New Hope for Missing Gulf War Pilot?

There is hope that the mystery of what happened to Capt. Michael "Scott" Speicher, a U.S. Navy pilot whose plane was shot down on the first night of the 1991 Gulf War, could be resolved now that coalition forces are taking control of Baghdad.

U.S. military sources say the increasing access to Baghdad is opening parts of the city to those who work full-time to determine what happened to Speicher, who was listed as killed in action for nearly 10 years before his status was revised to Missing in Action by the Department of the Navy in January 2001.

Late last year, the Navy revised his status again, declaring him Missing/Captured.

Speicher, of Jacksonville, Fla., then 33, was shot down over Iraq, north of Baghdad, on Jan. 17, 1991 during an air battle with an Iraqi fighter. He was the first American lost in the war and the last still unaccounted for.

As coalition forces have advanced through Iraq towards Baghdad over the last three weeks, there have been U.S. personnel in Iraq who are focused on looking for evidence of what happened to Speicher, military sources said.

Officials are particularly interested in the seizure of the notorious Rashid Prison, a facility that "features highly in the way the Iraqi military handles their prisoners," one official said.

However, there is "not first-hand information that Speicher was through Rashid Prison," the official said.

Iraqis are believed to have had a sophisticated system for handling their POWs, making this prison a possible goldmine of documentation and other evidence that could solve the decade-old Speicher mystery.

Over the years, and recently, tipsters have told the United States that Speicher is alive and being held in Iraq, and these leads have kept hope alive for a few lawmakers, military officials and other true believers — particularly his family — who are convinced he is alive.

The United States has always insisted that at the very least, Saddam Hussein knows what happened to Speicher.

Officials still say they have no evidence Speicher is alive, but Navy Secretary Gordon England said in October that he believes the Iraqis took him prisoner after his plane went down.

The Rashid prison also could be of great interest to Kuwait and Iran, whose POWs also were held there.

Committed to Finding an Answer

Speicher was declared Missing in Action the day after his plane went down, and was declared Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered on May 22, 1991.

After U.S. military investigators working with the International Committee of the Red Cross finally gained access to the crash site, in December 1995, the Navy confirmed the determination made in 1991. No remains were found, and the ejector seat was not among the wreckage.

Five years later, though, then Navy Secretary Richard Danzig notified Speicher's family that his status was being redesignated.

The Pentagon said it was changing its determination based upon fairly new, highly classified intelligence information that it would not release to the public. Officials said they still suspected Speicher was dead, but in the words of one senior military official, "on the small chance he is alive you don't want to provide information publicly that would then get him killed."

Underscoring the unusualness of the case, the decision to reclassify Speicher was made at the White House, the official said. Usually the Pentagon would make such moves.

When England made his announcement in October that Speicher's status was being changed again, he admitted there was no new evidence about what had happened to the pilot, but said he believed it was the "logical extension" of Danzig's decision to declare him missing in action.

"Like Secretary Danzig, I have no evidence to conclude that Capt. Speicher is dead," England said. "While the information available to me now does not prove definitively that Capt. Speicher is alive and in Iraqi custody, I am personally convinced the Iraqis seized him sometime after his plane went down. Further, it is my belief that the government of Iraq knows what happened to Capt. Speicher. I am committed to resolving this issue."

The hope is that with more and more of Iraq in the hands of U.S. troops, an answer finally will be found.

ABCNEWS' Brian Hartman contributed to this report.