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Italy May Charge U.S. Soldier

Times Staff Writer

Italian prosecutors are investigating whether to charge a U.S. soldier with homicide in the shooting of a senior Italian intelligence agent who was escorting a kidnap victim to safety in Iraq, officials said Thursday.

The criminal investigation has been in progress for several months but on Thursday narrowed its focus to the single soldier believed to have fired all of the shots on the Italians’ car as it approached a Baghdad checkpoint, officials said.

In the March 4 incident, the Italian intelligence agent was killed and the freed hostage, an Italian journalist, was wounded. The shooting has become a major point of contention between Washington and Rome, one of a handful of governments in Europe to support the U.S. war in Iraq.

Italians were angered by the killing of Nicola Calipari, a well-respected major general in the military intelligence service. Thousands of people attended his funeral in Rome, where he was accorded top state honors and lauded as a national hero.

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Italy and the United States launched a joint investigation into the nighttime shooting, but the two governments came away with very different conclusions. The U.S. Army cleared its soldiers of any wrongdoing and blamed the Italians for driving too fast on a dangerous road to the Baghdad airport and for failing to heed the soldiers’ warnings to slow down.

But Italian investigators, relying on testimony from the Italian intelligence agent driving the car and the journalist, Giuliana Sgrena, concluded that the vehicle had not been speeding and that U.S. troops had not issued any warnings. The Italians blamed jittery American soldiers, on one of their first days in Iraq, and said that the erection of an impromptu checkpoint led to a fatal series of errors.

With U.S. officials choosing to take no disciplinary action against the soldiers, Italian prosecutors almost immediately launched a separate investigation. On Thursday, they narrowed their inquiry to the soldier who fired the fatal shots. He was identified in Italian court documents as Spc. Mario Lozano of the Army’s New York National Guard.

U.S. officials have refused to identify the soldier publicly, citing privacy issues.

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The Italian investigation does not mean Lozano will be indicted, but it is a necessary step before further judicial action can be taken. Authorities are considering a charge of “voluntary homicide,” roughly equivalent to a voluntary manslaughter charge under the U.S. legal system.

“The Italian judiciary has demonstrated its independence, autonomy and capacity for investigation, even as the Americans have refused to respond to our queries,” lead prosecutor Franco Ionta told reporters.

The Calipari case was one of a number of episodes this year that have posed problems for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who considers himself President Bush’s best ally in continental Europe. The Berlusconi government maintains nearly 3,000 troops in Iraq despite widespread domestic opposition to the war.

In addition to the killing of Calipari, the alleged abduction by CIA operatives of a radical imam from the streets of Milan and use of air bases in Italy for such “extraordinary renditions” have proved problematic for Berlusconi. The Italian leader has repeatedly denied knowledge of these operations, but many Italians do not believe him.

Berlusconi has sought to hold the United States responsible for the Calipari killing but said the incident should not damage relations between the two governments.

The U.S. Embassy in Rome said Thursday that it was aware of the latest reports on the Calipari investigation but declined to comment further.

U.S. Ambassador Ronald P. Spogli met with Berlusconi on Thursday, but the Calipari case was not raised, an embassy spokesman and a senior Italian Foreign Ministry official said.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack was asked about the new phase in the Calipari investigation. “This was a tragic situation,” he said, “but as far as we are concerned, the matter is closed.”

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