The United States said Friday it is ready to help Iraqi scientists who come forward with evidence about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs. Last month's U.N. Security Council resolution authorizes such persons and their dependents to be evacuated from Iraq for interviews.

U.S. officials believe information from "insiders" may be crucial in disproving Iraq's assertions that it no longer possesses weapons of mass destruction. At a briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher stopped short of confirming a New York Times report that the Bush administration will offer asylum and a so-called "witness protection program" to Iraqi scientists.

But he made clear the United States' is ready to help. "We will offer whatever support we can to people who want to talk to the United Nations and need to be able to talk to the United Nations freely," he said. "That we would be concerned about the safety and welfare of these individuals, as well as their family members who might remain in a repressive situation inside Iraq."

The issue has apparently generated friction between U.S. officials and U.N. inspections chief Han Blix, who has stressed the difficulty of conducting outside interviews. In New York remarks Friday, he denied being pressured by the United States, but also said his organization would not be a "defection agency."