Pentagon may send delegation to Iraq

Thursday, April 11, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Defense officials are trying to decide if there is anything to gain by sending a delegation to Iraq to further investigate the decade-old loss of a Gulf War pilot.

The officials were considering a letter received Monday in which Baghdad suggested a U.S. delegation visit to discuss the fate of Lt. Cmdr. Scott Speicher, shot down over Iraq in Jan. 17, 1991, the first day of the war.

"No decision has been made about sending a team at this point," Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Lapan said Wednesday.

A senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Pentagon could make a number of demands, including seeking assurances Iraq has evidence on the missing Navy pilot that it will share with any delegation.

Invitation to investigate

Iraq announced the offer late last month but the letter extending the invitation arrived at the Pentagon only Monday because it came via the International Committee of the Red Cross and the State Department, Lapan said.

The March 19 letter said: "Concerned authorities are ready to receive a U.S. team to visit Iraq and investigate the question (of Speicher's fate) in the company of both a U.S. media team for coverage and documentation purposes, under supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and with participation of Mr. Scott Ritter."

Ritter is a former Marine intelligence officer and U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq who has become a critic of U.S. policy toward the country.

Speicher, then 33, of Jacksonville, Fla., was shot down when his FA-18 Hornet was struck by a missile on the first night of the war to drive Iraq from Kuwait.

One U.S. team already has gone to Iraq -- an excavation team that visited the crash site in 1995, finding aircraft debris but no human remains. U.S. officials have said the site was tampered with because reconnaissance photos showed part of the plane removed, then returned, before the excavation team arrived.

Some members of Speicher's family support the idea of sending a U.S. team, believing he may have survived the crash and be imprisoned.

U.S. officials are not so sure, saying privately that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein long ago would have tried to make political use of Speicher if he were still captive.

Nevertheless, Lapan said, defense officials are considering the offer to send a delegation "because we don't know" what happened to Speicher.

Speicher's flight suit was found at the crash site and there have been persistent intelligence reports about a U.S. pilot held in Baghdad.

The only one still unaccounted for from the war, Speicher was declared killed in action several months after the crash.

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