With so many Iraqi troops killed and communications cut off, it’s hard for U.S. troops to find anyone who knows where the POWs are. During the search of a Baghdad military prison where Americans were held prisoner during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, they found bloody American uniforms, but no soldiers. And they’re still looking for a pilot who was shot down in the 1991 Gulf War, since the U.S. government has declared he’s alive. But they’ve found the seven POWS who were shown being questioned by their captors on Iraqi TV. When we saw their anguished faces on the news, most of us assumed we’d never see them alive again.
Many of the 23 Americans held by Iraq during the 1991 war say they were moved often during their captivity. Many ended up in Baghdad, either in the basement of what was then Saddam’s secret police headquarters or at the prison in the Rashid military complex in southeastern Baghdad.
Jeff Zaun, who was held by Iraq for 47 days, says the discovery of U.S. military uniforms is not a reason to give up hope. “It’s not necessarily something sinister,” he says. “When I got to Rasheed, the first thing they did was have me remove my flight suit and they gave me the POW pajamas, took away my shoelaces. It was standard.” When the seven recently-freed POWs arrived at the military base near Kut, some were wearing blue-and-white striped pajamas, and another was in blue shorts, which supports Zaun’s statement.
Daniel Stamaris, the crew chief of an Army Black Hawk helicopter, was also transferred several times during his captivity. He was originally left for dead in the desert, then taken to a hospital in Basra, held in that city’s Baath Party headquarters, then taken to Baghdad. “Military intelligence never did figure out where we were held,” says Stamaris.
All the Americans held by Iraq 12 years ago were beaten and threatened. Stamaris is worried that current POWs may be suffering similar treatment. He says, “They were never held accountable for what they did to us, and I feel that emboldened them to treat any other prisoners just as bad.”
A group of U.S. personnel are now working full-time to find out what happened to Capt. Michael “Scott” Speicher, a Navy pilot whose plane was shot down on the first night of the 1991 Gulf War. He 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, to Missing/Captured. Over the years, tips have come in saying Speicher is alive and being held in Iraq.
The U.S. is especially interested in Baghdad’s Rashid Prison, which also interests Kuwait and Iran, whose POWs also were held there. While Speicher may not have been held there himself, many POWs were, and now that Baghdad is open to U.S. forces, they have a chance to find documentation and other evidence there that could solve the Speicher mystery.
The U.S. has always said that Saddam Hussein knows what happened to Speicher. The Pentagon says it changed Speicher’s status based on new, highly classified intelligence information that it can’t release to the public because “on the small chance he is alive, you don’t want to provide information publicly that would then get him killed.”
It would be a gift to be able to know the future, and not have to wonder anymore.
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