Pentagon thinking about sending team to Iraq to look into Gulf War pilot's fate

Wednesday, April 10th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Pentagon is considering sending a team of investigators to Iraq to determine what happened to the Navy pilot who was the first U.S. casualty of the Persian Gulf War.

Defense officials are studying an Iraqi invitation received this week in which Baghdad said it would meet with a U.S. delegation to discuss the fate of Lt. Cmdr. Scott Speicher, whose FA-18 Hornet was shot down Jan. 17, 1991, said Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Lapan.

The Iraqi overture carried several conditions that have to be considered, including that a U.S. news media team accompany the delegation and that it include the former head of the United Nations' Iraq weapons inspection team, who is now a vocal critic of U.S. Iraqi policy.

``No decision has been made about sending at team at this point,'' Lapan said.

Iraq announced the idea in late March but the formal letter extending the invitation only recently arrived at the Pentagon because it came via the International Committee of the Red Cross and then the State Department.

Speicher, then 33, of Jacksonville, Fla., was shot down when his jet was struck by a missile on the first night of the war to drive Iraq from Kuwait. Another pilot said he saw the fireball and did not see Speicher eject.

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.

Iraq says Speicher was killed and has ridiculed assertions that he may still be held captive.

Speicher's family supports the idea of sending a U.S. team. Family attorney Cindy Laquidara has said the family believes there is a good chance that he survived by ejecting from his plane and is imprisoned.

U.S. officials are not so sure and have said privately that they believe Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would long ago have tried to make some political use of Speicher if the pilot were still captive.

Still, 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.

Speicher, the only one still unaccounted for, was declared killed in action several months after the crash. But the Navy redesignated him missing in action last year on the basis of what officials said were intelligence reports from several different sources.

Asked recently why the Speicher case has come up again, Iraq's U.N. Ambassador Mohammad Al-Douri said: ``Really I think that's part of the campaign against Iraq.''

The Bush administration has warned Iraq it may become a next target in the war on terrorism unless it allows U.N. weapons inspectors back in the country to investigate Western claims the country is building weapons of mass destruction. Iraq insists it has destroyed all such weapons, and has barred inspectors since they left in December 1998.