Anticipating Report on Baghdad Shooting, U.S.-Italy Tension Rises

By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL

International Herald Tribune

April 26, 2005

ROME, April 26 - Tensions between the United States and Italy surged today, as Italian politicians and citizens reacted furiously to leaked reports in the Italian news media that a joint investigation into the shooting death of an Italian agent in Baghdad would absolve American soldiers of guilt in the incident.

The United States ambassador to Rome, Mel Sembler, met twice with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his top aide at the government headquarters to try to avert a crisis that could cost the United States one of its staunchest European allies in the Iraq conflict.

Mr. Berlusconi has kept 3,000 Italian troops in Iraq, even though Italy's involvement is wildly unpopular here. The news that the inquiry might absolve the American soldiers of all guilt comes at an extremely vulnerable moment for the beleaguered Mr. Berlusconi, who was forced to resign temporarily last week; he has since formed a new and tenuous coalition government.

This evening, in a pre-scheduled speech before Parliament, Mr. Berlusconi insisted that the investigation into the death of the agent, Nicola Calipari, was not finished, and criticized the news reports as "unfortunate indiscretion." The speech had been intended to highlight Mr. Berlusconi's economic plans for Italy.

"The government will only talk at the opportune moment, when the investigation is finished," he said. "The committee was formed to find out the truth, to give justice to the hero Calipari, to whom we bow. Our representatives are working well."

The findings of the investigating team, which includes an Italian general and an Italian ambassador, have yet to be released. But, on Sunday and Monday, unidentified Army officials in the United States described some of its conclusions to reporters, setting off the current imbroglio.

According to these accounts, the investigators found that the American soldiers who shot at a car carrying Mr. Calipari and an Italian journalist, Guiliana Sgrena, on the road to Baghdad's airport had generally followed standard procedures and instructions.

The two Italian members of the team returned to Rome from Baghdad on Saturday night, although it was not clear if they came back in protest or for routine consultations.

United States officials here in Rome sought to play down the leaks about the investigation, noting also that the two sides are still working on the report. "We have not abandoned hope for a combined report," said an official with the American Embassy here. "But there's some more work that needs to be done before that's going to happen."

Mr. Calipari was returning to Baghdad in a car on March 4 after securing the release of Ms. Sgrena, who had been kidnapped by insurgents. The car was peppered with bullets as it approached an American military checkpoint, killing Mr. Calipari and wounding Ms. Sgrena and two other intelligence agents.

After the killing, the United States and Italian governments agreed to conduct a joint investigation, because accounts of witnesses - including the journalist and the American soldiers - varied greatly as to whether the car had been warned to slow down and how fast it had been traveling.

The bullet-riddled car in which Mr. Calipari and Ms. Sgrena were driving was returned to Italy today now that the evidence-gathering portion of the joint investigation was over.

In the past two days, the Italian news media has been filled with unattributed reports that the two Italian members of the team have refused to sign the investigation's report, because they disagree with its conclusions. Today, Ms. Sgrena, who is now recovered, called the investigations conclusions "a slap" for the Berlusconi government.

Likewise, at Parliament, the many politicians who are anti-war and anti-Berlusconi, wasted no time in condemning the investigation, even as they confessed they had no formal knowledge of its findings.

Laura Cima, a member of Parliament with the Green Party called the findings, "a big slap in the face for the Italian government," and said that the government should demand the truth "if it can find any pride at all."

Antonio Falomi, a liberal senator, criticized the report that he said he had not yet seen, noting that: "The conclusions made by the report are not satisfactory. There are too many shadowy points."

As if the rain of political criticism was not enough for Mr. Berlusconi, Italian prosecutors in Milan were once again planning indict the former media magnate for financial crimes, the Reuters news agency reported today.

Jason Horowitz contributed reporting for this article.