Iraqi's Tip Leads to Discovery of Remains of Pilot Shot Down in 1991

The remains of the first American lost in the Persian Gulf War have been found in Iraq, the military said Sunday, after struggling for nearly two decades with the question of whether he was dead or alive. Video by AP
By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 3, 2009

A nearly two-decade-long odyssey to find Navy Capt. Michael Scott Speicher, whose fighter jet was shot down during the opening days of the Persian Gulf War, ended Sunday when the U.S. military announced that an Iraqi living in the remote desert expanse of Anbar province had helped direct Marines to the downed pilot's burial site.

Speicher's fate had been the subject of several high-level Pentagon investigations, hundreds of rumors and countless conspiracy theories since his plane was shot down over western Iraq on Jan. 17, 1991. His friends and family, including two college-age children who were toddlers when Speicher disappeared, never gave up hope that he would be found.

It is unclear why the Iraqi who helped lead the Marines to the pilot's body came forward more than six years after the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. Throughout much of the Iraq war, Anbar province, where Speicher's plane went down, was the heart of the Sunni insurgency and was one of the most violent places in Iraq. In late 2006, Sunni tribes, which had allied themselves with al-Qaeda in Iraq operatives, switched sides and teamed with the U.S. military to fight the extremists.

Early last month, the Iraqi citizen approached U.S. Marines and said he knew two other Iraqis who remembered the jet crashing in the desert. The Marines quickly tracked down the two witnesses, one of whom told them he was present when a group of Bedouins buried Speicher's remains. The Iraqis then led the Marines to the crash site, where Speicher's body was found.

The Pentagon did not explain why the Bedouins chose to bury Speicher. Muslim law demands that a burial be conducted promptly after death, and it is possible that the Bedouins buried him out of respect for the body.

A 53-year-old tribal leader who asked not to be named said he recalls Iraqi army officers coming to him for guidance shortly after Speicher's remains were found.

"They asked me if it was religiously acceptable to bury a Christian like you'd bury a Muslim," the tribal leader said. "I told them that regardless of religion, any person should be properly buried."

The discovery of Speicher's remains brings resolution to the most prominent mystery of the Persian Gulf War at a time when the U.S. military's heavy involvement in the long Iraq war is poised over the next year to draw to a close.

Hours after Speicher's jet crashed, then-Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney appeared on television and announced that the United States had suffered its first fatality of the war with Iraq. Because Speicher's remains were never found, the mystery over the pilot's fate persisted, and at least one Iraqi exile claimed to have seen him in captivity. The exile was later discredited.

As the United States was readying for war with Iraq in fall 2002, the Navy said it was switching his status to "missing/captured." Senior Navy officials never explained why the change was made or what evidence the Navy had to suggest that Iraqi forces were holding Speicher. Some speculated that it was part of a broader campaign inside the Pentagon to drum up support for the war.

Speicher's family, which lives in Jacksonville, Fla., continued to push the Pentagon to search for the downed pilot. His case captured the attention of many lawmakers, including Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.).

A spokeswoman for Speicher's relatives told the Associated Press on Sunday that she was pleased that the Pentagon never gave up on finding him. "The family's proud of the way the Defense Department continued with our request" not to abandon the search, said Cindy Laquidara, the family spokeswoman.

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