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Posted: 1/10/2003 2:48:45 AM EDT
New reports say Iraq holding U.S. pilot
Bill Gertz
Published January 10, 2003

    The Defense Department recently obtained additional intelligence stating that a missing Navy pilot is alive and being held by the Iraqi government, according to U.S. officials.
    The intelligence officials believe that the reports refer to Navy Capt. Michael Scott Speicher, whose status was changed to "missing/captured" by the Navy in October.
    The reports, received in November, state that Iraq is holding a U.S. pilot and has moved the pilot among 18 locations in the country, according to officials familiar with the documents. The reports said the pilot was being treated by a doctor.
    The officials could not say how reliable the reports are or whether they represent "circular reporting" — new reports based on old intelligence information from the same source or similar sources.
    A spokesman of the Defense Intelligence Agency said that it receives such dispatches several times a year.
    "We investigate every single one," the spokesman said, without providing details.
    Cindy Laquidara, a Florida lawyer who represents Capt. Speicher's family, said in an interview that she recently spoke to an Iraqi defector who reported seeing a captive U.S. pilot in Iraq.
    The defector is one of at least three Iraqis who reported that Baghdad is holding an American pilot from the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
    Mrs. Laquidara said she believes the recent reports are based on the defector's statements.
    The intelligence officials said the latest information bolsters earlier reports indicating that Iraq has been holding an American pilot since the war.
    Disclosure of the additional information on the pilot comes as the U.S. military continues to send thousands of troops to the Middle East as part of a buildup of forces for any operation against Iraq.
    The prisoner-of-war case has complicated the Bush administration's effort to use the threat of military force to pressure Baghdad into disarming its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
    The officials said any U.S. military action against Iraq is likely to be preceded by covert operations to find and rescue Capt. Speicher inside Iraq, if he is still alive.
    There also are concerns among some Pentagon officials that Saddam Hussein might try to exploit the issue of the missing pilot in a standoff with the United States. Iraq might reveal that it has the pilot and then threaten to execute him if U.S. forces invade.
    Mrs. Laquidara said she had contacted Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations about Capt. Speicher late last year and was told that Baghdad is willing to make a "humanitarian gesture," which she interpreted as meaning that Iraq may turn over the pilot or his remains.
    "The Iraqis expressed a willingness to help me get answers to what happened, and where he or his remains are," Mrs. Laquidara said. "They did not admit that they have him, only that they would help.
    "We feel that there is an urgent need to resolve the case" before any conflict erupts, she said.
    Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican and incoming chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said in an interview that he has been pressing the Bush administration to resolve the Speicher case, as preparations for war are under way.
    Information obtained recently from congressional staff visits to the region indicate that "more and more there are signs that an American POW is in Iraq," Mr. Roberts said.
    He said that with Iraq facing attack, Saddam may be more willing to help resolve the case.
    "I think we have a window of opportunity now, and we should do everything we can to use that" to find out about Capt. Speicher, Mr. Roberts said.
    He sent a letter to Saddam on Monday appealing for Baghdad's help.
    Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, told reporters last month that a conflict with Iraq will make it more difficult to resolve the fate of Capt. Speicher.
    "The clock is ticking," Mr. Nelson told the Jacksonville, Fla., Times-Union. "Once the balloon goes up in a hot war, it's going to be a lot more difficult to get information. For the Defense Department to keep dragging their feet, as they have in the past, that time is over."
    Baghdad said last year that Capt. Speicher was dead and invited the U.S. government to send a team of investigators to look for him.
    The Bush administration balked. The State Department and Pentagon chose, instead, to send a diplomatic note seeking more information.
    In October, the Navy changed the status of Capt. Speicher to "missing in action, captured." It was the second time since 2001 that the Navy changed the downed pilot's status. He was initially declared killed in action after the F-18 jet he was flying was shot down over Iraq in January 1991. That was later changed to "missing in action" in 2001 and finally "missing/captured."
    The status changes followed an investigation revealing that Capt. Speicher survived the F-18 downing by ejecting and numerous intelligence reports indicating that Iraq was holding a pilot from the Gulf war.
    Navy Secretary Gordon England stated in a memorandum issued Oct. 11 that the status change does not mean Capt. Speicher's location is known. He said that if the Iraqis are holding Capt. Speicher, "he is entitled to prisoner-of-war status under the Geneva Convention and would have been entitled to that status from the first day he came under Iraqi control." He also said that if Capt. Speicher is alive, "he is a prisoner of war."
    President Bush said in a speech in September to the United Nations that Iraq had failed to account for missing prisoners, including a pilot.
    Mr. Bush signed legislation into law in October aimed at helping to resolve Capt. Speicher's case.
    The Persian Gulf War POW/MIA Accountability Act amended earlier law on missing military personnel.
    The new legislation gives the attorney general the power to grant refugee status to any Iraqi or Middle East national who "personally delivers into the custody of the United States government a living American Persian Gulf War POW/MIA." Copyright &##169; 2003 News World Communications, Inc. All rights reserved
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