THE United States could go to war without Britain, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said last night.

The prospect of UK troops being reduced to the status of spectators was raised amid continuing international deadlock over Iraq.

Frustrated Tony Blair yesterday hit out at French and Russian threats to veto a new United Nations resolution that could trigger war.

The Prime Minister needs the legitimacy of that resolution to quell the growing unease within the Labour Party.

Washington had appeared prepared to give Mr Blair time to try to win international backing for a compromise draft.

But Mr Rumsfeld said last night that President Bush would go it alone if necessary, even though Britain's participation "would obviously be welcomed".

Later, he clarified his remarks. ''In the event that a decision to use force is made, we have every reason to believe there will be a significant military contribution from the UK," he said.

Downing Street said: "This has not changed anything. We are still working to get a second resolution."

The UK and US will put a draft presenting Saddam Hussein with a disarmament deadline to a Security Council vote later this week.

The allies brushed aside an alternative plan from the six undecided nations extending the proposed March 17 deadline to 45 days.

And Mr Blair warned France and Russia they risked letting Saddam "off the hook" by threatening to use their vetoes as permanent members.

British diplomats have been trying to win over the six undecided members on the council. They have proposed a series of "benchmarks" against which Iraqi compliance could be judged.

London and Washington want to get the nine votes they need for a resolution from the 15-strong council.

That would make it more difficult for the French or Russians to block it by using their vetoes.

Downing Street acknowledged that the French had sent a "pretty clear signal" after President Jacques Chirac warned that Paris would vote No, "whatever the circumstances".

Mr Blair responded with a warning of his own. In barbed comments apparently aimed at the French President, he said that seeking easy applause by making a show of "standing up to America" could have damaging consequences for the international community.

"If you end up in a world where Europe decides it is on a different side from America, you may get a round of applause, and there will be people who will cheer, and people who will say 'oh that is a great thing that someone's standing up to America'," he told reporters.

"But when you really think about it, dividing Europe from America - an alliance that has served us well for over half a century - would be a very, very dangerous thing to do."