Mr Aziz's announcement yesterday, a day after Lieutenant-General Hussein Kamel Hassan al-Majid explained his defection to Jordan, appeared to be a pre-emptive move. General Hussein Kamel possesses Saddam's most sensitive military secrets.
In admitting Iraq had withheld weapons secrets, Mr Aziz blamed the decision of General Hussein Kamel, who was head of the Military Industrialisation Organisation (MIO), to flee Iraq and asked Rolf Ekeus, chairman of the UN Special Commission (Unscom), and Hans Blix, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to visit Baghdad "urgently" to obtain the information.
"After Hussein Kamel fled, several MIO officials said this traitor had ordered them to hide important information from Unscom on Iraq's past weapons programmes," said Mr Aziz. The general, he said, "made these MIO officials believe that the orders were from the highest authorities and threatened them with punishment if they disobeyed these orders".
Mr Aziz said General Hussein Kamel had hidden the information to give the United States an excuse to block a lifting of sanctions imposed after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Iraq said it gave Mr Ekeus this month a report on its germ warfare programme, described as the last remaining obstacle to a lifting of UN sanctions. But Mr Ekeus said later the report was incomplete.
The UN Security Council, which meets every two months to review the sanctions, is due to meet again next month.
Diplomats have reported that US officials are in contact with General Hussein Kamel, the mastermind of Iraq's military programmes. As head of military procurement, he must also know the location of funds hidden abroad that have kept Iraq afloat through five years of a UN ban on all exports.
The Iraqi step was seen as a demonstration of Saddam's willingness to make unpalatable concessions when necessary to survive, reinforcing the views of Jordanian officials and diplomats that the Iraqi leader may be shaken but is unlikely to fall soon.
A key aide and cousin to President Saddam, meanwhile, pledged his family's loyalty to the Iraqi leader yesterday and called for General Hassan Kamel's death. "Our family denounces this cowardly act and betrayal, which will be repaired only with blood," General Ali Hassan al-Majid said in a letter to Iraqi newspapers. "We proclaim before God and before the people that we disown he who stole the people's money, betrayed the [party's] principles and the leader's confidence."