- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2003

TIKRIT, Iraq Military officials here are being cautious about whether they have recovered the remains of a downed U.S. airman, after villagers directed them to a burial site that also yielded what appears to be part of an F-15 jet.

Soldiers yesterday unearthed what they said appeared to be human remains and a pair of binoculars wrapped in an American flag in a spot where local residents said they buried the pilot of an American fighter jet.

An Air Force F-15E went down April 7 near Tikrit, and the Pentagon confirmed last week that both its crewmen were killed in the crash. Officials here yesterday cautioned against speculating about yesterday's discovery, but said the Iraqis appear to have been scrupulous in burying the remains.

The villagers say they watched the fighter jet crash during the opening days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, according to one Army civil affairs officer who has been working with the villagers.

Soldiers scanning near the site yesterday found a mangled strip of blue steel with English writing on it, said Maj. Robert Camara, a civil affairs officer attached to the 4th Infantry Division.

It was not confirmed yesterday whether the metal strip belonged to an American jet, but it appeared to be likely that it was part of an F-15.

The words "St. Louis Missouri US" and "McDonnell Douglas," were printed on a tag affixed to part of the strip. St. Louis-based McDonnell Douglas, which merged with Boeing in 1997, makes the F-15 fighter jet.

The metal strip had a bundle of ripped wires protruding from it and another marking that read, "Adapter to pylon electrical connector."

However, officers with the Army's 4th Infantry Division have not found a crash site. The Iraqis may be telling the truth, but several officers said they are being cautious in case the villagers are trying to mislead them.

"Maybe it's locals trying to get leverage, maybe to get stuff that they want," said Capt. Joseph W. Vongs, the intelligence officer for the 4th Infantry's Aviation Brigade. "The other possibility is that they treated American remains with utmost respect and did as much as they could for them."

The strip of steel was found near the site where a villager told civil affairs officials that a piece of the downed jet had been placed after the burial of its pilot, Maj. Camara said.

He said that an Iraqi man came to him with the reports about the American jet on Monday after the civil affairs unit had delivered a gas-powered electrical generator to the village, which has been without electricity since U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein's regime.

"He got really nervous and started smoking cigarettes like crazy," Maj. Camara said. The villager told him the pilot's remains had been pulled from the burning debris of the jet.

Maj. Camara said the man told him that the villagers tried to bring the remains to a hospital in Tikrit. But the hospital did not have electricity, the man said, so they carefully wrapped the remains in a plastic bag and buried them in a shallow grave.

He said soldiers found the spot Monday afternoon and had been digging a short time before they began hitting a plastic bag about 2 feet beneath the surface. The site was secured, and troops fully excavated it yesterday.

Military officials were careful not to jump to conclusions. "They appear to be human remains. We can't confirm or deny it. We're sending them back to a pathologist," said Capt. Thomas D. Jagielski of the 75th Exploitation Task Force, which is attached to the 4th Infantry.

Capt. Jagielski said packed closely to the remains were a pair of "American binoculars wrapped in an American flag, part of a poncho liner and a poncho."

Military sources said a helmet of some sort also was found with the remains, which they said were in what appeared to be some sort of harness. They said the remains were badly burnt and decomposed, but there was enough "DNA recoverable material" for the identification process.

Military officials requested that names not be used and warned against speculation about the discovery.

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