Hundreds of U.N. employees cheered their chief on his return Tuesday from his biggest diplomatic coup, arranging a weapons-inspection accord that may avert a U.S.-led military strike on Iraq.

Kofi Annan immediately went to brief the Security Council on the agreement signed Monday in Baghdad."I think we have a good agreement, an agreement that I will defend anywhere, and I'm sure the member states would accept it," Annan told about 300 U.N. employees pressed against blue metal barriers to congratulate the secretary-general.

"There were millions of people around the world rooting for peace," Annan told the whistling and applauding U.N. staff. "That is why I say you should never underestimate the power of prayer."

Annan thanked President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair "for being perfect U.N. peacekeepers - U.N. peacekeepers in the sense that we taught our peacekeepers that the best way to use force is to show it in order not to have to use it."

The Security Council must approve the agreement, and Clinton said Monday he is willing to give it a chance. In an interview Monday night, Annan called Washington's favorable comments "a very good sign."

Mindful of past broken promises by Saddam Hussein, the Clinton administration said Tuesday it wants the agreement to be tested. U.S. Ambassador Bill Richardson said the question "is going be how we enforce this agreement."

Richardson, appearing on morning news shows Tuesday, said that after Security Council approval of Annan's agreement, "we have to test it, then we have to enforce it and then we have to find ways to make sure there is full compliance." He said the test should be "quick."

Despite suspicions about Saddam's willingness to abide by the agreement, a sense of relief pervaded Washington as Clinton tentatively accepted Baghdad's written promise to allow full U.N. weapons inspections.

Wary of Saddam's intentions, Clinton ordered the U.S. military force in the Persian Gulf to remain in case Iraq reneges again. Ground and air forces continued to arrive Tuesday even as the threat of conflict eased.

"This is not about trusting," Clinton said. "What really matters is not what Iraq says but what it does."

Under the accord signed Monday, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, Iraq would give the U.N. Special Commission that oversees inspections and the International Atomic Energy Agency "immediate, unconditional and unrestricted access" to suspected weapons sites as required by past U.N. resolutions.

However, the two-page memo stipulated that senior diplomats appointed by Annan carry out inspections at eight presidential palaces.

It said that the "special group" would operate under procedures established by UNSCOM and the IAEA, as well as "specific, detailed procedures which will be developed given the special nature of the presidential sites" - a loose end that could pose trouble in the future.

The accord also reiterated the commitment of U.N. member states to "respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq." And it addressed an issue of particular importance to Iraq - the lifting of economic sanctions imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, sparking the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

While it set no time line, it noted that the lifting of sanctions is "obviously of paramount importance."

Iraq lauded the accord beneath bright red headlines and front-page pictures of Saddam. State-run newspapers reported the pact will pave the way for a quick lifting of U.N. sanctions.

Saddam also ordered that Monday be celebrated nationwide as the "Day of the Flag," marking the day on which Iraqis triumphed over the United States.

An endorsement by the Security Council would save Iraq from a U.S. air attack and save Washington from strong international opposition to such a strike. And, if the Iraqis hold to the bargain, it will be Annan's biggest diplomatic success in 14 months of leading the world body.

With U.S. backing, the 59-year-old Annan took over the U.N.'s top post in January 1997 after working for the world body since 1962.