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Ex-Hostage Disputes U.S. on Shooting

Times Staff Writer

An Italian journalist freed from kidnappers in Iraq and then shot by American troops returned home Saturday and raised questions about the official U.S. explanation of the shooting, as outrage swept Italy.

Giuliana Sgrena was wounded and an Italian intelligence agent who had helped win her freedom was killed Friday night when U.S. soldiers opened fire on the Italians’ car as the reporter traveled to the Baghdad airport in darkness shortly after her release. Sgrena had been held hostage for a month.

The U.S. military said the shooting had been an accident and that the vehicle had been speeding toward an American checkpoint outside the airport and failed to heed warnings to stop.

But Sgrena told Italian state television Saturday that her car “was not going especially fast for a situation of that type.” She also said her group had been fired on by an American patrol and not at a checkpoint.

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“We thought the danger was over after my rescue,” Sgrena told RAI television by telephone. “And instead, suddenly there was this shooting. We were hit by a spray of fire.”

She said she had been talking to the intelligence agent, Nicola Calipari, about events in Italy when he abruptly leaned over her as the shooting started -- probably, she said, to protect her. Then he slumped, and she realized he was dead.

“The gunfire continued,” she said. “The driver couldn’t manage to explain that we were Italians. It was a truly terrible thing.”

Sgrena, a 56-year-old veteran reporter for the left-wing Il Manifesto newspaper, was hit in the shoulder. Two other agents in the car were also wounded.

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“The most difficult moment was when I saw the person who had saved me die in my arms,” Sgrena said later, according to her boyfriend, Pier Scolari

Later, speaking to Italian prosecutors who are trying to determine whether criminal charges can be brought against the Americans, she said the “regular” speed of her car did not justify the shooting, according to the Italian news agency ANSA.

Calipari was posthumously awarded a medal of valor and will be given a state funeral Monday.

It remained unclear whether the Italians had notified the Americans at the airport that they were en route. Scolari, who was not in the car but has been with Sgrena since the shooting, said the Italians had informed U.S. officials of their plans and had cleared one of the several checkpoints that led to the airport. But that could not be independently verified.

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In addition, the plane picking up Sgrena was a special Italian military flight whose landing would have been known at some level of the U.S. military.

In Baghdad, Lt. Col. Clifford Kent, a spokesman for the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, said the military was “aggressively investigating” the incident. But he declined to comment on the exact location of the checkpoint in question, whether the military had been informed that Sgrena’s car was on its way to the airport for the special flight or if that information had been passed down to the relevant checkpoints.

The road to the airport is considered one of the most dangerous in Iraq. U.S. military patrols that use it are frequently attacked by insurgents with roadside bombs and mortars. Fearing attack, soldiers often open fire and have sometimes killed passersby in the process.

Calipari, a 20-year law enforcement veteran who had previously negotiated the release of two Italian hostages in Iraq, had told friends that the airport area scared him more than any other part of Baghdad, said Piero Marrazzo, a lifelong friend who is now a politician.

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Sgrena was brought home to Rome on a government jet. She could be seen stepping gingerly from the plane, wrapped in a blanket with several people helping her. She was attached to a medical drip and looked tired, aged and in pain.

She is expected to have surgery on her collarbone in the coming days after receiving initial emergency care at the U.S. military hospital near the Baghdad airport.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi met Sgrena at the airport in Rome, then she was whisked away to a military hospital near the Colosseum. There she was questioned by state prosecutors considering whether to open a homicide case in Calipari’s death.

Italians were rejoicing at news of Sgrena’s release Friday when they learned of the shooting. Joy turned to sorrow, then outrage. “Giuliana’s liberator, murdered!” proclaimed Saturday’s headline in Il Manifesto.

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Even Berlusconi, a loyal ally of the Bush administration, took the unusual step of demanding an explanation from U.S. Ambassador Mel Sembler. Bush called Berlusconi on Friday to promise an investigation, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice followed suit Saturday with assurances to her counterpart, Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini, that “we will find the truth.”

Italy is a relatively small, close-knit and sentimental country, and when its citizens are killed in overseas conflicts, the national pain is especially evident. Homages and expressions of grief for Calipari were pouring in, from President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi and Pope John Paul II as well as people in the streets.

The 2003 funeral for 19 Italians who were killed in a suicide bombing in Iraq was a national affair. Italians have closely followed the kidnapping ordeals there of half a dozen or more citizens in the last year and a half.

Somehow, the national tragedies have not cost Berlusconi politically, despite widespread opposition to his decision to deploy troops in Iraq.

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The Sgrena case may prove a different matter. Whatever the circumstances turn out to be, Calipari was killed by the allies Berlusconi has courted despite protests. The incident could be a blow to him and his policies a month before regional elections that will set the stage for a national vote next year.

Opposition politicians were swift to use the Sgrena shooting to condemn the prime minister’s handling of Italy’s involvement in Iraq. Italy has about 3,000 troops there, the third-largest foreign contingent.

“The Italian people have a right to know the truth,” proclaimed Romano Prodi, head of a center-left coalition that will challenge Berlusconi in upcoming elections.

Berlusconi’s government was scrambling to calm anti-U.S. sentiment.

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“This was a macabre twist of fate, a tragedy determined by destiny,” Fini told Italy’s top daily paper, Corriere della Sera.

In Milan, a small group of Communist Party activists protested Saturday outside the U.S. Consulate. People waved peace flags and handed out leaflets that read, “Shame on you, Bush.”

Times staff writer Ashraf Khalil in Baghdad contributed to this report.


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