Ex-Hostage's Italian Driver Ignored Warning, U.S. Says

By RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr. and ROBERT F. WORTH

New York Times

May 1, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq, April 30 - The car carrying the Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena that was struck with a deadly hail of gunfire as it sped toward Baghdad International Airport on March 4 ignored warnings from American soldiers who used a spotlight, a green laser pointer and warning shots to try to stop it as it approached a checkpoint, the American military said in a report released Saturday evening.

The gunfire killed Nicola Calipari, an Italian intelligence agent who was in the back seat with Ms. Sgrena. The driver and Ms. Sgrena were wounded. Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, the ground commander in Iraq, has approved a recommendation that soldiers involved in the shooting not be disciplined, the military said.

The report's exoneration of the soldiers, which was made public last week, angered Italian officials and threatened to further inflame relations between the United States and Italy, one of its staunchest allies in the war in Iraq. The findings have created a political problem for the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, who faces a public upset by the incident at a time when his own fortunes are sagging.

Italy has kept 3,000 troops in Iraq, but Mr. Berlusconi has suggested that Italy might begin withdrawing them by September.

Italian officials have disputed preliminary accounts of the shooting, provided last month by the United States, and Italy is pressing its own investigation. Ms. Sgrena has also challenged the United States' account, saying the car approached the checkpoint at a moderate speed and was not given any warnings.

Ms. Sgrena, a reporter for the left-wing daily newspaper Il Manifesto, was abducted Feb. 4 in Baghdad and released March 4, less than one hour before she and her rescuers made their trip to the airport. American officials have said the checkpoint was established temporarily to help provide security for the United States ambassador, John D. Negroponte, who was meeting with the top military commander in Iraq. Mr. Negroponte has since been appointed director of national intelligence.

The incident helped focus attention on the risks that Iraqis face at American checkpoints, where human rights groups say many Iraqis have been accidentally wounded or killed.

The report, which had many blacked-out parts, is the American military's first detailed account of the events. It asserts that the Italians ignored repeated warnings from American soldiers as they sped onto a part of the Baghdad airport road where soldiers are on a constant state of high alert because of the extraordinary risk of suicide car bombs and other insurgent attacks.

According to the report, 11 bullets fired by one American soldier hit the Italians' car, killing Mr. Calipari, after the car failed to heed the warnings. The car was traveling about 50 miles per hour - faster than other cars that night - as it approached the checkpoint and did not slow until struck by the bullets, the report said.

The driver "was dealing with multiple distractions including talking on the phone while driving, the conversation in the back seat, trying to listen for threats, driving on a wet road, focusing on tasks to be accomplished, the need to get to the airport, and the excited and tense atmosphere in the car," the report found. He shouted, "They are attacking us" into his phone when the firing began, the report said, adding that it was "highly unlikely" that any shots were fired after the car stopped. The fusillade lasted four seconds, it said.

The soldier who fired the shots complied with the military's rules of engagement, the report concluded. "After operating the spotlight, and perceiving the oncoming vehicle as a threat, he fired to disable it and did not intend to harm anyone," it said.

The report also asserted that the United States military "was totally unaware of the recovery and transport of Ms. Sgrena" until after the shooting. It said the troops stationed at the checkpoint were on their first full day on shift there and "lacked experience in issuing operational orders and in battle tracking security forces" at checkpoints.

The report also found that a senior commander in the American-led alliance who was at a military base near the site of the shooting, identified only as a major general, was aware something was under way involving the journalist. Just 20 minutes before the shooting, the commander confirmed to his aide, an unidentified captain, that an operation was under way. But the general said, "It is best if no one knows."

While finding that the soldiers were not culpable, the report recommended taking steps to better inform Iraqis and other drivers about how to approach checkpoints, echoing calls made by critics since the incident. The report also recommended that the military use more signs and enhanced lighting to warn drivers that they are approaching a checkpoint.