WASHINGTON -- The Reagan administration secretly decided to provide highly classified intelligence to Iraq in the spring of 1982 -- more than two years earlier than previously disclosed -- while also permitting the sale of U.S.-made arms to Baghdad in a successful effort to help Iraqi President Saddam Hussein avert defeat in his war with Iran, former intelligence and State Department officials say.
The U.S. decision to lend crucial help to Baghdad so early in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war came after U.S. intelligence agencies warned that Iraq was on the verge of being overrun by Iran, whose army was bolstered the year before by covert shipments of U.S.-made weapons.
The New York Times and others reported last year that the Reagan administration secretly decided shortly after taking office in January 1981 to allow Israel to ship several billion dollars' worth of U.S. arms and spare parts to Iran.
That intervention and the decision to aid Iraq directly in 1982 provide evidence that Washington played a much greater role than previously known in affecting the course of the Iran-Iraq war.
The interventions also raise questions about the White House's often-stated insistence in the early 1980s that it was remaining neutral in the Iran-Iraq war, because the United States was arming both sides in its desire to see neither side dominate the vital oil region.
In the end, officials acknowledged, U.S. arms, technology and intelligence helped Iraq avert defeat and eventually grow, with much help from the Soviet Union later, into the regional power that invaded Kuwait in August 1990, sparking the Persian Gulf war last year.
The secret Reagan administration decision to supply intelligence to Iraq was initially reported by the Washington Post in December 1986; the newspaper said collaboration began in late 1984. There have been numerous other reports on elements of the program since then.
But interviews over the past two months with several dozen present and former State Department, White House and intelligence officials who were directly involved in the policy confirm that the decision came much earlier. The administration also ignored the illegal transfer of U.S.-made arms by Iraq's Arab allies and eventually replaced the weapons that had been shipped to Iraq.
In the interviews, it also emerged that:
* The administration did not inform the Senate and House Intelligence Committees that the CIA was passing intelligence to Iraq. Administration officials said the program was nothing more than routine liaison between two intelligence agencies.
* The CIA also did not inform the committees that it had permitted U.S.-made arms to be sold to Iraq. Beginning in 1983, the agency also did not interfere as private U.S. arms dealers began selling Iraq sophisticated Soviet arms purchased in Eastern Europe.
* William J. Casey, then CIA director, is believed by many U.S. Middle East specialists to have traveled to Baghdad in the early 1980s for secret meetings with his Iraqi counterpart, Mr. Hussein's half-brother, Barzan.
A former CIA official said that Robert M. Gates, now CIA director, who was then a senior aide to Casey, was in charge of preparing the intelligence data for the Iraqis. The CIA did not return a call asking for comment.