The United States on Monday accused Iraq, North Korea and possibly Iran of violating an international treaty banning weapons of germ warfare and said Syria might also be able to produce biological weapons.
Pointing the finger firmly at Iraq, John R. Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control, told 144 nations that have signed the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention that the United States finds North Korea's weapons program "extremely disturbing."
"The United States strongly suspects that Iraq has taken advantage of three years of no U.N. inspections to improve all phases of its offensive biological weapons program," said Bolton, who added that "the existence of Iraq's program is beyond dispute."
He said the United States believed North Korea had a dedicated, national-level effort to achieve a biological weapons capability and that it has "developed and produced, and may have weaponized" biological agents.
He also said the United States was "quite concerned" about Libya, Syria and Sudan, all of which appeared to have biological weapons programs.
"There are other states I could have named which the United States will be contacting privately concerning our belief that they are pursuing an offensive biological weapons program," he said.
Bolton said the United States knows "that Osama bin Laden considers obtaining weapons of mass destruction to be a sacred duty" and wants to use them against the United States."
"We are concerned that he could have been trying to acquire a rudimentary biological weapons capability, possibly with support from a state."
But he said the United States was "not prepared to comment whether rogue states may have assisted" bin Laden in the plan.
Ali Asghar Soltanieh, the Iranian ambassador to the conference, said the allegation that his country was developing biological weapons was "unjustified and baseless."
The United States, which has rejected a legally binding inspection plan under the treaty, said it would rather set up a mechanism under which the U.N. secretary-general would order inspections when violations are suspected.
Other countries, however, said the binding commitment is necessary if the treaty is to be effective.
Belgian Ambassador Jean Lint, speaking for the European Union, said the 15-nation bloc also supports the inclusion of "investigation measures" under the treaty.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a message to the conference that it faced a clear challenge to deal with the threat of biological weapons.
"The horrific attacks on Sept. 11 could have been far worse if weapons of mass destruction had been used," Annan said. "In recent weeks, the world has seen the use of biological agents to create chaos and terror violating the international norm."
The emergence of anthrax-tainted letters in the United States in the weeks following the Sept. 11 terrorist attack has shown a spotlight on the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, subject of the three-week eeting.
The treaty drafters omitted a way to enforce the convention in 1972, in part because no one seriously thought anyone would try to use germ warfare.
©MMI, CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press and Reuters Limited contributed to this report