UNITED NATIONS -- After four years of denial, the Iraqi government, desperate for the lifting of international sanctions against it, has finally admitted that it developed a powerful, offensive biological weapons program in the years leading to the Persian Gulf war, United Nations officials reported yesterday.
But Iraq asserted that it had destroyed all the biological weapons a few months before allied planes began bombing Iraq in January 1991.
U.N. officials said they would soon try to verify this claim.
The officials described the admission as a first step in Iraq's attempt to complete its compliance with U.N. resolutions demanding that it account for and destroy all its weapons of mass destruction. Until Iraq complies, according to the resolutions, a total embargo on Iraqi oil exports would remain in place.
The U.N. Special Commission, which is overseeing the disbanding of these programs, declared itself satisfied last month that Iraq is rid of its nuclear weapons, chemical weapons and long-range missile programs.
The big question mark has long centered on biological weapons because of the commission's refusal to believe Iraq's persistent denials that it ever had such a program.
Iraq's admission did not mean that the commission would be able to verify the assertion quickly. U.S. Ambassador Madeleine K. Albright, noting that it had taken the Special Commission almost four years to satisfy itself that the Iraqi nuclear weapons program was eliminated, said that Baghdad's cooperation would now determine "whether it's going to take four months or four years" to verify Iraq's claims.
Rolf Ekeus, chairman of the Special Commission, reported to the Security Council that the Iraqi admission was made to him in Baghdad by Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz and Gen. Amer Rasheed Ubeidi, the minister for oil production.
According to Mr. Ekeus and other commission sources, more details were outlined Saturday in a session with Iraqi biological experts led by Dr. Taha Rahab, who identified herself as the director of the program.
Mr. Ekeus said "large quantities" of two biological agents were produced: Clostridium botulinum and Bacillus anthracis. The first is a toxin that causes botulism when food spoils; the second is a bacteria that causes the disease anthrax. In large doses, U.N. officials said, these agents could cause death.
Mr. Ekeus said the Iraqis told him that "the produced agent was all destroyed by October 1990 in view of the imminence of hostilities."
Officials refused to speculate on whether it was probable that the Iraqis would have destroyed these weapons on the eve of war.
They said the oral report by the Iraqis left too many gaps for the commission's experts to attempt to verify it. But Mr. Ekeus said the Iraqis agreed to write a detailed report on the program by the end of July.