An Italian diplomat, his translator and another Iraqi tragedy

By Robert Fisk in Baghdad

22 September 2003

Pietro Cardone is an elegant, discreet man, an Italian diplomat who hates polemics and who pleaded with me that his story should speak for itself.

It does. Three days ago, he held in his arms his dying Iraqi interpreter, shot through the heart by an American soldier. Mr Cardone, 69, works for the occupation authorities. So did his translator. So did the soldier who killed his translator. But here tragic irony must give way to a terrible narrative.

On the day after two more US soldiers were killed ­ and 13 wounded ­ by guerrilla mortar fire at the Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad, Mr Cardone's story might seem mundane, even prosaic. But it is a poignant Iraqi tragedy.

Saad Mohamed Sultan was 36 and had two children, aged three and five. Mr Cardone's wife, Mirella, who was travelling with her husband in the back of the car in which their interpreter died, says she can still hear the shot that killed him. "I came here on 15 May, sent by my Foreign Ministry at the request of the American government," Mr Cardone says. "They were looking for an adviser on culture. I have spent all my career in the Arab world. I speak the language. I understand the mentality." Indeed, Mr Cardone served in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria and Morocco and was Italian ambassador in Yemen and the United Arab Emirates. But nothing could have prepared him for last Friday. He had set out for archaeological sites in north Iraq with a project that would provide guards and police to protect the ancient cities.

"I was driving in a Land Cruiser with a second car behind," he says. "Saad and my driver were in the front of my car, my wife and I in the back. At 1.45pm we approached two American Humvees, both driving in the same direction as us." Mr Cardone's hands shake as he approaches the convoy again in his memory, now sitting in the lobby of the Rashid Hotel in Baghdad.

"Our driver started to overtake the first Humvee. The young soldier at the back made a gesture as if to say, 'Don't overtake, go back'. Perhaps our driver was slow and this created a suspicion in the soldier. We were five metres from him ­ which was a bit close. The American soldier fired one shot from his machine-gun. That shot came through the car and hit Saad in the heart and came out of the back of the poor guy and scratched my arm and exited through the roof of the car." Then the Americans drove on. They didn't stop, Mr Cardone says.

"Mirella had been talking to Saad when the shot came into the car. Our driver turned and shouted, 'My God, my God, why?" We pulled to the side of the road but the Americans had gone. He was a very young soldier who killed Saad. I guess he was 19 or 20. I was keeping Saad's head upright but there was a lot of blood. He was making noises, saying 'Ugh! Ugh!' But when we reached the hospital, the doctor examined him and just said, 'There is nothing to be done'. The bullet had broken his heart."

Mr Cardone left Saad at the hospital and returned to Baghdad in their second car. "This morning, his sister and brother came to see me," he says. "They were very dignified. I expressed my sorrow and assured them the Americans would carry out a thorough investigation and that they would receive compensation. I am confident the Americans will have an investigation because they take these things seriously." Ask Mr Cardone for his opinion of what happened and he remains a diplomat. "I think it has been a needless death, generated by a misinterpretation of behaviour." Iraqis might interpret events differently.

"I hate the phrase," Mrs Cardone says. "But I think they call these things 'friendly fire'."