Iraq said Wednesday it would ignore any U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to drive it out of Kuwait.

"Any decision taken by the Security Council under the present U.S. hegemony is of no concern to us," said al-Thawra, newspaper of the ruling Baath Party."It will not force us to step back or relinquish our national historical rights," it added.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon said Baghdad is defiantly sending more troops into Kuwait as the United Nations prepares to vote on a U.S.-sponsored resolution demanding that Iraq withdraw from Kuwait by Jan. 15 or face the likelihood of attack.

The Bush administration, building its case for military action to end the nearly 4-month-old crisis, charged Tuesday that Iraq could produce a crude nuclear bomb within a year.

However, international nuclear inspectors who visited Iraq last week said they saw no such evidence.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater rejected the report by the International Atomic Energy Agency. "We think the International Atomic Energy Agency is wrong," said Fitzwater. "They see only what they want to see."

Fitzwater repeated President Bush's contention that Baghdad will have a nuclear device in six months. Iraq's deputy foreign minister said Wednesday in Baghdad that Bush should initiate talks with Saddam Hussein to restore peace in the gulf, although he did not offer concessions regarding Kuwait.

Iraq has called for dialogue with the United States previously, but U.S. officials have said there is nothing to discuss as long as Iraq refuses to free all foreign hostages and withdraw unconditionally from Kuwait.

Iraq's deputy prime minister, Taha Yassin Ramadan, said Bush "is leading the entire world to a ruinous war" and "has no choice other than to come to his senses and initiate a dialogue."

Ramadan indicated, however, that Iraq had not softened its position on Kuwait, saying it was intent on ousting "aggressors and traitors" from Arab land.

China won't vote yes

China's foreign minister, Qian Qichen, said in Beijing Wednesday his country would not vote for the U.N. use-of-force resolution. But he refused to say whether China would veto the measure, which it could do as one of five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

U.S. officials say the Chinese have promised not to oppose the resolution.

Qian was to meet with Secretary of State James A. Baker III Wednesday night and may be seeking concessions in return for abstaining during Thursday's U.N. vote.

China wants Washington to lift economic sanctions it imposed following the June 1989 military crackdown that crushed China's pro-democracy movement. Qian's is the first official visit by a Chinese minister since the crackdown.

Pentagon notes Iraqi buildup

The Pentagon estimated Tuesday that Iraq has 450,000 troops in the Kuwaiti theater of operations, up 20,000 from last week. About 230,000 U.S. soldiers are in the region and about 200,000 more are to be sent in coming weeks.

Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said any Iraqi buildup in the region is a further indication that Saddam has no intention of complying with demands that he withdraw, which are already backed by a U.N.-ordered trade embargo.

Iraqi troops seized Kuwait on Aug. 2 in a dispute over oil, land and money.

Iraq will have until Jan. 15 to pull its troops from Kuwait before it faces the prospect of U.N.-authorized military action, Soviet U.N. Ambassador Yuli M. Vorontsov said Tuesday. Soviet and U.S. diplomats fixed the deadline in the past 24 hours, said Western diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The resolution authorizes "all necessary means" to get Iraq out of Kuwait after that deadline.

Even without China's support, the draft resolution has more than enough pledges of positive votes to pass.

Pentagon estimates that Iraq could produce a "very crude" nuclear device within a year have prompted concern that it could be used against U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, spokesman Williams said in Washington.

Such a device might not be delivered from an airplane or "weaponized in the traditional sense of a nuclear weapon, but it would be capable of doing some damage, of producing some kind of yield," he said.

Gary Milhollin of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control said the administration is exaggerating the danger of Iraq's nuclear program in an effort to gain support for the U.N. resolution authorizing use of force.

Milhollin, a nuclear expert, said he didn't think it was a "credible scenario" that Iraq would have nuclear weapons in less than a year.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says he has knowledge that Iraq could not acquire nuclear weapons within two years.

The Massachusetts Democrat has urged that economic sanctions against Iraq remain in place for a year or two before any military action is taken.

Saddam meets Ali

Saddam on Tuesday said after meeting with boxing great Muhammad Ali in Baghdad that a number of Americans held in Iraq would soon be allowed to leave the country.

In an interview, Ali said the number of hostages Saddam promised to free was not specified but that he would remain in Baghdad until they could fly home. He met Tuesday with some of the Americans detained in Baghdad as "human shields" in case of attack by multinational troops.

Ali, on a mission to Baghdad on behalf of a number of American peace groups, arrived in the Iraqi capital last Wednesday.

He met Tuesday with Saddam for about 50 minutes. During the meeting, the president reiterated his stand on the need for a peaceful settlement to the crisis.

Ali said he told the Iraqi leader that a release would be "good for maintaining peace in the area and good for the image of Iraq in the United States."