Italy Issues Counter-Report on U.S. Shooting of Agent

Rome agrees with Americans that slaying was accidental, but lays blame on the military.

By Tracy Wilkinson

Los Angeles Times

May 3, 2005

ROME — Italy on Monday sharply challenged a U.S. Army report exonerating its soldiers in the shooting death of an Italian intelligence officer near Baghdad, directing blame at poor coordination among military authorities and the stressed, inexperienced American soldiers in charge of dangerous checkpoints in Iraq.

In a 52-page report released Monday night, Italian officials disputed U.S. findings about key details of the shooting and said the Americans had failed to provide adequate warning as to the presence of the after-dark checkpoint.

The intelligence agent, Nicola Calipari, was killed March 4 when U.S. soldiers manning an impromptu roadblock fired on his car as he attempted to escort an Italian journalist to freedom shortly after securing her release from Iraqi kidnappers. The Italians, including another agent driving the car, were making their way to the Baghdad airport along a notoriously perilous road. The journalist, Giuliana Sgrena, was wounded by the gunfire.

Italian and U.S. officials have differed from the beginning about whether the soldiers adequately warned the car's occupants and whether the vehicle was speeding. The two governments launched a joint investigation but failed to agree on key details of the shooting.

The U.S. military, in a report formally released over the weekend, exonerated its soldiers and said the American troops had acted according to the rules of engagement for checkpoints. That report also blamed the Italians for failing to coordinate their movements in Iraq with U.S. authorities, saying Italian officers had decided to keep the hostage-rescue secret.

Italians were outraged by the findings, and the government of Silvio Berlusconi announced it would release its own report. A copy was presented Monday to U.S. Ambassador Mel Sembler and to Italian officials.

The Italian report concurred that the shooting of Calipari was not deliberate, but it criticized U.S. forces for failing to establish "the most elementary precautions" for vehicles approaching checkpoints.

The report said it was likely that "some degree of inexperience and stress might have led some of the U.S. troops to react instinctively and with little control" to the approaching Italians' car.

Washington and Rome also have clashed over whether the U.S. military chain of command was aware of the rescue mission. The Italian report indicated that the Americans had to have been aware of the presence of Calipari and other Italian intelligence agents, even if they did not know the precise nature of their mission.

The onus was on the American soldiers to make their roadblock presence known, more than on the Italians to signal their activities, the report said. Italy has been reticent about informing the Americans of their hostage-negotiating activities, in part because association with U.S. forces might foil the deal — and also because Italy reportedly is willing to pay ransoms, a practice lambasted by the U.S.

The U.S. report maintained that if Italy had better informed American forces of the rescue mission, "prior coordination might have prevented this tragedy."

The U.S. report said a U.S. Army captain serving as aide-de-camp to Italian Maj. Gen. Mario Marioli at the Baghdad airport became aware of the arrival of Italian VIPs the afternoon of March 4. About 20 minutes before the shooting, Marioli confirmed to the captain his suspicions that Sgrena had been released and the Italians were en route to the airport, the report said. But Marioli told the captain: "It is best if no one knows." The captain "took this as an order from a general officer not to pass that information on to anyone," the report said.

The dispute has seriously strained ties between Washington and one of its most loyal allies in the Iraq war, and senior officials from both countries were struggling to minimize the fallout.

The slain agent "was a hero for the United States too," but the "terrible tragedy" will not trigger serious bilateral repercussions, Sembler, the U.S. ambassador, told reporters earlier Monday.

"There are bumps along the road" in the two countries' relationship, Sembler added, but "the relations between the United States and Italy are strong and will remain strong."

The ambassador spoke at a U.S. military cemetery outside Rome, where he was attending a ceremony marking the end of World War II. The site in many ways epitomizes U.S.-Italian cooperation, since it is the resting place of some of the nearly 20,000 Americans killed during the war.

Also speaking at the ceremony, the head of Italy's lower house of parliament, Pier Ferdinando Casini, said the government's conclusions were made "in the name of truth, clarity and reciprocal loyalty."

"Only in this way will we really fully honor martyrs of liberty," he said.

The dispute has been especially tricky for Berlusconi's government, as the prime minister is loath to challenge Washington but cannot allow Calipari — hailed here as a national hero — or his associates to be blamed for the shooting.

The entire episode exacerbated already-fierce public opposition to Italy's participation in the war in Iraq and turned up the pressure to bring home 3,000 Italian troops.

It also comes as Berlusconi's support is on the decline. He faces serious political challenges, from center-left opponents and from within his ruling coalition, which collapsed last month and had to be reconstituted.

Reacting to the Calipari controversy, Roberto Calderoli, a minister in Berlusconi's Cabinet, urged his government "to think long and hard" about withdrawing troops from Iraq.

In the wake of the intelligence officer's shooting, Berlusconi reiterated his intention for Italian troops to quit Iraq this year, but he has never laid out plans for doing so. The deployment has to be approved by the Italian Parliament every six months. The next vote is due in September.

Berlusconi will go before Parliament on Thursday to discuss the inquiry into the shooting.

The left was already demanding that Berlusconi use his appearance Thursday to announce a definitive withdrawal of troops.

"I am humiliated," said Oliviero Diliberto, national secretary general of the Italian Communist Party, which backs the newspaper that Sgrena works for. "It is a shame that once again, the Americans treat us like servants."

The U.S. posted its report on the Internet. It was supposed to be heavily censored, but because of what authorities described as a formatting error, the complete report could be seen. Most names of the people involved were blacked out, including the Italian intelligence agent driving the stricken car, Andrea Carpani, and the U.S. soldier who fired all of the shots that hit the car, Spc. Mario Lozano of the Army's New York National Guard.

Italian prosecutors launched a separate criminal investigation immediately after the shooting and said they wanted a list of the soldiers involved for possible future prosecution.

However, prosecutors said Monday that it would be difficult to place into evidence in any trial names that were censored from the report, even though the names have been released unofficially in the public domain.

The censored U.S. report also eliminated information about the frequent attacks against troops on the airport road.