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Britain Mulls Extending March 17 Deadline

Britain would consider a compromise U.N. resolution that extends an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein beyond the March 17 deadline already proposed, Prime Minister Tony Blair's spokesman said Monday.

A compromise resolution could give Saddam a specific list of demands based on weapons inspectors' assessment of gaps in Iraqi disarmament, he said, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity.

"There are a number of key areas where there are key questions," the spokesman said, adding that Saddam had failed to state where he was hiding suspected mustard gas, sarin and VX nerve gas. The U.N. Security Council could demand the Iraqi leader reveal the whereabouts of such poisons under a tight deadline, he said.

He said a compromise resolution could give Saddam longer than the proposed March 17 deadline, but not much more.

"There may be other colleagues on the council who would like a little bit more time and we will listen to their views," the spokesman said.

"What is important is that whatever the date is ... there has to be a tight deadline because what Saddam has shown in the past is that it is only within a very, very tight deadline that he would bow to pressure," he added.

The spokesman said Blair spoke by phone Monday with chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix. The two discussed the unresolved disarmament points Blair feels could form the basis for a compromise resolution, the spokesman said.

France and Russia said Monday that they would oppose the U.S.-backed resolution setting a March 17 ultimatum for Saddam, a strong indication the measure could face defeat.

The proposal has bitterly divided the Security Council, with French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin traveling to Africa to lobby three undecided members of the council.

Britain's Minister for Africa, Baroness Amos, was also on her way to Africa, to try persuading Cameroon, Angola and Guinea to back the new resolution, the Foreign Office said.