The U.N. chief said Wednesday he will meet Saddam Hussein in Baghdad with the full support of the 15-member Security Council, but cautioned that the mission won't be an easy one.

"I'm happy that on this issue, at this critical stage, the unanimity of the council has been re-established, and that they are behind what I'm going to Baghdad to do," Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters after he briefed the council on the trip.Annan said he was also encouraged by the signals he was receiving from Baghdad "that they are prepared to engage constructively to find a solution."

He cautioned, however, that "it is a difficult mission coming at a very critical juncture."

Despite the council's support, British and U.S. officials have cautioned that they won't accept any settlement that would dilute the power of the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq, which is charged with carrying out the weapons inspections.

"He has our full support and Godspeed, but it's up to Iraq to comply," U.S. Ambassador Bill Richardson said Wednesday. "If Iraq does not comply, there are going to be some very, very serious consequences."

The secretary-general announced his decision to go to Baghdad on Tuesday, hours after President Clinton laid the groundwork for a possible airstrike to force Iraqi compliance.

Though the United States has given its conditional support for the trip, White House press secretary Mike McCurry said today: "We're just not going to willingly accept whatever results from this mission. We want to be able to look at it and make sure that it fulfills what we think are the principles that apply."

Annan will leave Thursday and arrive in Baghdad on Friday. Annan said he would meet directly with Saddam over the weekend.

On Tuesday, Annan said he made the decision to travel to Iraq on his own, but said he has the support of all five permanent members of the Security Council - the United States, France, Britain, Russia and China - which must ratify any deal.

Annan said he did not ask for a mandate from the permanent members but did seek clear direction about what he could discuss with the Iraqis.

"What I wanted was an understanding and a basis that will help my mission and make it successful and that if I come back, that everybody will be on board," Annan said.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin said Wednesday the visit was "extremely important," the ITAR-Tass news agency reported, quoting presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Valery Nesterushkin said Annan's visit would not be the last chance for a peaceful settlement, according to the Interfax news agency.

But diplomatic sources said the permanent members remained divided over details of a possible settlement.

The inspectors must certify Iraqi compliance before the council will lift crippling economic sanctions imposed in 1990, when Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait, touching off the 1991 Gulf War.

Iraq claims it has destroyed all banned weapons and that the special commission has deceived the council to keep the sanctions in place.

Annan's decision to travel came after ambassadors from the United States, France, Britain, Russia and China met several times in the past week to try to narrow their differences.

All five publicly accept the principle that the United Nations should have full access to all locations, including eight presidential sites which Iraq has placed off limits.

Several formulas have been proposed. One would have inspectors from the special commission, known as UNSCOM, be accompanied by diplomats on visits to presidential sites.

Others would have Annan appoint a new group of inspectors, some of which could be from UNSCOM. Iraq has also insisted on a 60-day time-limit for inspections, something the United States and Britain have rejected.

In Baghdad, Saddam's Revolution Command Council - Iraq's main decision-making body - and the ruling Ba'ath Party issued a statement Tuesday pledging to "exert all serious and legitimate effort" to find a peaceful solution.

The statement did not offer any concessions that might avert an at-tack.

The United Nations said Wed-nes-day it will reduce its staff in Iraq as a precaution against an American attack, officials said.

The U.N. humanitarian office will send 31 employees out of the country on Thursday, 29 to Jordan, the two others to northern Iraq, U.N. sources said on condition of anonymity.

Also Wednesday, Iraq gave reporters a rare glimpse inside a weapons factory on a three-stop government tour meant to show it is complying with U.N. rules on weapons manufacturing. The carefully monitored tour did not include visits to the presidential compounds.

Clinton sent his three top foreign policy advisers into the American heartland Wednesday to make a case for a U.S.-led attack if diplomacy fails to pry open hundreds of Iraqi sites where dangerous arms may be hidden.

America's military is ready, Clinton said Tuesday, while raising the prospect of U.S. casualties. "The American people have to be ready, as well."

So, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Defense Secretary William Cohen, and Sandy Berger, the White House national security adviser, were dispatched to Ohio State University to try to drum up support.