- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 10, 2002

The Bush administration is ready to dispatch a team of experts to Iraq to investigate the fate of missing Persian Gulf war pilot Lt. Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher, defense officials said yesterday.
The Pentagon has drafted a reply to a formal offer from Baghdad to allow a team to look for the missing pilot if details for the investigation can be worked out, officials told The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity.
Iraq on Friday sent the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva the offer, which reached the State Department on Monday, the officials said.
The Iraqi government announced on its official radio March 24 in Baghdad that it would allow inspectors to visit Iraq to "discuss" the case.
A day after the announcement, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld expressed skepticism about the offer. He told reporters that "we're not aware of any offer by the Iraqi government" on the Speicher case and said Baghdad's leaders are "masters of propaganda."
"I don't believe very much that the regime of Saddam Hussein puts out," Mr. Rumsfeld said.
Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke has said that "Iraq could be more helpful, if it wanted to, in determining the fate" of Cmdr. Speicher.
"Now we have seen the Iraqi invitation to send a team to Iraq, and we are reviewing that," Marine Corps Lt. Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, said yesterday. "No decisions have been made."
Defense officials said the private Iraqi offer was dated April 5 and used language that was similar to Baghdad's public announcement.
The offer from the Foreign Ministry said Iraq would allow U.S. investigators to visit the country but added conditions for them and for media coverage, officials said.
The Iraqis said the U.S. team must include former United Nations weapons inspector Scott Ritter a critic of U.S. policy toward Iraq as well as American news reporters.
The Bush administration has agreed to send the investigators, officials said yesterday. But it is not likely to let Baghdad say who will be part of the team or how press coverage of the investigation will be arranged, the officials said.
"We're going to determine the composition of the investigative team, and we will coordinate with the Red Cross to do appropriate media coverage," one defense official said.
Pentagon officials have written a draft reply to the offer that is being discussed within the Pentagon and State Department. The draft was written by the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office.
Cmdr. Speicher is a U.S. Navy F-18 pilot who was lost on the first day of the 1991 Persian Gulf war, when his aircraft was shot down over Iraq.
The Pentagon initially classified him as killed in action but last year changed his status to missing in action. Contrary to the initial finding, a U.S. intelligence report last year concluded that Cmdr. Speicher probably survived the crash.
New intelligence information disclosed by The Times last month revealed that an American pilot, believed to be Cmdr. Speicher, was being held in Iraq.
Further discussions on the investigative team likely will take place in Geneva with an international group called the Tripartite Commission, made up of representatives from the United States, Iraq and several European nations.
The commission last met in Geneva on March 8, and the Iraqi representative did not participate. Its next meeting is set for July.
A State Department official said the reply message likely would be relayed through the Red Cross to Iraq before that or directly to the Iraqi government.
The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iraq and maintains an interests section at Poland's embassy in Baghdad.
In January 2001, the State Department issued a diplomatic note directly to the Iraqi government requesting information on the Speicher case, the official said.
The new intelligence gathered during the past several months revealed that Iraq was holding an American pilot captive and that only a few senior Iraqi officials, including the head of the Iraqi intelligence service, were allowed access to him.
The new intelligence added to earlier reports that an American pilot was being held prisoner based on sightings from former Iraqi officials and other people who have traveled inside Iraq.
An Iraqi defector first told U.S. officials in 1999 that he transported an injured American pilot to Baghdad six weeks after the start of the Gulf war. The defector later identified the pilot as Cmdr. Speicher from photographs.
In March 2001, the U.S. intelligence community completed a classified intelligence report on the Speicher case.
An unclassified summary made public last month said, "We assess that Iraq can account for Cmdr. Speicher but that Baghdad is concealing information about his fate."
The report was produced at the request of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and it concluded that Cmdr. Speicher "probably survived the loss of his aircraft, and if he survived, he almost certainly was captured by the Iraqis."
Cmdr. Speicher was not among the 21 U.S. military personnel released at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
In 1995, a team of U.S. investigators visited Cmdr. Speicher's downed aircraft in Iraq and obtained a flight suit believed to have been worn by the missing pilot.

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