Italy doubts U.S. version of Iraq shooting

Italian hostage Giuliana Sgrena, shot and wounded after being freed in Iraq, says U.S. forces may have deliberately targeted her because Washington opposed Italy’s policy of dealing with kidnappers.

She offered no evidence for the claim that reflected growing anger in Italy over the conduct of the war, which has claimed more than 20 Italian lives, including secret agent Nicola Calipari who rescued her moments before being killed.

The shooting on Friday evening has sparked tension with Italy’s U.S. allies and put pressure on Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to take a hard line with President George W. Bush.

Speaking from the Rome hospital where she is being treated, Sgrena said the troops may have targeted her because Washington opposes Italy’s reported readiness to pay ransoms to kidnappers.

“The United States doesn’t approve of this (ransom) policy and so they try to stop it in any way possible,” the veteran war reporter, 57, told Sky Italia TV.

In later comments to Reuters, Sgrena was less strident:

“You could characterise as an ambush what happens when you are showered with gunfire. 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.”

Bush promised a full probe into why troops shot at the Italian car nearing Baghdad airport on Friday evening. Calipari died instantly of a single bullet to the head, doctors said.

The U.S. military says the car was speeding towards a checkpoint and ignored warning shots, an explanation rejected by Italian government ministers and the driver of the car.

A senior U.S. official, White House counselor Dan Bartlett, said the shooting was a “horrific accident.”

“As you know, in a situation where there is a live combat zone, particularly this road to the airport … people are making split-second decisions, and it’s critically important that we get the facts before we make judgments,” he told CNN.

Rome prosecutors have opened a second degree murder investigation into Calipari’s death and Italy’s justice minister has signed documents requesting information from witnesses.

Punishment, Apology

According to Italy’s leading daily Corriere della Sera, the driver, an unidentified Italian agent, said: “We were driving slowly, about 40-50 km/h (25-30 mph).”

In a harrowing account of the ordeal, Sgrena wrote in Sunday’s issue of her communist newspaper Il Manifesto that Calipari saved her life by shielding her with his body.

“Nicola threw himself on to protect me and then suddenly I heard his last breath as he died on top of me,” she wrote.

Although Italy has denied paying kidnappers in past hostage releases, Agriculture Minister Gianni Alemanno told the Corriere that “very probably” a large ransom had been paid in this case. Newspapers spoke of sums of up to 8 million euros (5.5 million pounds).

“We need to get the guilty punished and an apology from the Americans,” Alemanno said. “We are trustworthy allies but we must not give the impression of being subordinates.”

Parliamentary relations minister Carlo Giovanardi also said he did not believe the U.S. version of events.

Italy is one of Europe’s closest U.S. allies and Washington is keen to show it is taking the matter seriously.

Bush telephoned Berlusconi on Friday night. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called their Italian counterparts over the weekend.

Last Respects

Thousands of people queued up outside Rome’s huge marble Victor Emmanuel monument to pay respects to Calipari where his body is lying in state before a funeral on Monday.

The national outpouring of grief and anger has put pressure on Berlusconi, an ardent supporter of Bush and his war on terror, to get answers from Washington on what went wrong before he addresses parliament on the matter on Wednesday.

“All 57 million Italians who were united in the anticipation of Giuliana Sgrena’s liberation have the right to know what happened,” said Romano Prodi, the former prime minister and leader of Italy’s centre-left opposition.

Berlusconi has sent some 3,000 Italian soldiers to Iraq, a decision opposed by a majority of Italians and the opposition which is seeking to unseat him at a general election next year and weaken him at regional polls next month.

Also see:
Right Wing Bloggers’ Fake Sgrena’s Car Photo – With Help from AP

Giuliana Sgrena : Means, Motive and Murder