is good for no one, and it is our responsibility to take various measures to avoid war."
The French plan calls for an immediate doubling of the number of inspectors, and a quick tripling to make inspections more targeted and intrusive. There are currently about 110 inspectors examining Iraq's chemical, biological and long-range missile programs, and nine nuclear inspectors.
France said U.N. inspectors should draw up a list of unresolved disarmament issues in order of importance, and set a time frame to find the answers.
"It is important to push the Iraqis up against a wall and not leave them any way out regarding the questions which they must answer and on which really active cooperation is expected," the paper said. "Such an exercise would also be useful in evaluating the nature of the threat Iraq represents."
On the NATO dispute, Straw criticized alliance members France, Germany and Belgium for blocking NATO plans to deploy troops and equipment to defend Turkey from a possible Iraqi attack.
He said the dispute -- one of the worst in the history of the alliance -- was eroding the effectiveness of the North Atlantic Treaty, which has been a centerpiece in European and U.S. defense policy since the conclusion of World War II.
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Tuesday that "the alliance is breaking itself up because it will not meet its responsibilities."
There were no signs that the NATO dispute would be resolved soon. Two meetings at NATO headquarters in Brussels were postponed Tuesday, and when a session was finally convened in the evening, it broke up after just 20 minutes because it was clear that divisions remained.
NATO officials said private meetings would continue overnight and a formal session would be convened this morning in another bid to end the deadlock.
Diplomats said it was possible that some sort of written compromise would be reached that would allow individual NATO nations to come to the aid of Turkey, a NATO member whose leaders have requested military help for fear of an Iraqi missile attack should war break out.
Turkish leaders say they are vulnerable because they have offered to support a U.S.-led invasion and because parts of the country are within range of Hussein's Scud missiles, which can be fitted with chemical or biological agents or with conventional warheads.
Opponents argue such military planning would set NATO on a path to war and undermine efforts for a peaceful solution. Playing down the threat to Turkey, they want to delay a decision at least until Friday's report to the Security Council from U.N. weapons inspectors on any Iraqi progress.
"Right now we do not have a conclusion," NATO spokesman Yves Brodeur said.
-- Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix met with President Bush's national securityadviser, Condoleeza Rice, to discuss the inspection process in Iraq, the Associated Press reported.
-- U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq prepared to carry out the first controlled destruction of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction: leftover artillery shells filled with mustard gas.
The 10 shells were found by a U.N. team in December at the al-Muthanna State Establishment, in the desert 40 miles northwest of Baghdad, Iraq's most important chemical weapons research and production facility in the 1980s. The shells were uncovered by earlier U.N. inspectors in the 1990s, but they failed to destroy them.
They remain the only weapons of mass destruction secured so far in Iraq by the teams of U.N. experts who began their work in November. Chemical specialists, with Iraqi counterparts, will eliminate the lethal gas-filled munitions over four or five days beginning today.
-- U.S. planes attacked a ballistic missile system in southern Iraq, the Pentagon said, in the first operation against Iraqi weapons that are meant to hit ground targets instead of aircraft or ships.
-- Canada appeared closer to joining a U.S.-led military strike on Iraq, confirming it sent military planners to join U.S. counterparts at their command post in Qatar.