By JOHN F. BURNS
L TAJI, Iraq, March 12 — To hear senior Bush administration officials tell it, Iraq's latest pilotless drone has the potential to be one of Saddam Hussein's deadliest weapons, able to deliver terrifying payloads of chemical and biological warfare agents across Iraq's borders to Israel or other neighboring states. It could even, they say, be broken down and smuggled into the United States for use in terrorist attacks.
But viewed up close today by reporters hastened by Iraqi officials to the Ibn Firnas weapons plant outside Baghdad, the vehicle the Iraqis have code-named RPV-30A, for remotely piloted vehicle, looked more like something out of the Rube Goldberg museum of aeronautical design than anything that could threaten Iraq's foes. To the layman's eye, the public unveiling of the Iraqi prototype seemed to lend the crisis over Iraq's weapons an aura less of deadly threat than of farce.
The visit to the drone factory was nevertheless a master class in the problems confronting United Nations weapons inspectors in sorting truth from fiction in daily forays that have now taken them to nearly 800 different sites across Iraq in 15 weeks of searching.
At scores of other military factories and design centers, as well as airfields, laboratories, bottling plants, seed storage facilities and other improbable destinations, the Iraqis' professed determination to prove themselves free of banned weapons appears to have thrown up an endless array of vexing new questions.
At the Ibn Firnas factory, visited five times by inspectors looking into the issue of banned drones, the unresolved questions were many.
Was the RPV-30A the craft that American intelligence spotted last summer, flying a "racetrack pattern" at a nearby airfield, or were there other undeclared drones, perhaps less amateurish and fragile than the one put on display? If, as American intelligence officials have said, Iraq has been working on drones as weapons delivery systems for at least 10 years, the prototype shown today suggested that progress has been painfully slow.
Resting on trestles on a sidewalk, the drone seemed like a sad, patched-together affair. Its two tiny engines, each about the size of a whiskey bottle, and attached to minuscule wooden propellers, looked about powerful enough to drive a Weed Whacker, as one wag present suggested. Like a primitive biplane from the earliest days of flight, its wings and twinned tail fins were made of wood and stretched fabric. Swathes of plastic masking tape covered the wing joints.
Metal fastening plates had been crudely drilled for screws that appeared to have been forgotten, and electrical actuators for the ailerons and other flight surfaces were secured to the outside of the craft, unprotected against weather.
As if only divine providence could keep it aloft, the vehicle's white-and-black fuselage was painted at several places with the words of the Muslim prayer, "God is great," hand-lettered in red. The craft's name, "Al Quds-10," was taken from the Arabic name of Jerusalem, which Mr. Hussein has frequently vowed to conquer for the Arabs.
By summoning reporters to the information ministry at short notice, then escorting them on a viewing of the drone, Iraqi officials showed again the mixture of alarm and contempt with which they have reacted to intensifying American pressures. Faced with the imminent threat of war over Washington's allegations that it is continuing to hide and develop weapons of mass destruction, the Baghdad government has been keeping a minute-by-minute vigil on satellite television and news agency reports of American pronouncements, then reacting fast to those they consider most damaging.
The display of the drone today followed days of mounting agitation by the United States and Britain on the issue.
The subject was first broached at the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 5 by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who set out American concerns about "unmanned aerial vehicles" under development by Iraq in the context of a crucial presentation of American evidence against Mr. Hussein's government. On that occasion, Mr. Powell warned that the drones could carry biological and chemical warheads outside Iraq's borders, and could even be smuggled into the United States.
On Friday, the issue came into still sharper focus when a written report delivered to the Council by Hans Blix, one of the two chief United Nations weapons inspectors, recorded the discovery of a drone with a wingspan of 24 feet that required further investigation to see whether it contravened United Nations weapons bans. A fact sheet put out by the State Department on Monday described the drone as having a "drop tank system," a spraying mechanism that could be used to spread lethal germs.
Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, said the discovery heightened concerns that drones with chemical or biological weapons could be used against American troops in coming weeks. Then today, Britain included a demand that Mr. Hussein admit to possession of banned drones as one of the conditions to be set in a new United Nations resolution that Britain and the United States have said they would like to see passed later this week, setting a deadline for Iraqi compliance that could be a trigger for war.
The Iraqi officer who identified himself today as the drone project manager, Brig. Gen. Imad Abdul Latif, said with a note of self-reproach that the RPV-30A's early test flights had been so wretched that it had ventured no further than two miles from the airfield, and that it had been grounded following "certain technical problems which had to do with aerodynamic design and engines."
In any case, he and other officials said, the vehicle could not be controlled from a distance of more than five miles, in good weather, since its controllers tracked it "with the naked eye."
As for the allegation that RPV-30A could deliver chemical and biological weapons, Gen. Latif scoffed.
"This is impossible," he said. "This matter should be taken into consideration from the very beginning of the design — there should be safety measures, from the beginning, in the design."
In any event, he said, the plant had never received any instruction, "verbally or in writing" to develop drones that could carry chemical or biological payloads.
Another officer, Gen. Ibrahim Hussein, director general of the plant, said the craft had been designed with a view to "reconnaissance, jamming and aerial photography."
The vehicle on display, which appeared to have a fuselage about six feet long and was fashioned from a pod taken from the wing of a much larger aircraft, had no visible payload. Between the two engines, mounted fore and aft of the fuselage, the pod appeared to be empty.
Then there was the issue of the self-professed Iraqi typing error that was said to have confused the issue of whether the Iraqis had declared the RPV-30A to the inspectors, as required, or not. It is a niggling issue, but one characteristic of the manifold anomalies that have ensnared the inspections.
To the allegation that they had attempted to hide the RPV-30A, Iraqi officials said today that although they failed to list it in the 12,000-page declaration to the United Nations on Dec. 7 that set the stage for the inspections, they had done so in another report on Jan. 15.
"He's making a big mistake," Brig. Latif said of Mr. Powell. "He knows very well that this aircraft is not used for what he said."