Reports from the United Nations say Britain is proposing changes to the planned new Security Council resolution it is tabling on Iraq, to allow President Saddam Hussein a final opportunity to disarm peacefully.
Russia, France and Germany spearhead opposition to new resolution
The British initiative is part of the diplomatic manoeuvring ahead of Friday's report from chief weapons inspector Hans Blix on the progress of UN disarmament efforts in Iraq.
Mr Blix has said Iraq has co-operated more actively in the past month, but US Secretary of State Colin Powell insisted on Wednesday that Baghdad was not disarming - only trying to deceive and divide the international community.
Washington has also revealed that aircraft from the US and British forces enforcing the southern no-fly zone in Iraq have more than doubled the number of their patrols.
Pentagon planners hope that by dramatically increasing flights in this way, they will be able to mask the start of any conflict.
The British proposal would lay down a last window of opportunity amounting to a number of days rather than weeks in which Iraq would be expected to co-operate fully with UN weapons inspectors, UN sources told the BBC.
The penalty for failure on the part of Baghdad would be military intervention, they say.
This is being seen as an attempt to find a way of uniting a desperately divided Security Council that has so far shown no inclination to support military action against Iraq.
Veto powers France and Russia - alongside non-permanent Security Council member Germany - have said they will not allow the UN to pass a new resolution authorising war against Iraq.
On Thursday, a third veto-wielding country, China, extended its support to the trio.
"At this moment, it is absolutely unnecessary to put aside Resolution 1441 and introduce a new resolution," Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan told reporters.
Other non-permanent Security Council members - including Mexico, Pakistan and Chile - have indicated they would be unwilling to back a resolution calling for an immediate attack on Iraq.
However, the US secretary of state has indicated that US patience is running short.
"Nothing we have seen since the passage of [UN Security Council resolution] 1441 indicates that Saddam... has taken that strategic and political decision to disarm," Mr Powell told the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
He said the Iraqis were producing more missiles even as they continue to destroy existing ones.
"From recent intelligence we know that the Iraqi regime intends to declare and destroy only a portion of its banned al-Samoud inventory," Mr Powell said.
Later on Thursday, Arab foreign ministers are due to meet UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, with the Arab League Secretary Amr Moussa also due to attend.
Against the diplomatic backdrop, military preparations for possible war appeared to be gathering pace.
Doubling the US-UK patrols is meant as a means of enabling pilots to familiarise themselves with the terrain, our Pentagon correspondent Nick Childs says.
Apparently for the same reason, B-52 bomber crews have begun training in the north Arabian Gulf.
Military officials say any new conflict will be much more devastating than the last Gulf War.
In other developments:
- Two Iraqi UN diplomats are ordered to leave the United States within 72 hours for "activities incompatible with their status"
- Japan advises its nationals in Kuwait, the Khafji area of Saudi Arabia and Israel to leave at once
- Saddam Hussein says the UN order to destroy al-Samoud missiles is a ploy designed to demoralise Iraqis
- General Tommy Franks, who would command US forces in a war, says they are ready for action
- Cardinal Pio Laghi delivers a message from the Pope to President Bush
Iran says it is ready to help UN agencies and other aid organisations cope with Iraqi refugees expected to flee a US-led war.