Faced with little support, the Bush administration signaled Tuesday that it would accept a short extension of the proposed Monday deadline for Iraq to disarm.
The question of the day was how much more time would be acceptable.
Six countries that represent the key to a U.S. victory in the Security Council proposed a 45-day reprieve for Iraq. The Bush administration said it was willing to listen but wants a far shorter deadline.
Regardless, it said a vote will come by the end of this week.
At the United Nations, Britain and other nations worked frantically to come up with a compromise.
According to diplomats at the United Nations, Washington may agree to a plan demanding disarmament seven to 10 days after passage of a resolution.
Assuming a vote on Friday, that sets the ever shifting deadline back to sometime between March 20 and 24.
The Bush administration was dismissive of the proposal by Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, Mexico, and Pakistan to extend the deadline 45 days. "A nonstarter," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
But it was not clear that those nations and the veto-holding permanent members would be willing to accept something less.
The substance of the British proposal was not made public, and there were indications it was still on the drawing board.
Generally, Hussein would have 10 days to prove Iraq has taken a "strategic decision" to disarm, which could be done with a series of tests or "benchmarks," council diplomats said. A close aide to Chilean President Richardo Lagos called it a checklist of about 12 items.
If that happens, a second phase would begin with more time to verify Iraq's full disarmament, they said, speaking to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
But a senior White House official said the time frame being circulated was shorter.
"The United Kingdom is in a negotiation and it's prepared to look at timelines and tests together," Britain's U.N. Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock told CNN. "But I'm pretty sure we're talking about action in March. Don't look beyond March."
Chile's Lagos said Monday that he can't support the current U.S. resolution. A close aide said Tuesday that Lagos thinks the Monday deadline is much too short and while he hasn't mentioned a new deadline, there has been talk of "two to three weeks."
France said Tuesday it was "open to dialogue" but will not budge on the fundamentals it has championed since the Iraq crisis started.
A day after threatening to veto any U.N. resolution authorizing force against Baghdad, Foreign Ministry spokesman Francois Rivasseau said France cannot cross a "red line" by allowing any resolution that contains an ultimatum or the automatic use of force against Baghdad.
Fleischer insisted the resolution would be put to a vote this week. But another senior administration official cast doubt on this, saying State Department officials are trying to convince the White House that it would be better to postpone the vote and avert a veto.
Despite doubts among some senior administration officials about the wisdom of forcing a vote if the United States is sure to lose, Fleischer said Bush wanted a vote even if it only made a symbolic point by forcing members of the council to go on the record supporting or opposing enforcement of previous U.N. demands that Iraq disarm.
A vote drawing support from eight or nine nations could also allow the United States and Britain to argue that France was thwarting the will of the majority of the council.
"It matters whether or not other members of the Security Council support immediate disarmament, and they will have their opportunity to do so in the form of a vote," Fleischer said.
"The president has encouraged this diplomacy to take place, but what the president has said is that there is room for a little more diplomacy but not a lot of time to do it," he said. "The vote will take place this week."
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, at a Pentagon news conference, said the delay was having little effect on the American forces. "I wouldn't think that it would make an enormous difference to this department in terms of what they're doing up there," he said.
Rumsfeld also caused consternation in London by suggesting that America's staunchest ally might not participate in a war with Iraq because of opposition in Britain. "Until we know what the resolution is, we won't know the answer as to what their role will be," he said.
But British officials said they had every intention of keeping their promise to fight Iraq, if necessary. And the Pentagon later issued a statement in which Rumsfeld said he had "every reason to believe there will be a significant military contribution from the United Kingdom."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair is under intense pressure at home to get U.N. backing for any fresh military action.
"The United Kingdom will only act within international law and we're looking for the United Nations to remain in control of this huge issue," said Greenstock, the British ambassador. "We're going to go on talking until we find a way forward for the Security Council together."
But he said in the CNN interview that "if military action is the only way to complete disarmament of Iraq, then my prime minister has made it absolutely clear that he will go that route."
While London worked on its proposals, others were preparing their own compromises.
Canada, which isn't a Security Council member, revised an earlier compromise proposal that had drawn wide interest. Canada called for a new resolution to authorize force and would set a three-week deadline for Iraq to show it is cooperating fully with U.N. disarmament demands.
At the same time, Canada's U.N. Ambassador Paul Heinbecker said chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix should present a list of key remaining disarmament tasks within a week and stipulate steps and a timeline for Iraq to implement them. If Baghdad is found to be cooperating, new deadlines could be set until all U.N. disarmament goals are met.
"We are convinced that Iraq is substantially contained and that, if it cooperates, can be disarmed without a shot being fired," Heinbecker said.
Pakistan's prime minister called on Tuesday for more time to search for peaceful solutions in Iraq, strongly suggesting that the government would not back an American-supported proposal in the U.N. Security Council that could justify an attack.
Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali stopped short of saying Pakistan _ one of the uncommitted, nonpermanent members of the Security Council _ would abstain or oppose the resolution.
The Security Council heard speeches from 28 nations on the first day of a two-day open meeting on the Iraq crisis at the at the request of the Non-Aligned Movement, which represents 116 mainly developing countries. Most are opposed to a war.
_ Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.