Many uncomfortable, unanswered questions remain over the killing on March 4 of Italian secret intelligence agent Nicola Calipari by American soldiers near Baghdad airport, immediately after Calipari had negotiated the release of Giuliana Sgrena, the unembedded correspondent from Il Manifesto, a communist Italian daily, who had been held hostage for one month and was wounded in the US firing.

On Monday, a report leaked to Reuters and Agence France-Presse correspondents at the Pentagon, in the afternoon (dead of night in Europe, to prevent major reaction), quoted unnamed army  sources as saying that an investigation had cleared US soldiers of any wrongdoing.

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According to the leak, American soldiers followed rules of engagement to the letter and therefore were not to blame. The Pentagon ruled that its soldiers used hand and arm signals, flashed white lights and fired warning shots to try to stop the Toyota Corolla carrying Sgrena and Calipari, which was “speeding” toward “a checkpoint.” The soldiers then shot into the Toyota’s engine block when the driver did not stop. Calipari was not part of the engine block, but he was shot anyway: a “horrible accident.”

The driver of the car has insisted that the Toyota had been driving slowly (no more than 40km/h), and had received no warning from the American soldiers, and that the Italians had advised the Americans they were carrying diplomatic personnel.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and General Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Tuesday that Italian officials who participated in the investigation had not signed off on the report’s conclusions. They provided no details about the report. “My latest information is that they have not come to a final agreement on a joint report,” Rumsfeld said of US and Italian investigators.

In an interview by the Tg3 newscast in Italy on Monday night, Sgrena said: “It seems to me that in this way the Italians are to be blamed for everything, and this is also a slap in the face of the Italian government.”

What really happened

The Sgrena case – or hit, as many Italians put it – has convulsed a country overwhelmingly against the war on Iraq, not only because of the tragic death of Calipari but because it has revealed in graphic detail to Italians and Europeans the grim reality faced by ordinary Iraqis, Sunni or Shi’ite. Iraqi civilians are now kidnapped by the hundreds. Iraqi civilians are routinely shot at by young, nervous American soldiers at checkpoints – as any correspondent who has covered Iraq knows so well. Iraqi civilian deaths are not even acknowledged by the Pentagon (remember Myers: “We don’t do body counts”).

Independent journalist Naomi Klein had a long conversation with Sgrena – hit by a four-inch (10-centimeter) bullet that injured her shoulder and punctured her lung – when she was still convalescing at a Rome military hospital after returning to Italy on March 5. Klein then gave an extensive interview to Democracy Now! about the meeting. To start with, Sgrena affirms she was not traveling on the road the Pentagon says she was. And there was no US checkpoint ordering them to slow down.

Sgrena says she was on a secure road – used by diplomats and US officials – that comes straight from the Green Zone in central Baghdad. Saddam Hussein used this road to go from his top presidential palace straight to the then-named Saddam International Airport. This is a secured road connecting the Green Zone with the huge Camp Victory military base attached to Baghdad’s airport. Sgrena told Klein, “I was only able to be on that road because I was with people from the Italian Embassy.” This explains why Sgrena “thought we were finally safe, because the area where we were was under the control of the United States.”

Anybody who has covered the Iraq war has known – or has seen – checkpoint hell, where nervous American soldiers fire on anything that moves. The Toyota Corolla with Calipari and Sgrena was hit by only between eight and 10 rounds. Both Calipari and Sgrena were sitting in the back seat. Calipari was hit by a direct shot in the temple.

There was no checkpoint, Sgrena told Klein. “It was simply a tank parked on the side of the road that opened fire on us. It was not a checkpoint. They didn’t try to stop us, they just shot us. They have a way to signal us to stop, but they didn’t give us any signals to stop and they were at least 10 meters off the street to the side.”

The crucial part is that Sgrena says the Toyota was shot from behind – which contradicts the Pentagon version of soldiers shooting in self-defense. According to Klein, “Sgrena really stressed that the bullet that injured her so badly came from behind, entered through the back of the car. And the only person who was not severely injured in the car was the driver, and she said that this is because the shots weren’t coming from the front … They were driving away.”

This might explain why the Pentagon apparently blocked the Italian government from inspecting the Toyota, even though the Italian government had bought the car from the rental agency after the shooting.

Sgrena is 100% sure: “It was not self-defense. The soldiers were to the right of us on the side of the road, they started to shoot from the right and kept shooting from behind. Most of the shots came from behind. Calipari was shot from the right and I was shot in the shoulder from behind. When we stopped, they were behind us. We could see that all the back windows of the car were broken from behind … They didn’t try to stop the car and they shot at least 10 bullets at the level of people sitting inside the car. If Calipari had not pushed me down they could have killed me.”

Calipari was a top agent and leading Middle East negotiator working for Sismi (Servizio per le Informazioni e la Sicurezza Militare), the Italian equivalent of the US Central Intelligence Agency. He had already refused the idea of a raid by the US Delta Force (“too dangerous”) to rescue Sgrena. He went the negotiation route – and he secured Sgrena’s release, in all probability, according to reports, via an US$8 million ransom paid in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (the Silvio Berlusconi government in Italy denies it). The Bush administration, as is well known, does not negotiate with “terrorists.”

Calipari had also a few months ago negotiated the freedom of the so-called two Simonas, Simona Torretta and Simona Pari. When they came back to Italy, the two Simonas not only denounced the US occupation, but praised the Iraqi resistance. Not exactly a popular script in Washington.

You report, we decide

The Foxification of US – and global – media has a corollary: the Pentagon considers independent journalism an act of subversion. An investigation by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders has reached the same conclusions. Most covering the war on Iraq remember how the Pentagon intentionally targeted the media-saturated Palestine Hotel in Baghdad on April 8, 2003, killing a Ukrainian and a Spanish journalist. Four months later, the US Army absolved itself from any possible mistake. Eason Jordan, a top CNN executive for more than a decade, was forced to resign after saying that the Pentagon targeted journalists in Iraq. As far as the Sgrena tragedy is concerned, Reporters Without Borders has called for a UN-led independent investigation – to no avail.

Ann Cooper, executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said, “We are deeply troubled by the reported disagreement between US and Italian officials.” The CPJ calls for “a thorough and credible investigation to determine what happened, who is responsible, and what steps are being taken to prevent similar incidents from occurring again in the future.” The CPJ has conclusively determined that at least nine journalists and two media workers have been killed by the US military in Iraq since March 2003. At least four journalists were killed at checkpoints.

The Berlusconi government at first said the Pentagon had not been fully briefed on the Italian negotiations to liberate Sgrena. Then Gianfranco Fini, the Italian foreign minister, was forced to acknowledge “differences” between the US and Italian versions. Fini admitted that Calipari was issued US military passes and was in contact with the US military leadership. But he refused the possibility of an ambush as “nonsense.” On the night of the shooting, according to Fini, the US military knew about the Toyota (the Pentagon says no) because it had been informed by the top local Italian liaison official, General Mario Marioli. But the military didn’t know the car was carrying Sgrena, Fini said.

The joy of absolution

There may be endless speculation over the circumstances surrounding the death of Nicola Calipari. But there are two things the case has accomplished. 1) The Berlusconi government is now toeing the Bush line: there will be no negotiations to liberate any possible future Italian hostage. 2) For any independent journalists, Iraq is now the ultimate minefield. It’s virtually impossible to guarantee the safety of any non-embedded journalist, so that means no independent reporting.

Once the report is officially released, absolving the US military of any wrongdoing, one can expect the matter to end there, certainly as far as the US and Italian mainstream media are concerned, and the Pentagon will proceed with its occupation of Iraq, far from prying eyes.

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