The Reagan administration secretly gave Iraq vital tactical help despite knowing that Iraqi troops would use chemical warfare in its war against Iran, The New York Times reported Sunday.

Iraq's use of chemical weapons in that conflict, from 1981 to 1988, is now cited by the Bush administration as a reason to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.

Senior military officers with direct knowledge of the American dealings with Iraq told the newspaper that the covert program was in full swing even though the Reagan administration's top brass were publicly blasting Baghdad for relying on poison gas, most notable on minority Kurds in March 1988. Among the loudest condemners was then-national security adviser Gen. Colin Powell, now secretary of state under Bush.

A spokesman for Powell called the latest allegations that the U.S. knowingly let Iraq use chemical weapons "dead wrong," but would not further discuss it. Other senior military officials from the period and the Defense Intelligence Agency declined to comment.

The new revelations are evidence that the United States was more deeply involved in the Iran-Iraq war than previously believed. The U.S. had taken a firm anti-Iran stance to protect oil-producing states nearby from Tehran's brand of Islamic zealotry, and it was long known that Washington gave Iraq intelligence assistance in the form of satellite reconnaissance.

According to the senior officials, who asked not to be identified, Reagan, Vice President George Bush and senior military officials supported the program that had more than 60 DIA officers essentially working for Iraq, giving Baghdad detailed information on Iranian strengths and troop deployments, tactical planning, airstrike plans and damage assessment. That support never wavered even though the administration knew that Iraq was using mustard gas, sarin and VX against Iranian soldiers.

Iraq never, however, explicitly admitted using chemical weapons to the U.S., though it became more and more obvious as the war wore on..

A senior defense intelligence officer at the time said that the U.S.'s paramount concern was that Iran did not win.

The DIA "would have never accepted the use of chemical weapons against civilians, but the use against military objectives was seen as inevitable in the Iraqi struggle for survival," Col. Walter P. Lang, now retired, told the newspaper.