For the first time, Iraq has formally owned up to United Nations inspectors that during the late 1980s it had a germ warfare programme that produced quantities of deadly biological agents, including a strain of anthrax.
The admission came during a visit to Baghdad at the end of last week by Rolf Ekeus, chairman of the UN Special Commission, which was established after the Gulf war to ensure the elimination of all of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
In a letter to members of the Security Council, Mr Ekeus reported that the Iraqi government had confirmed orally "for the first time the offensive nature of its biological programme". Baghdad has agreed to submit a written disclosure to the UN by the end of the month.
Mr Ekeus's findings are crucial to any chance Iraq may have of persuading the Security Council to lift the economic sanctions imposed after the Gulf war. While Mr Ekeus has madeprogress in ensuring Iraqi compliance with UN demands on ballistic and chemical arms, he had received scant co-operation until now in his quest for information on its biological capability.
Pressure on Iraq to confess to its germ programme intensified after the discovery that as much as 17 tons of germ-making material in the country's possession had not been accounted for.