By ROBERT BURNS
AP Military Writer
A Navy pilot shot down over Iraq in January 1991 may have been captured by Iraqi forces, and members of the former Iraqi government "know the whereabouts" of the officer, the Navy has concluded.
A Navy board of inquiry concluded that there is no credible evidence that Capt. Michael "Scott" Speicher is dead, and it reaffirmed his official status as "missing/captured," according to the board's final report.
The board also recommended that the Pentagon work with the State Department, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the Iraqi government to "increase the level of attention and effort inside Iraq" to resolve the question of Speicher's fate.
Navy Secretary Gordon England approved the report on Wednesday, according to Lt. Erin Bailey, a Navy spokeswoman.
The Iraqi government under President Saddam Hussein maintained from the start that Speicher perished at the site where his F/A-18 fighter jet crashed in the desert. No evidence to contradict that has surfaced since the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, but the new Navy inquiry concluded there was no credible evidence of his death, either.
"In view of the above findings, the board concludes as to the current whereabouts and status of the person that the person missing/captured," the report said. A copy of the report was provided to The Associated Press.
After the fall of Baghdad, a team of U.S. investigators searched for evidence of Speicher's fate, but reported finding nothing conclusive.
The board of inquiry noted that years after the shootdown, which happened on the opening night of the 1991 Gulf War, the Iraqi government turned over a flight suit and other items associated with Speicher's aircraft.
That fact "leads us to conclude that elements of the former Iraqi regime know the whereabouts of Captain Speicher," the report said.
The board of inquiry also said that a March 2005 U.S. intelligence report on the Speicher case contained unanswered questions, and it recommended that a POW/MIA analytical cell continue its efforts to resolve those questions. It did not provide details on this, noting that the March report is classified secret.
The Navy has changed its position on Speicher's status over the years. Hours after his plane went down, the Pentagon declared him killed in action. Ten years later, the Navy changed his status to MIA, citing an absence of evidence that he had died. In October 2002, the Navy switched his status to "missing-captured," although it has never said what evidence it had that he was in captivity.
A Pentagon team assigned to search for evidence of Speicher after the fall of Baghdad completed its efforts in May 2004. In congressional testimony shortly afterward, Marine Brig. Gen. Joseph J. McMenamin, who led the search team, said all in-country leads regarding the pilot's fate had been exhausted.
McMenamin also said, however, that some leads could not be fully pursued because of the security threat from the Iraq insurgency. Another problem, he said, was that nomadic Bedouin tribesmen who may have information of value are difficult to find. And some who might have information about Speicher may be intimidated by the threat of retribution by members of the former Saddam regime who are still at large.