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Posted by Jeff from bgp01107368bgs.wbrmfd01.mi.comcast.net ( on Sunday, March 24, 2002 at 12:48PM :

Iraq Ready to Accept U.S. Team to Probe Pilot's Fate
Sun Mar 24, 1:22 PM ET

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq said Sunday it was ready to receive an American team to probe the fate of a U.S. pilot shot down over Iraq at the start of the Gulf War (news - web sites) in 1991. Lieutenant Commander Michael Scott Speicher was lost on the first day of the war when his Navy F-18 attack jet was apparently hit and crashed in a fireball over Iraq on Jan. 17, 1991. Washington listed him as the first casualty of the war, but reclassified him as "missing in action" in January 2001 following evidence he might have survived the crash.

Iraq says Speicher is dead, but Washington says Baghdad has ignored requests for an explanation as to his fate after the crash.

"To prove our good will in this regard and to refute repeated American allegations against Iraq, we express readiness of concerned Iraqi parties to receive an American team to visit Iraq to probe into the (U.S. pilot) issue," an Iraqi Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

He said the investigation had "to be accompanied by an American media team for coverage and documentation under the supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross."

It must also include the former leader of the U.N. weapons inspection team in Iraq, Scott Ritter, now a vocal critic of American policy on Iraq.

Vice President Dick Cheney (news - web sites) told CBS's "Face the Nation" program he was unaware of the offer. "I would have to take a look at the report ... and see whether or not this is a serious proposition ...," he said.

The Washington Times newspaper reported on March 11 that U.S. intelligence agencies had obtained new information indicating Speicher was alive and in captivity in Iraq.

But a U.S. official, who asked not to be named, disputed the report. "There is no evidence indicating he is still alive," he said.

Although no wreckage was initially found, defense officials said Pentagon (news - web sites) documents showed U.S. spy satellites had later detected what was described as a man-made symbol at the crash site. They declined to give details.

Iraq's announcement comes two weeks after the United States brought up the subject of Speicher at a meeting in Geneva of a Tripartite Commission grouping Iraq, the International Red Cross and the Gulf War allies.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said afterwards the U.S. delegation had "underscored that Iraq continued to shirk its responsibility to answer the many unresolved questions about Speicher's fate."

The United States has warned Iraq could become the next target in the war on terror unless it allows U.N. weapons inspectors back in the country to verify it is not holding any weapons of mass destruction.

Iraq, which has barred inspectors since they left in December 1988, insists it has destroyed all such weapons.

-- Jeff
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