Mon Mar 7, 2005 01:29 PM GMT
By Andrew Marshall
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. forces in Iraq, already implicated in the killing of an Italian secret agent, are facing further strains with allies after Bulgaria said they had probably shot dead one of its soldiers.
The controversy raised questions over whether U.S. troops are over-zealous in their efforts to crack down on insurgents, who killed at least 19 people in fresh attacks on Monday.
The Bulgarian soldier was killed in southern Iraq on Friday evening, around the same time that U.S. forces in Baghdad opened fire on a vehicle taking kidnapped Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena to the airport shortly after her captors freed her.
Sgrena was wounded in the shoulder and secret agent Nicola Calipari, who played a key role in her release, was killed. Hundreds of Italians lined the streets of Rome on Monday for the state funeral of Calipari, who died attempting to shield Sgrena.
Bulgarian Defence Minister Nikolai Svinarov said an investigation into the death of the Bulgarian soldier showed he was probably accidentally killed by American troops.
"Someone started shooting at our patrol from the west, and in the same direction, 150 metres (yards) away, there was a unit from the U.S. army," he told a news conference.
"The result gives us enough grounds to believe the death of rifleman Gurdi Gurdev was caused by friendly fire."
Svinarov said the Bulgarian army's chief of staff had written to General Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, asking for an investigation.
The U.S. military had no immediate comment.
Many Iraqis say U.S. forces are too quick to open fire and often kill innocent civilians. The U.S. military says it does all it can to minimise the risk of innocent Iraqis being killed.
ANGER IN ITALY
The U.S. military says the Italian vehicle was travelling at high speed and ignored repeated instructions to stop.
But Sgrena, who works for the Rome-based communist newspaper Il Manifesto, has disputed that account, and several Italian politicians have said they do not believe the American version of events. Some say the car was deliberately shot at.
"You could characterise as an ambush what happens when you are showered with gunfire," Sgrena told Reuters.
"If this happened because of a lack of information or deliberately, I don't know, but even if it was due to a lack of information it is unacceptable."
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, one of the stanchest allies of U.S. President George W. Bush over the Iraq war, summoned the U.S. ambassador in Rome after the incident.
Bush has promised a full investigation. White House official Dan Bartlett said the shooting was a "horrific accident".
Although the governments of Italy and Bulgaria supported the war in Iraq, a large proportion of their people opposed it. Some 75 percent of Bulgarians disagree with U.S.-led military operations in Iraq, according to opinion polls.
In Balad, north of Baghdad, a suicide bomber blew up his car outside an army officer's house, killing at least eight people, hospital officials said. Police had earlier given a higher toll.
In the nearby town of Baquba, insurgents attacked soldiers and police with a suicide bomb, mortars and landmines, killing at least 10 people. Al Qaeda's wing in Iraq, led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, claimed responsibility.
"The mujahideen ambushed a unit of the apostate guards in Baquba ... and a brave lion carried out an attack on the riffraff and turned them into scattered fragments," Al Qaeda Organisation for Holy War in Iraq said in an Internet statement.
Police in Baquba, a mixed Sunni and Shi'ite town 65 km (40 miles) northeast of Baghdad, said the attack began when five Iraqi soldiers were killed in an ambush. A suicide car bomb then hit police heading to reinforce the area, killing two.
Two roadside bombs later killed three people and at least one mortar round landed in the town, police said.
Iraq's government issued new photographs on Monday of Zarqawi, showing him with short hair and a cropped beard. They are among only a handful of images of the shadowy militant.
The United States has offered $25 million for information leading to the capture or death of Zarqawi. The Iraqi government says his network is crumbling and that his capture is close.
But Zarqawi's group said in an Internet statement on Monday that Zarqawi was safe and in good health, and leading fresh attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces.