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Two American Warplanes Disappear in Iraq

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

The US military says that the body of a Marine pilot has been discovered in Iraq. The announcement follows word that two Marine Corps jets from the US aircraft carrier Carl Vinson had disappeared yesterday while flying support missions in Iraq. The fate of the other pilot is not yet known.

In Baghdad, Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari continues to try to form a Cabinet ahead of today's swearing-in ceremony. NPR's Phillip Reeves joins me now from the Iraqi capital.

Any more on those Marine jets?

PHILLIP REEVES reporting:

Well, the military hasn't said whether either of these jets have been found or where the pilot's body was recovered or, indeed, what mission these jets were on. We know the search is continuing for the second F-18 pilot. We don't really know what happened to bring these jets down, if, indeed, that is what happened. The US military is saying that there are no indications of hostile fire. It's not clear whether they collided or if weather was a factor. In central Iraq, in the Baghdad area last night, there were, however, sandstorms and heavy rain and lightning.

MONTAGNE: The US military is also reporting a raid on suspected insurgents close to the Syrian border. What do you know about that?

REEVES: There was a battle near the Syrian border at Al Qaim. It's an area which has seen quite a bit of trouble in the past. This happened when US forces spotted a suspect truck and followed it to an isolated tent and a shed. Now they watched--they say they watched a group of armed men load the truck up And then as the truck drove off, they intercepted it and a firefight erupted in which the military say they killed nine insurgents. Also, a six-year-old girl in the area got injured, although not seriously, they say. The US say that they conducted an air strike on the tent and the shed, and that killed another three suspected insurgents. Now this group is thought to be members of al-Qaeda in Iraq. That's the group headed by the Jordanian extremist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

MONTAGNE: Phillip, let's return to the subject of the prime minister forming a new Cabinet. Why is it proving so difficult for him to do that?

REEVES: The core of this argument is over representation in this government for the Arab Sunni minority. It's about the number of Cabinet posts that they're to get. Now the--we understand the Sunnis wanted seven ministerial portfolios plus a deputy prime minister's position, and that the prime minister, who is a Shiite, Ibrahim Jafari, has offered six.

It's also been about which individuals should fill these posts. The Sunnis have been putting forward nominees that the Shiite, who dominate the government, have been objecting to, often because they say that these nominees played a part in the Saddam Hussein regime. And the real focus of a lot of this squabbling has been the defense minister's job that's earmarked for a Sunni.

MONTAGNE: And you are about to leave Iraq after this reporting tour. It's your seventh. How have you found the situation there this time around, Phillip?

REEVES: You know, Renee, every time I've come here it's always got worse. But this time when I arrived, for the first time ever, Iraqi colleagues here in Baghdad were saying it was actually getting slightly better. In the last two weeks I've watched that optimism crumble away. It's been corroded by a surge in violence in which the insurgents are exploiting the political stalemate caused by arguments over the allocations of posts in what is, after all, only a transitional government which, though it has the crucial task of constitution-writing, is only supposed to be in place until the end of the year. You know, it was in the government's collective interest to get its act together and to get down to work, and we've watched as they've squabbled over jobs. And that tells you, I think, and I have learned, I think, a lot about the deep-set sectarian rivalries and hostilities in this country and also about the limits on the American capacity to shape events here. And the net result has been the growth of public frustration and disenchantment, particularly amongst Sunnis, and that does not seem to me to bode well for this country.

MONTAGNE: Phillip, thank you very much. NPR's Phillip Reeves speaking to us from Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.