The Clinton administration has intervened repeatedly since last fall to delay or prevent intrusive weapons inspections in Iraq by United Nations teams, according to American and diplomatic accounts.

The interventions included at least six occasions, beginning in November 1997, in which Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright or other top administration officials sought — with success in each case but one — to persuade chief U.N. inspector Richard Butler to rescind orders for surprise searches for weapons of mass destruction or to remove a controversial inspector from Iraq. In March, according to sources, the United States and the United Kingdom put an end to the U.N. Special Commission’s most successful new inspection technique by withdrawing one critical form of intelligence support — including information, equipment and personnel — they had provided to the U.N. inspectors until then.

Since the first report surfaced earlier this month of the administration’s efforts to restrain the special commission, Albright has complained angrily to associates that she was portrayed as unprincipled or soft on Iraq. In private conversations, according to accounts of those present, she argued that the administration sought only to control the pace of confrontation with Iraq to create the best conditions in which to prevail.

What has not been disclosed before is the extent to which overt U.S. support for the inspectors was accompanied, as Washington and the special commission grew more isolated diplomatically, by increasing American efforts to prevent the inspectors from exceeding the administration’s diminishing capacity to protect them.

The resulting U.S. efforts to restrain weapons searches conflicted with robust public rhetoric in support of the special commission’s right to make what Albright often called “unfettered, unconditional inspections” of any site in Iraq, at any time. They also coincided, sometimes to the day, with explicit military threats by American officials against Iraq should it turn the inspectors aside.

Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering said in a telephone interview last night that any mere list of U.S. interventions to restrain the special commission “misses reams of context and a great deal of what was happening in and around the process that clearly informed our decisions.” Among them he cited “the shape of UNSCOM’s support at any given point in the Security Council, which has been eroding badly.”

“The United States over the years in my view has an unparalleled, second-to- none record in supporting UNSCOM, and that means providing equipment, personnel and support for it, and in the Security Council at each turn… [putting] the major effort on the line in each and every resolution, and each and every circumstance, including on a number of occasions deploying military forces,” he added.

In an interview yesterday morning, Butler deflected direct questions about specific American attempts to influence the commission’s work, but acknowledged unspecified instances of intervention in his operational decisions from foreign capitals, including Washington.

“I have received representations about how I should conduct this work, sometimes with quite specific aspects, including the identity of the chief inspector, from multiple sources,” he said. “Representations of views on such subjects by the United States were certainly not the only ones I received. A number of members of the Security Council have views on the same subjects and felt happy in coming to me with those views, and sometimes expressing them very strongly. I’ve sometimes felt strongly in the sense that I was being threatened.”

Later, in reply to a two-page letter providing fuller details of this article, Butler faxed a statement that “as a matter of sound policy, I am unable to comment” further.

U.S. efforts to restrain the most provocative of Butler’s inspections began on Nov. 22 last year, shortly after Iraq touched off the most serious crisis since the Security Council demanded its disarmament in Resolution 687 of April 1991, according to accounts by individuals with first-hand knowledge of the events and according to supporting documents.

The previous month Iraq had expelled all American nationals on UNSCOM inspection teams. The Clinton administration, though well aware of what it called “sanctions fatigue” among its allies, was stunned nonetheless by the weakness of the Security Council’s reply: On Nov. 12, in Resolution 1137, the council voted only to limit international travel by a handful of Iraqi officials.

For a brief period, Iraq allowed inspectors to return, and Butler dispatched a team that arrived in Baghdad on Nov. 21 and 22.

Butler had signed confidential orders for a no-notice inspection on Nov. 23 of the former headquarters of the 3rd Battalion of Iraq’s Special Republican Guard, which the U.N. panel believed to be central to Iraqi efforts to conceal forbidden arms. Following a standard procedure that neither UNSCOM nor Washington officially acknowledges, Butler’s senior staff briefed a liaison officer from the Central Intelligence Agency, based at the U.S. mission to the United Nations, on the intended target, sources said.

Albright telephoned Butler less than 24 hours before the surprise search was to take place, sources said. She urged him to delay the operation, arguing that it would precipitate a crisis before the military or diplomatic groundwork had been laid.

Around midnight at the Baghdad Monitoring and Verification Center, the UNSCOM headquarters in Iraq, the special weapons team received new orders from Butler aborting its mission. Soon afterward, Butler issued guidance to his senior staff ruling out new inspections until further notice at Iraq’s Special Security Organization, Special Republican Guard, Republican Guard or any other site designated “sensitive” by the Baghdad government.

In a pattern that would be repeated in the year to come, some inspectors and their advocates in Washington chafed at the restraints.

To keep ahead of the inspectors, Iraq has developed a standard procedure in which it moves forbidden weapons components and the documents describing them every 30 days, and it conducts drills to evacuate or destroy evidence on 15 minutes’ notice, sources said.

It has proved difficult for inspectors to move as quickly. They typically must go through several stages: developing and analyzing intelligence leads from defectors, satellite and reconnaissance photographs and the results of other collection efforts; planning an inspection in operational detail to foil Iraqi counterintelligence efforts; assembling a team of specialists, some of them borrowed from sympathetic governments, and deploying the team to Baghdad.

Because the leads are perishable, inspectors regard any delay in exploiting them as tantamount to abandoning a target.

On Dec. 16, after four days of unfruitful talks with the Baghdad government, Butler flew to Bahrain and signed written orders — known formally as Notices of Inspection Site — for an aggressive program of surprise inspections. In one of the orders, the team designated as UNSCOM 218 was ordered to make a surprise visit on Dec. 20 to a site known as Jabal Makhul High Security Area, a system of underground conduits in a presidential palace north of Tikrit where the commission believed Iraq was hiding boxes of incriminating documents. In another, the team was directed to go on Dec. 23 to the headquarters of the Special Security Organization (SSO) in Baghdad.

As Butler returned to New York, the leader of UNSCOM 218, Scott Ritter, left Bahrain for Baghdad. On Dec. 18, he did the first of his no-notice inspections — to a complex of SSO villas in Habaniyeh — and was met with outrage by Iraqi officials.

At about that time, the U.S. government began pressing Butler to cancel the rest of the intrusive inspections, according to officials. The Clinton administration cited an ongoing, but as yet insufficient, military buildup in the region and diplomatic efforts that were still at an early stage.

Later on Dec. 18, Butler telephoned Ritter, using a secure telephone, and rescinded his remaining inspection orders.

The following month, when Ritter returned with a subsequent team, UNSCOM 227, Iraq again halted the commission’s work on Jan. 12. It accused the commission, and Ritter in particular, of “fabricating lies, deliberately prolonging the work, and submitting false reports to the Security Council.”

Butler had signed new orders to search the SSO headquarters on Jan. 16, along with the offices of Presidential Secretary Abed Hamid Mahmoud, a close aide to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein suspected of coordinating activities to conceal weapons programs. But on Jan. 15, U.S. Ambassador Bill Richardson called Butler to his office across Manhattan’s First Avenue and asked him — without explanation — to withdraw Ritter from Iraq.

Butler complied immediately. Ritter left Baghdad ahead of schedule, but read a statement drafted for him in New York and Washington portraying his departure as routine. He ad-libbed one line: “We will be back.”

After an American military and diplomatic buildup, Iraq agreed on Feb. 23 to unrestricted access for inspectors and a new set of special procedures at eight so-called presidential sites. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who negotiated the deal with Saddam Hussein and Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, urged Butler not to send Ritter — as he planned — in the first inspections testing that agreement.

Albright telephoned Butler around that time, sources said, with similar advice, describing Ritter as a lightning rod and asking whether he might be held back in New York or direct the searches from Bahrain. Butler dispatched him anyway, and Albright telephoned again March 2 with a more forceful restatement of the U.S. objection. If Iraq was going to balk it should be seen as rejecting the inspection, not the inspector, she argued.

The same day, the Security Council passed the American-drafted resolution promising “severest consequences” if Iraq failed to keep its promises of Feb. 23. The following day, Assistant Secretary of State James P. Rubin said the resolution meant that “military force will ensue” immediately if Iraq came into breach.

At around the same time on March 3, Butler relieved Ritter of command and ordered him to appoint a new chief inspector. But after Ritter’s four senior subordinates sent Butler an “eyes only” fax protesting the decision, Butler reversed himself.

Later that month, the United States and Britain withdrew crucial elements of the intelligence support that allowed the special commission to observe Iraqi concealment efforts as they happened during surprise inspections.

In June, after a fallow period for the commission, Butler dispatched lieutenants to London and Washington to brief officials on seven proposed inspection targets in two major categories: the SSO and Mahmoud’s secretarial office. The inspections were set for July 20.

On July 15, British official Derek Plumbly and Peter Burleigh, the second ranking U.S. delegate at the United Nations, questioned Butler about the timing. One central argument was that Iraq’s agreed “schedule of work” with UNSCOM gave it an appearance of compliance that would make aggressive new inspections look provocative, sources said.

But the following month, the Clinton administration argued roughly the opposite case: that Iraq’s open defiance beginning Aug. 3 meant that Butler should lay low. Butler had authorized an Aug. 6 inspection of a site believed to contain sensitive ballistic missile components and another housing documents. In an Aug. 4 telephone call to Butler — for which he had to be summoned to a secure line at the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain — Albright argued that pursuit of those leads would make Butler the issue again when Saddam Hussein was misbehaving.

Butler postponed the inspections for three days, to Aug. 9, and aborted them altogether after a second high-level U.S. intervention on Aug. 7.

James Foley, Albright’s acting spokesman, said last night that “it’s not for nothing that Saddam Hussein has called Secretary Albright a snake and a witch, among other things. He knows that the United States is the strongest backer of UNSCOM in the Security Council, and he knows she is a forceful advocate of standing up to him through diplomatic and military means.”

Another Albright associate, who discussed the matter with her, said “she saw herself as trying to control the pace of any confrontation with Iraq so that it would remain manageable.”

“Madeleine was very sensible, very realistic in avoiding a crisis with Iraq,” said a high-ranking foreign diplomat who knows her well. “The Americans know the Russians, Chinese and French do not want war, so it is a sensible move.”