US Secretary of State Colin Powell has said there is "strong chance" that the United Nations Security Council will approve a resolution opening the way for military action against Iraq in the near future.
War could start within days
The United States has called for a vote on the proposed resolution as early as Tuesday in the wake of the latest reports by UN weapons inspectors on Iraqi disarmament.
The French Foreign Minister, Dominique de Villepin, whose country is a leading opponent of war at this stage, is embarking on a whistle-stop tour of three African members of the 15-strong Security Council whose votes could be decisive.
Chile, another of the six "swing voters" being wooed by both camps, indicated this weekend that it preferred further weapons inspections.
Mr Powell acknowledged that the outcome of the Security Council vote, which could itself be cancelled by a veto from one of the five permanent members, was still unclear but he predicted that nine or 10 members would back the proposed resolution.
I think we have a strong chance... that we might get the nine or 10 votes needed
"I am encouraged by the discussions I have been having with a number of members of the council," he told American television.
Mr Powell said he would present more evidence of Iraq's alleged plans to use pilotless "drone" aircraft to deliver weapons of mass destruction.
But he added that the probability of war was rapidly increasing and he hinted that hostilities might begin before the new resolution's proposed 17 March deadline for Iraq to completely disarm, should America lose the vote at the UN.
BBC analyst Stephen Cviic says that it is impossible to say whether Mr Powell's optimism is justified, such is the extent of the private arm-twisting.
But, he adds, whichever way a vote goes, the world's major powers know that the public split over Iraq has been extremely damaging and both sides want to carry the day in the court of public opinion.
Battle for votes
As France's Mr de Villepin prepared to leave on his tour of Cameroon, Guinea and Angola, Mr Powell said he would not be surprised by a veto from Paris.
Mr Powell said such a move would have a serious effect on Franco-American relations in the short term, although he was sure the two countries would remain allies.
France needs to persuade a majority of Security Council members to oppose the resolution if it is to avoid having to confront the US directly and use its veto.
We will not back this resolution... because its terms are not accepted by anyone
Angolan Deputy Foreign Minister
The anti-war camp received a boost from Friday's reports by the UN's chief weapons inspectors, who issued broadly upbeat assessments of Iraqi disarmament efforts.
Chilean President Ricardo Lagos - who spoke to Mr Bush on the phone on Friday - said the proposed deadline for Baghdad to disarm was too brief.
And this view is shared by the five other waverers, according to the Chilean ambassador to the UN.
"We have been in contact, we are not satisfied with the proposal," Juan Gabriel Valdes told the BBC.
"We believe that the council should do more to face this problem, trying to give space for peace, and we don't feel that the solution that is being proposed is a good solution."
Mr Valdes' words were echoed by Angola's deputy foreign minister, who suggested his country would oppose a new resolution.
"We will not back this resolution... because its terms are not accepted by anyone," Jorge Chicote told the BBC's Brazilian service.
Mission to Baghdad
The US and its key ally, Britain, appeared to receive a blow on Sunday when Chinese President Jiang Zemin insisted that weapons inspections within Iraq were working.
He told British Prime Minister Tony Blair by telephone that the world must take as much time as it needed to defuse the situation and avoid war.
The US and Britain have consistently refused to rule out taking military action even without a new resolution and have built up a massive military presence in the Gulf region.
Anti-war demonstrations continue
Iraq's fellow Arab states are planning a mission to Baghdad this week in an attempt to persuade Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to avoid war by going into voluntary exile.
Iraq has welcomed the proposed visit by the foreign ministers of Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Lebanon and Tunisia, and the head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, but no date has yet been set.
The BBC's Cairo correspondent, David Bamford, says it could be the Arab world's last effort to prevent an American-led attack on Iraq.
In other developments:
- The head of Iraq's weapons monitoring team, General Hossam Mohammed Amin, says he will continue to co-operate with the UN disarmament process despite the US and British deadline of 17 March
- A convoy of UN vehicles carrying civilian staff is seen heading south from the Kuwaiti border with Iraq, as non-essential personnel are withdrawn from the area for their own safety
- Former US President, Jimmy Carter, criticises American plans for an imminent war against Iraq
- Saudi Arabia urges Iraq to defuse the crisis over its weapons of mass destruction by setting a timetable for their disarmament.