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, U.N. officials reported Wednesday.
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 will soon try to verify this.
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 remains 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 been 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 will be able to verify the assertion quickly. U.S. Ambassador Madeleine Albright, noting that it took the Special Commission almost four years to satisfy itself that the Iraqi nuclear weapons program was eliminated, said that Baghdad's cooperation will now determine "whether it's going to take four months or four years" to verify Iraq's claims.
In another sanctions issue, the Security Council, by a vote of 14-0 with Russia abstaining, passed a resolution continuing the suspension of several light sanctions on Serbia for another 75 days--this despite a good deal of suspicion that Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic is continuing to help the Bosnian Serbs militarily.
On the issue of Iraq's biological weapons program, 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, the minister for oil production.
According to Ekeus and other commission sources, more details were outlined last Saturday in a session with Iraqi biological experts led by Dr. Taha Rahab, who identified herself as the director of the program.
The Iraqis said the program was conceived in late 1985 by biologists working at the Muthana site, where Iraq developed its chemical weapons program. After several years of research and development, production began at a site called Al Hakam in 1989.
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 in cans; the second is a bacteria that causes the disease anthrax. In large doses, U.N. officials said, these agents could cause death.
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 the Iraqis would have destroyed these weapons on the eve of war.
Officials said the oral report by the Iraqis left too many gaps for the commission's experts to attempt to verify it. But Ekeus said the Iraqis agreed to write a detailed report on the program by the end of July. Commission experts will visit Baghdad in mid-July to discuss a draft of this report, Ekeus said.
Until they read the report, officials went on, they will not know how long it will take them to verify the Iraqi account.
Commission experts know the amount of biological material that was imported into Iraq before the war and, when presented with details about the production of the agents and their later destruction, will try to account for the entire amount.
But they conceded this will be difficult if the Iraqis say they disposed of the materials by burning rather than burying them--thus leaving no traces to be found.
As for the Serbia sanctions, Russia abstained in Wednesday's vote because it said it wanted the suspension continued indefinitely as a reward to the Serbian government in Belgrade for officially ending trade with the Bosnian Serbs who have their headquarters in Pale near Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital.
Despite numerous violations, U.N. monitors, in an official report, certified in late June that Serbia "is continuing to meet its obligation to close the border between" Serbia and the areas in Bosnia-Herzegovina controlled by the Bosnian Serbs.
Albright said the United States supported Wednesday's resolution despite "indications of increasing military cooperation between the Belgrade authorities and the Pale Serbs." She said the Belgrade government has appeared to be rounding up Bosnian Serb males for drafting by the Bosnian Serb army, to be providing aid and equipment to the Bosnian Serb army and to be cooperating with the Bosnian Serb air defense system.