WASHINGTON - Libya, a leading outlaw state of the 1980s, acknowledged last night that it has pursued nuclear, chemical and biological weapons but pledged to dismantle the programs and to admit international inspectors.
In a brief televised speech at the White House after Libya's surprise decision was announced, President Bush said Col. Muammar el Kadafi, the Libyan leader, made the pledge after nine months of secret negotiations with U.S. and British diplomats. Bush portrayed Libya's actions as a victory in his hard-line policy toward terrorism and states that seek weapons of mass destruction.
The White House suggested that Libya's decision was driven, in part, by the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
"Our understanding with Libya came about through quiet diplomacy," the president said. "It is a result, however, of policies and principles declared to all."
He added pointedly, "I hope other leaders will find an example" in his action.
Prime Minister Tony Blair drew a different lesson from Libya's move, calling it "courageous." Speaking on British television just before Bush appeared, Blair said of Kadafi's decision, "It shows that problems of proliferation can, with good will, be tackled through discussion and engagement, to be followed up by the responsible international agencies."
For years, Kadafi has been struggling to break free of his status as a global rogue who supported terrorists. This year, he agreed to pay $2.7 billion to the victims of Pan Am Flight 103, which was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland, in late 1988. Two Kadafi agents were convicted of planning the attack, which killed 270 people.
Nine months ago, officials said, a Kadafi envoy approached the United States and Britain with an offer to cooperate in dismantling its weapons programs and allowed American and British experts to examine covert facilities in two visits totaling three weeks. The examination found that Libya was "close to developing" a nuclear-weapons capability, a British official said.
The experts saw centrifuges as well as "thousands" of centrifuge parts showing that Libya was developing a nuclear fuel cycle, though Libya had apparently not reached the necessary point of enriching the fuel.
In addition, Libya possessed "significant quantities" of chemical weapons agents and precursor materials, and also had bombs designed to hold chemical agents, the official said. Libya also had research centers that could be used for biological weapons, and a missile research and development program.
Libyan officials also acknowledged what U.S. officials have long suspected - that the nation was cooperating with North Korea to develop long-range Scud missiles.
Close allies in sending troops to invade and occupy Iraq, Bush and Blair have felt political heat in recent months over the failure to discover any weapons of mass destruction inside Iraq despite an intensive search by hundreds of inspectors.
Both men had voiced certainty before the war that Iraq possessed such weapons, which they claimed made Hussein a serious threat to the region and the world. Yesterday, news reports suggested that the Bush administration's chief weapons inspector, David Kay, was considering stepping down, a sign that the weapons search in Iraq was close to an end.
Although Blair made the point that Libya's example shows that peaceful disarmament can work, a senior Bush administration official suggested that the invasion of Iraq had unnerved Kadafi.
"I can't imagine that Iraq went unnoticed by the Libyan leadership," the official said.
Jeffrey M. Bale, a terrorism expert at the Monterrey Institute of International Studies, said the invasion and destruction of Hussein's regime had shocked Arab leaders and made "everybody aware in the Middle East and North Africa that we have the power to destroy their regimes any time we want to."
But Bale said the mercurial Libyan leader has been on a campaign to gain international respectability in a bid to free his country of sanctions imposed by the United Nations and the United States. The sanctions have prevented Libya from gaining full benefit from its oil wealth.
In addition to paying damages for the Pan Am 103 bombing, Libya had sought to show that it was no longer funding militant groups.
The extent of the nuclear program that U.S. and British officials claimed to have discovered in Libya came as a surprise not only to them but to outside experts. It raised new questions about the ability of Western intelligence agencies to track weapons proliferation.
Sammy Salama, a research analyst at the Monterrey Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said that private analysts were aware only of an "infant" nuclear program in Libya, a small 10-megawatt reactor that had been under an inspection program of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
"If this is corroborated it will be a big surprise," Salama said.