Italian Journalist Shot in Iraq Rejects U.S. Account


New York Times

March 6, 2005

ROME, March 6 - The Italian reporter wounded when American troops opened fire on the car carrying her and Italian secret service officers to the Baghdad airport just hours after her release from kidnappers rejected today the United States' version of the incident and refused to rule out that she was intentionally targeted.

"The fact that the Americans don't want negotiations to free the hostages is known," Ms. Sgrena said in a telephone interview with Sky TG24 television. "The fact that they do everything to prevent the adoption of this practice to save the lives of people held hostages, everybody knows that. So I don't see why I should rule out that I could have been the target."

The White House called the shooting a "horrific accident" and promised a full investigation.

Ms. Sgrena, a 56-year-old reporter for the communist daily Il Manifesto was hit with shrapnel in the shoulder in the shooting Friday night at a checkpoint in western Baghdad. An Italian intelligence agent, Nicola Calipari, tried to shield her from the bullets and was killed. Mr. Calipari's body was flown to Italy late Saturday, and today lay in state at Rome's Vittoriano monument, where hundreds of Italians filed by, paying their respects.

"I remember only fire," Ms. Sgrena wrote in today's issue of Il Manifesto. "At that point a rain of fire and bullets came at us, forever silencing the happy voices from a few minutes earlier."

While Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a staunch ally of President Bush, has demanded an explanation for the shooting, other government officials indicated that the incident would not threaten the mission of its roughly 3,000 troops stationed in Iraq.

"The military mission must carry on because it consolidates democracy and liberty in Iraq,'" Communications Minister Maurizio Gasparri told ANSA, an Italian news agency. "On the other hand, we must control - but not block - the presence of civilians and journalists, who must observe rules and behavior to reduce the risks."

In the days and hours following the shooting, United States officials, from the American ambassador in Rome, to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, to President Bush expressed regret and condolences for the shooting. But questions immediately arose over whether the shooting would strain relations for the two allies.

"The incident could have very serious political consequences," Italy's La Stampa daily said in a front page editorial, adding that relations between the two governments had "suffered an immediate deterioration."

Members of Italy's center-left coalition said that if what they considered Mr. Berlusconi's deference to the United States continued following Friday's shooting, he risked losing popular support in Italy, which was overwhelmingly against the war in Iraq.

"Berlusconi could be weakened by a weak position toward America," said Paolo Gentiloni, a center-left member of the lower house of parliament. "The fact that we are allied doesn't mean that we can forget what happened. The fact that the situation there is very dangerous, cannot justify what happened."

The American military said the car carrying Ms. Sgrena and the Italian agents was speeding to the airport as it approached a checkpoint. Soldiers shot into the engine block after trying to warn the driver to stop by "by hand-and-arm signals, flashing white lights, and firing warning shots in front of the car," a statement said.

But Ms. Sgrena refuted that account, telling the Italian television channel La 7, "There was no bright light, no signal." She added that the car was traveling at "regular speed."

Ms. Sgrena was abducted on Feb. 4 in Baghdad after conducting several hours of interviews with refugees from the decimated city of Falluja.

Gunmen pulled up in front of her car as she was leaving and dragged her into their vehicle. Her Iraqi employees managed to escape.

Two weeks later, Ms. Sgrena's captors released a video showing her tearfully pleading for her life and asking for the withdrawal of all the American-led forces. The words "Mujahedeen Without Borders," presumably the name of the group holding her, appeared in digital red Arabic script on a backdrop.

Days after that video was released, tens of thousands of Italians marched through Rome demanding that she be returned.

Agriculture Minister Giovanni Alemanno was quoted as saying it was "very likely" a ransom had been paid for Ms. Sgrena's release. Ms. Sgrena told reporters that she did not know if a ransom had been paid, but she had said that her captors "never treated me badly."

Nevertheless, Ms. Sgrena told Sky TG24 that "I will not return to Iraq." Her captors, she said, had made it clear that "they do not want witnesses and we are all perceived as possible spies."