Iraq on Wednesday ordered all Americans working for the U.N. arms inspection team to leave the country within a week.
Defying the United States and the United Nations, the government of President Saddam Hussein also demanded that the United States halt the U-2 spy flights the team uses to search for prohibited Iraqi military programs.
The United Nations immediately suspended the monitoring operation, the first time it had been forced to do so since it was imposed on Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
James Rubin, the State Department spokesman, warned that Iraq's action has potentially grave consequences and said the United States was discussing it with its allies. The Iraqi order, Rubin said, was "an attack on the very fundamentals of the U.N. system."
Diplomats said they expected Washington to react forcefully after the safety of the 10 Americans working for the U.N. team in Iraq was assured.
The Security Council on Wednesday night agreed quickly on a statement drafted by Britain and approved by all of its members that warned Iraq of serious consequences if it did not reverse its decision. The statement reminded the Iraqis they were responsible for the safety and security of all inspectors, a pre-emptive caution to Baghdad, where foreigners have been held hostage in the past.
Western officials could only speculate on why Hussein was moving toward yet another confrontation with the United States and its allies. There have been increasing signs in recent weeks of division in the coalition that pushed Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991.
This year, Iraq has been permitted to export limited amounts of oil to pay for urgent civilian needs, and pipelines and ports were repaired for the task. But this has only whetted Baghdad's appetite for larger oil sales and has also led businesses in France and Russia to press their governments for an end to sanctions so they can renew oil exports. Before the gulf war, Iraq was one of the world's largest oil producers.
Just last week, the United States and Britain lost a battle at the United Nations to impose new sanctions on Iraq. France, China, Russia, Egypt and Kenya all abstained from an American-backed motion to ban Iraqi officials from international travel.
Iraq remains under a blanket trade embargo that will be lifted only after the weapons inspectors declare that Baghdad has relinquished all of its long-range missiles and destroyed any facilities that could produce chemical, nuclear and biological weapons.
The arms inspectors, in a series of reports to the Security Council, have asserted that Baghdad is not in compliance and is withholding important information about biological arms and long-range missiles.
Richard Butler, executive chairman of the U.N. inspection commission, on Wednesday called the Iraqi move not acceptable and canceled talks with Iraqi officials planned for Friday at the United Nations. He also put off a trip to Iraq that he was expected to make next week.
Butler said he told the 100 U.N. inspectors in Iraq to report to their offices but to not go into the field. He said the United Nations was asking for diplomatic help to verify Iraqi assurances that the inspectors were safe.