New York Times
March 9, 2005
BAGHDAD, Iraq, March 9 - The Italian foreign minister, Gianfranco Fini, on Tuesday publicly challenged the United States military's account of how American soldiers came to fire on a car taking a freed Italian hostage to the Baghdad airport, killing the Italian intelligence agent who had negotiated the captive's release.
Hours later, the American command in Baghdad announced that it was opening a high-level investigation into the incident.
Mr. Fini, while emphasizing that the shooting was an "accident," said in Parliament in Rome that the United States military had authorized the Italian agent, Nicola Calipari, to travel to the airport. The car carrying the Italians was not speeding, he said, adding that there was no obvious checkpoint and that the driver received no warnings from American soldiers before the shooting started.
"It was certainly an accident, an accident caused by a series of circumstances and coincidences," Mr. Fini said. "This does not prevent - in fact it makes it a duty, for the government to demand that light be shed on the murky issues, that responsibilities be pinpointed and, where found, the culprits be punished."
The hostage, Giuliana Sgrena, 56, has said the soldiers may have deliberately opened fire on her because the White House publicly opposes any attempt to negotiate with kidnappers in Iraq. Mr. Fini dismissed that assertion as baseless.
The United States military, which has contended that it had no advance warning, and that the Italians' car did not respond to soldiers' hand signals, flashing lights and warning shots, said Tuesday that it had assembled a team led by Brig. Gen. Peter M. Vangjel to do a follow-up investigation to one already conducted at the division level.
The new investigation will take about three to four weeks to conclude, the military said. Italian officials have been invited to take part.
The American military also said Tuesday that officials from the First Corps Support Command were investigating the shooting last Friday of a Bulgarian soldier, Jr. Sgt. Gardi Gardev. The Bulgarian defense minister, Nikolai Svinarov, said Monday that the soldier appeared to have been killed in southern Iraq last Friday by gunfire that came from the direction of American troops.
That shooting and the one involving Ms. Sgrena have raised questions about the rules of engagement for American soldiers in Iraq, especially at checkpoints and in convoys in areas frequented by civilians. The soldiers are generally instructed to warn approaching vehicles with hand signals or shots into the air before opening fire.
But the threat of suicide car bombs has set soldiers on edge, often confronting them with an apparent choice between killing or being killed, commanders say. As a result, many innocent Iraqis have been injured or killed by soldiers opening fire on cars approaching too close to the Americans, though Iraqi and American officials say they do not have any specific figures on just how many.
The violence that claimed 33 Iraqi lives on Monday continued to ripple through Iraq.
At 6:30 a.m. today, insurgents set off a powerful car bomb in central Baghdad several blocks east of Firdos Square, where Iraqis pulled down a status of Saddam Hussein on April 9, 2003. The blast killed one Iraqi National Guardsman and a civilian and wounded 22. A thick cloud of black smoke curled into the sky, darkening the entire downtown area. A heavy barrage of gunfire took place in the minutes before and after the explosion.
The target may have been the Sadir Hotel, a large yellow building known to house Western security contractors, who often stand on its rooftop in body armor and with automatic rifles and machine guns.
In Falluja, west of Baghdad, today a suicide car bomber attacked a National Guard center. Two guards and a civilian were killed and 15 people wounded, some of them guards and others civilians, according to national guard and hospital officials.
In Basra, southern Iraq, a roadside bomb killed two policemen and wounded five, including Basra's police chief, Capt. Kahdim Hussein, a police spokesman said.
On Tuesday, insurgents killed two prominent Iraqi officials in the heart of the capital. At 7:30 a.m., gunmen shot Maj. Gen. Muhammad Issa Ahmeda al-Khafaji, the deputy chief of the Interior Ministry's immigration office, as he was heading to work from his home in western Baghdad, Interior Ministry officials said.
Two hours later, gunmen killed Dr. Adel Abdul Kareem Ahmad, the director general of Al Furat Hospital.
The Interior Ministry also said 15 headless bodies were discovered Tuesday in an old military base between Karbala and Latifiya. Women and children were among the dead, officials said.
Reports about the discovery of 26 other corpses in Al Qaim, near the Syrian border in western Iraq, were discounted today by an official at the town's hospital, Dr. Firas Abdul Wahid Muhammed.
"We heard the news and sent ambulances and medical staffers to the site to evacuate the corpses," he said, adding that no bodies were found. "Our mortuary is empty," Dr. Firas said. "I do not know where this news is coming from."
But it was the shooting involving Ms. Sgrena that dominated discussion among American officials here. It took place at 8:55 p.m. last Friday, as a car carrying Ms. Sgrena and two Italian intelligence agents drove toward Baghdad International Airport, just 35 minutes after Ms. Sgrena had been delivered by her captors to the Italian agents. In circumstances that remain murky, American soldiers from the First Battalion, 69th Infantry, opened fire on the car, and the lead negotiator, Mr. Calipari, threw himself across Ms. Sgrena to protect her, only to be killed by one or more bullets, Italian officials said.
Hours after the shooting took place, the Third Infantry Division, charged with securing Baghdad, released a statement saying that soldiers at a checkpoint tried "to warn the driver to stop by hand-and-arm signals, flashing white lights, and firing warning shots in front of the car."
But Mr. Fini, the Italian foreign minister, citing testimony from the agent who was driving the car, said the Italians had not encountered an official checkpoint. He said they were going about 25 miles an hour and had the interior lights on to allow people to make phone calls. As they rounded a curve, the car was illuminated by a bright light, and more than one automatic weapon fired at them for about 15 seconds, Mr. Fini said.
He said that the intelligence officer who survived the attack was forced to kneel in the road until the soldiers realized who he was. "Two young Americans approached our officer and, demoralized, they repeatedly apologized for what had happened," Mr. Fini said.
A senior Defense Department official said on Monday that two Humvees were parked off to the side, but that two barriers of an indeterminate size were on the road.
Mr. Calipari was given a state funeral on Monday. While Rome has not made any mention of drawing down its 3,000 troops here in Iraq, the shooting has underscored the unpopularity of the war among most Italians, and of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's politically perilous support of President Bush.
In political developments, the leading factions were engaged in seemingly endless discussions in Baghdad, more than a month after elections that were supposed to produce a new government.
The most heated negotiations are taking place between an alliance of Shiite parties and the two major Kurdish parties. Azad Jundiani, a spokesman for Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish nominee for president, said in an interview that the Kurds and Shiites had agreed in principle on all the major issues. That includes having Mr. Talabani as president and the Shiite nominee, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, as prime minister, and accepting Kurdish demands related to the Kurdish militia, federal powers and administration of Kirkuk. But details have yet to be worked out.
The Kurds are also insistent that Islam be cited in the new constitution as only one source of legislation, not the sole source, as religious Shiite politicians would like, Mr. Jundiani said.