- The Washington Times - Friday, July 12, 2002

The Bush administration will send a diplomatic note, but not a team of people, to Iraq as part of efforts to resolve the fate of missing Navy pilot Lt. Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld stated in a memorandum to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on Monday that he agreed sending the note "is the best approach" on Baghdad's offer to allow investigators to search for the pilot.

Iraq's official government radio announced March 24 that Baghdad was "ready to receive a U.S. team to visit Iraq and discuss this issue."

The Iraqi offer initially was dismissed by State Department spokesman Richard Boucher as unconfirmed.

Iraq formally presented the offer several weeks after the radio broadcast and attached conditions to a visit, including that any U.S. team include former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter and American news reporters.

Mr. Rumsfeld stated in the memo that an interagency meeting led by the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office had concluded a note was the best way "to confirm Iraq's intention to provide new information" on the missing pilot's fate.

"I completely agree that we need to explore every avenue to resolve the case and that we should respond to the Iraqi offer," Mr. Rumsfeld said.

Marine Corps Lt. Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, said the decision not to send a team to Iraq is based on doubts about Baghdad's sincerity in offering to resolve the case.

"The intent [of the note] is to find out if the Iraqis really have some information to share," Col. Lapan said. "There is some skepticism as to whether the Iraqis were offering anything new.

"Shortly, the ball will be back in the Iraqi court to decide what they've got to share with us," he said.

Defense officials said the diplomatic note is expected to be sent to Iraq later this month through the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, where talks on issues related to the Persian Gulf war have been held.

"If and when Iraq responds to your note, we can decide on whether to propose a meeting in Geneva under the auspices of the ICRC," Mr. Rumsfeld said.

Cmdr. Speicher was lost the first night of military operations in the 1991 Persian Gulf war. Based on initial reports that his F-18 jet broke up from a missile attack, he was declared killed in action, body not recovered.

Later, however, his aircraft was found on the ground, and a team that visited the site determined that he had ejected and probably survived the crash.

Based on intelligence reports, the Pentagon last year changed Cmdr. Speicher's status to missing in action.

U.S. intelligence officials said additional reports from defectors and others with access to the Iraqi government have indicated that Iraq is holding an American pilot who some officials believe is Cmdr. Speicher.

The intelligence information was disclosed by The Washington Times in March.

Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, said in an interview that he wants the administration to send a team of investigators to Iraq.

"As far as I'm concerned, any progress is good," he said. "But I think we ought to push to the very utmost; we ought to send some kind of delegation over there to find out what information they've got. What we need is information."

Asked about the administration's slow response to the Iraqi offer, Mr. Nelson said: "It's unconscionable that we would walk away from a downed pilot to begin with. Then through a series of mistakes and errors, we have a downed pilot who was later sighted and now not having the full weight of the U.S. government in there trying to find information frustrated is not the word. I'm mad as hell."

Col. Lapan said simply dispatching a team to Iraq may not be productive.

"The Iraqi offer came with conditions," Col. Lapan said in an interview. "There are questions about whether we would have free rein to go and talk to whoever we wanted to, or whether this is an Iraqi propaganda ploy."

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