Italian Journalist Freed in Iraq Is Nearly Killed by Friendly Fire

Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi (left) greets freed hostage Giuliana Sgrena

Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi (left) greets freed hostage Giuliana Sgrena at Rome's military hospital on March 7. (Photo: -/AFP/Getty Images)

On Friday, Qatar’s Al Jazeera reported that an Italian journalist who had been kidnapped last month in Iraq had been freed by her captors. The reporter, Giuliana Sgrena, was abducted Feb. 4 in Baghdad while interviewing refugees from Falluja at the Al Mustafa mosque.

The news of Sgrena’s release was confirmed by two of her colleagues at Il Manifesto, director Gabriele Polo and managing editor Francesco Paterno, on Italian Sky Television 24 Hours.

That night, an American armored vehicle intercepted and then fired upon the convoy carrying Sgrena to Baghdad. An Italian secret service agent, Nicola Calipari, 50, who was instrumental in bringing about her release, was shot dead while trying to shield her from the barrage of bullets. Sgrena, 57, sustained a wound to her left shoulder and a punctured lung. Two other agents in the car were also wounded.

Stunned by the news of that tragic denouement, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi summoned the American ambassador in Rome, Mel Sembler, to Chigi Palace to demand an explanation. “I will react in the manner I should find most appropriate in such a grave affair, for which somebody must assume responsibility,” he said in France’s Le Monde.

Sgrena, the ninth Italian to have been kidnapped in Iraq, was given emergency treatment for her shrapnel wounds at the American military hospital in Baghdad before being flown to Rome’s Ciampi airport Saturday morning aboard an Italian Falcon 900 military plane. Pier Scolari, Sgrena’s partner at Il Manifesto, was among those who greeted her and helped her down from the plane.

Upon her release, Al Jazeera broadcast a video in which Sgrena thanked her captors for having treated her well, and in which she stated that she was taken hostage because her kidnappers are determined to free their country from occupation. From her bed in Rome’s Celio military hospital, she later said that the part about her captors being determined to free their country was coerced. Italy has 3,000 troops in Iraq, despite popular opinion against the war. A French journalist, Florence Aubenas, from the newspaper Liberation, remains in captivity. She was kidnapped Jan. 5 in Baghdad.

Sgrena’s brother, Ivan Sgrena, who first learned the news of her release on Italian Sky TV, was quoted in Corriere della Sera as having been left speechless and overjoyed with the news: “They called me on the telephone, I don’t know what to say.”

Joy Tempered With Sorrow Turns to Anger

In celebration of Giuliana Sgrena’s release, Rome’s mayor ordered that the Coliseum be illuminated Friday evening. But festivities to be held at the Auditorium on Saturday were cancelled upon news of Calipari’s death.

Italy’s opposition called for nationwide protests. “One more victim of an absurd war,” Green Party chairman Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio said of Calipari’s death.

On Saturday, according to Agence France Presse, some one hundred protestors marched in front of the United States embassy in Rome, carrying placards and banners that called for the withdrawal of Italian troops and Berlusconi’s resignation. “Allies of the American Assassins never again,” said one placard. And others: “Fortunately, they didn’t take down the plane bringing Sgrena home!” “Bush has changed: he now kills Italians, too.”

Reporters Without Borders called on the United Nations to open an investigation into the death of Calipari. “We demand the entire truth be brought out regarding this tragic event,” the association’s secretary general Robert Menard said.

Piero Fassino of Italy’s Democrats of the Left said in La Repubblica, “on the heels of as grave an event as that of the killing of Nicola Calipari, the withdrawal of [Italy’s] troops is an act of public health, of real and political hygiene for our country.” And to reporters from Apcom: “It is incredible that a man occupied with the difficult task of saving a life is assassinated by those who say they are in Iraq to safeguard civilian lives.”.

A communist senator, Gianfranco Pagliarulo, called on people to gather Saturday before the American consulate in Milan “in a peaceful and steadfast manner” against the attack, Spain’s El Mundo reported. “Members of the Italian Communist Party will carry placards reading ‘You should be ashamed, Bush,’” he told the Italian news agency Ansa.

From an exchange in La Repubblica:

“Letter to the Editor: I hope Mrs. Sgrena, besides expressing her thanks to the gallant men who kidnapped her, also remembers to manifest her gratitude to the taxpayers (sic, in English) who financed her rescue and her bumming, not covered by the national insurance, around the streets of Baghdad.

The Editor’s response: Let us also hope Calipari’s wife remembers to thank the American taxpayers who paid for the bullets that rendered her a widow.”

Sergio Romano, commenting in Corriere della Sera writes, “Sincerely moved, but not indifferent to the event’s political repercussions, some on the Left have transformed the country’s grief into demonstrations for peace and therefore the Italian troops’ withdrawal. … Those against the war and in favor of the troops’ withdrawal have the right to remain faithful to their convictions. But they should also be grateful that the government succeeded in freeing an Italian journalist under particularly difficult circumstances and that it cannot possibly be held responsible, even in an abstractly political way, for what happened in the moments that followed.” He concludes: “To foment an anti-American campaign and to demand the withdrawal of the Italian troops means to split the country into two factions and to show the world a quarrelsome and unreliable Italy.”

In an editorial in l’Unita, Rome’s mayor Walter Veltroni views the conservative Calipari’s close collaboration with the reporters at Il Manifesto and his new-found friendship with pacifists and communists like Simona Torretta and Simona Pari [see sidebar] as emblematic of Italian unity in the face of terrorism and tragedy.

A Chaotic Coalition?

As in 1998, Corriere della Sera reminded its readers, after a NATO pilot killed 20 people at an Italian ski resort when his aircraft severed a cable car line, the United States is denying responsibility and blaming the Italians. The Pentagon, clinging to its version of the story, claims that the soldiers were following standard procedure. The car was speeding toward the airport and did not stop when soldiers repeatedly signaled from the checkpoint and fired warning shots.

The State Department maintains that Italian authorities did not warn United States officials in Baghdad of Giuliana Sgrena’s arrival, even though her release was jointly coordinated with the Americans.

“Those are inadequate explanations,” said former C.I.A. anti-terrorism chief Vincent Cannistrano, in an interview with Corriere della Sera. “Even supposing the soldiers were not informed about the approaching vehicle, why did they fire at the engine block, that is to say at passenger level, and not at the tires? How is it possible that on the road dubbed ‘the highway of death’ there aren’t any signs in Arabic and English telling vehicles to slow down? And how can you believe that a man with Calipari’s experience would not have slowed down?”

Sgrena and one of two surviving secret service agents (the other is still in critical condition at the American military hospital in Baghdad) denied the Pentagon’s version, according to Corriere della Sera. “It wasn’t a checkpoint, but a patrol that fired shortly after having shone a light on us,” they reportedly told Italian state prosecutors from their beds at Clio military hospital. “We don’t know from which direction came the weapons fire, and we had not encountered a checkpoint before. Our car was absolutely not traveling at an elevated speed and there was no reason that they should’ve opened fire.”

Scolari, Sgrena’s partner at Il Manifesto, leveled scathing accusations, as reported by La Repubblica and Agenzia Giornalistica Italiana. When asked by reporters how Sgrena was doing, Scolari said, “Giuliana is relatively well, she’s like someone who’s just taken 300 rounds of ammunition. I told her what we have all been doing for her here; she told me everything that happened to her. She told me, for instance, that her kidnappers the minute they freed her had warned her of the danger the Americans near the airport represented.” As for the lack of coordination between Italian and American services, Scolari failed to find any plausible explanation. He recalled that when the weapons fire had broken out, one of the secret service agents was in direct communication with Silvio Berlusconi in the Chigi Palace. Scolari was also at Chigi Palace. After the car had been stopped, soldiers confiscated the agents’ weapons and cell phones.

“Of course,” he went on, “what she told me, as well as the others who were present at the checkpoint, is that the American armored vehicle’s attack had been without justification. They had alerted the entire chain of command, Italian military were waiting for her at the airport. Having gotten that far (700 meters from the airport), they had already gone past other American checkpoints, the Italians at the airport had already been alerted, and presumably the Americans. And still they opened fire on her. Why? I hope the Italian authorities get to the bottom of it. It was either a mistake or an ambush. And I don’t know which is worse. The fact they put deadly weapons in the hands of frightened kids, or that it could only have been an ambush makes us realize that we should put an end to this war.” La Stampa also quoted Scolari as saying; “Giuliana had information with her that the American military did not want to get out.” Before her abduction in Baghdad, Sgrena had worked on exposing abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and had been an un-embedded reporter at the siege of Falluja.

“I hope Italy does not believe the version of the facts advanced by the Americans, who besides blocked help from arriving for a few minutes and prevented anyone from coming near the car,” Scolari concluded.

The head of the Lega del Nord party, reform minister Roberto Calderolli, also believes the worse. “That car had to be stopped at any cost,” he said in France’s Le Monde, “a chance strike was not what killed the Italian intelligence agent.” In Spain’s El Mundo, however, Calderolli told people to guard against the “quick and superficial conclusion that Americans are the bad guys and the terrorists are the good guys.”

C. de Carlo, writing for Florence’s La Nazione, wrote: “The soldiers of the third infantry division didn’t know about her. Nor did they know of her newspaper, Il Manifesto, which in Italy distinguishes itself for its anti-Americanism, but whose existence in America is unknown. They simply had not been aware that a person of such importance was in that car. … Opening fire on Italians is the last thing thinkable on the part of an administration that tirelessly thanks Berlusconi for his support. Bush’s phone call from Air Force One was immediate, and therefore the intentionality of [the supposed ambush] is absurd. … If American infantry fired it is because on that very highway terrorists have carried out numerous attacks. Terrorists, and not ‘members of the resistance,’ as Il Manifesto characterizes them! Which begs an entirely different question: those three or four million Euros paid for the ransom of their correspondent will be translated into how many more car bombs and blood baths? And how many other kidnappings will they encourage?”

Sgrena, for her part, has said that when she was released she was warned of the Americans by her captors: “Keep a low profile, remember the Americans do not want you to leave here alive.” A warning to which, she would later tell reporters, she hadn’t given much thought.

Questions and Answers

On Saturday, Italy’s Justice Minister signed the request brought forth by the Attorney General’s office in Rome for the names and service reports of the American soldiers who were part of the patrol that opened fire on the car in which Giuliana Sgrena and those who freed her were traveling. The Attorney General’s office has brought charges of homicide and attempted homicide, according to the Corriere della Sera. The request was communicated by the Italian Department of Justice to the United States Embassy, which in turn will forward it to the United States Department of Justice.

According to L’Unita, the Pentagon refused to release the name of the soldier who fired on Calipari. It only revealed that the incident probably took place at checkpoint number 504, called “Camp Victory,” on a highway notorious for rebel attacks against American patrols. But that checkpoint is assigned to the 10th Mountain Division, while those who fired on the vehicle were soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division. The truth Bush promised to bring to light, L’Unita editorialized, is instead hidden behind a curtain of contradictory statements.

In an interview granted to Corriere della Sera, Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini said, “My judgment regarding relations with the United States has not changed one iota from what I have stated time and again. … [Calipari’s death] was a tragedy determined by the circumstances, a cruel joke of fate.”

“Fate doesn’t open fire,” retorted Piero Fassino, secretary of the Democrats of the Left, in L’Unita. “In general, a machine gun is in the hands of soldiers, men of flesh and blood who can also make mistakes, and even mistakes can withstand explanation and require a reconstruction of facts and circumstances to reassure Italian public opinion. Was there or was there not a coordinated effort between our services in Iraq and other Coalition Forces’ Services? Had the Unified Command in Iraq been informed that a vehicle in which a kidnapped person recently released was traveling toward the airport? What information was shared between our services and the American forces? And if this information had been made available, why had the checkpoint opened fire, evidently not knowing what was to transpire?” These are, according to Fassino, “the questions that need to be answered,” be it by the American forces or the Italian government, because “the least we can ask for in the theatre of war is constant and continued coordination between our presence and that of other countries.”

A State of Mourning

The body of Nicola Calipari also arrived Saturday at Ciampi airport in Rome. The coroner’s report on Sunday concluded that a single bullet to the head was the cause of death.

The wake took place on Sunday as the body of Calipari lay in state at the Vittoriano monument. Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi posthumously awarded Calipari the Medal of Valor. A state funeral was held on Monday at Piazza della Reppubblica, where Calipari’s widow was joined by Prime Minister Berlusconi, President Ciampi and other government and opposition figures for the 90-minute service. Tens of thousands of Italians viewed the body on Sunday and packed the Piazza on Monday to pay their last respects.