- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 26, 2002

The Bush administration is studying an announced Iraqi government offer to have U.S. inspectors visit the country to resolve the fate of a U.S. Navy pilot missing since the Persian Gulf war.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the administration is examining the offer, made Sunday by the Iraqi foreign ministry, for a team to investigate the fate of Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michael S. Speicher. Cmdr. Speicher was reported killed in 1991 when his F-18 was shot down, but last year he was reclassified as missing based on new information.
The Washington Times reported earlier this month that recent intelligence findings indicated Cmdr. Speicher was alive and being held captive in Iraq.
"The government is always interested in any information concerning those who are missing in action," Mr. Fleischer said. "Right now … we do not have enough information to evaluate what is or is not part of this statement or media report."
At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher said the international organization based in Geneva known as the Tripartite Commission, which includes Iraq, has not received a formal offer from the Iraqi government for a team to visit the country.
"We've also sent numerous communications to Iraq for specific information and answers to specific questions regarding the shootdown of Cmdr. Speicher's aircraft," Mr. Boucher said. "So I would say if Iraq is serious about wanting to address this humanitarian issue, they have only to respond to the specific questions through any one of our formal channels. And we have not gotten this proposal through any one of our formal channels."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, asked about the Iraqi offer, expressed skepticism.
"I don't believe very much that the regime of Saddam Hussein puts out," Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon.
"They're masters at propaganda," he said. "Second, we're not aware of any offer by the Iraqi government. There are several formal ways that those offers can be made. You cited it as though it's a fact; to my knowledge, it is only a fact that it's been printed. Whether it's actually happened, I'm not aware of it, nor is the Department of State, to my knowledge.
"Needless to say, we have a great deal of interest in anything involving Commander Speicher, from any source," Mr. Rumsfeld said, noting that he had no new information about whether the pilot was alive.
The State Department "will clearly be at this end of the receiving set to find out" more about the Iraqi offer, Mr. Rumsfeld said. As of yesterday morning, "they seem not to have received the proposal," he said.
U.S. intelligence agencies notified Congress on Feb. 4 that new information about the case had been obtained. A briefing two weeks ago indicated that a person who had been inside Iraq disclosed in the past several months that Iraq was holding an American pilot prisoner and that only senior Iraqi officials were permitted to see him.
Cmdr. Speicher is the only American pilot who has not been accounted for in the 1991 Gulf war.
A U.S. intelligence report produced in March 2001 stated: "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. It stated that Cmdr. Speicher "probably survived the loss of his aircraft, and if he survived, he almost certainly was captured by the Iraqis."
Mr. Boucher said that if Iraq wanted to make a formal offer for U.S. investigators to visit, it "should make it through the formal mechanisms."
An Iraqi Foreign Ministry statement Sunday said that Cmdr. Speicher is dead but that a team of investigators is welcome to come as a sign of Iraqi "good will" and to "refute repeated American allegations against Iraq" about the missing pilot.
Some U.S. defense and intelligence officials have tried to dismiss reports that Cmdr. Speicher is being held prisoner in Iraq and have said that if Saddam were holding an American, he would have used the prisoner for propaganda purposes.
Other officials who believe Cmdr. Speicher is a captive point out Iraq's detention of an Iranian pilot for 17 years while denying holding any Iranian prisoners.
Iraq also is believed to be holding several hundred Kuwaiti prisoners captured during its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.


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