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By Rowan Scarborough

Members of the U.S. team investigating the fate of Capt. Scott Speicher have concluded that the Navy fighter pilot is dead, according to sources close to the mission.

But his remains have not been found.  A promising lead to finally resolving the matter vanished recently when buried remains thought to be Captain Speicher's turned out not to be of the downed pilot.

The sources said Army Major General Keith Dayton,  the former director of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG),  has told officials in recent days that investigators now believe the pilot shot down in 1991 over Iraq is not alive.

The conclusion is based largely on the fact that all leads to Captain Speicher's whereabouts have turned up no evidence he is alive.

"What I have heard [Gen. Dayton] say is there is no evidence he was ever in captivity,"  said a senior defense official.

ISG officials now believe Captain Speicher either died in the crash or shortly thereafter in Iraq's vast western desert, a second official said.

Captain Speicher's F-18 Hornet was shot down on the first night of Operation Desert Storm on 17 January 1991.  The canopy on his crashed jet was photographed some distance from the crash site west of Baghdad,  giving rise to hope that he had ejected and was alive.

Later,  an Iraqi defector claimed to have seen him alive,  prompting the Navy to change his status from killed in action to missing - captured.

But the ISG's investigation since the fall of Baghdad in April 2003 has failed to find any evidence he is alive.  Two once - promising tips failed to resolve the matter.

In one case,  Bedouin tribesmen said they believed Captain Speicher was buried near the crash site.

"There are Iraqis who believe he died in the desert,"  said the defense official.

The ISG went to the site and unearthed remains,  heightening hopes that the Speicher mystery had finally been solved.  The remains were sent to Dover Air Force Base, Del., home to a military mortuary.  But a DNA examination determined the body was not Capt. Speicher's,  officials say.

In a second lead,  a Bedouin claimed to have the pilot's handgun and was willing to turn it in.  But the Bedouin never appeared with the gun.  Investigators are speculating that the tribesman may have been threatened by Iraqi insurgents or foreign fighters and thus disappeared.

Navy Secretary Gordon England changed Captain Speicher's status to missing - captured,  and would be the official who would decide whether to change it back to killed in action.

The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) is expected to deliver a report on the pilot's status to Mr. England in the coming months,  after the ISG files its assessment.

When Mr. England changed the status to "missing - captured" in October 2002,  he said in a memo: "While the information available to me now does not prove definitively that Captain Speicher is alive and in Iraqi custody,  I am personally convinced the Iraqis seized him sometime after his plane went down."

The Washington Times previously reported on a secret DIA written report that cast doubt on the truthfulness of the defector who claimed to have seen Captain Speicher alive in 1998.

The report refers to defector No. 2314 who had worked in Saddam Hussein's Special Security Organization (SSO),  the branch that enforced loyalty to the Ba'ath Party.

Labeled "secret. no foreign,"  the report states that the military " has debriefed several doctors whom 2314 indicated should have knowledge of Speicher.  All denied having any knowledge.  Two have passed a polygraph exam.  None of the information provided by 2314 has proven accurate."

The 23 June 2003,  DIA report adds that the military " has searched every known location associated with Speicher.  Other than at Hakimiyah prison,  where U.S. forces found the initials 'MSS' carved in a cell wall,  no significant evidence of his status has been discovered."

The Iraq Survey Group has devoted a number of personnel to the Speicher search.  But its main goal is to find out what happened to Saddam Hussein's stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.



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