Outrage in Italy as US clears troops who killed agent escorting freed hostage

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Italians have reacted with outrage to news that an inquiry in the United States into the shooting of an Italian secret service agent in Iraq has cleared the American troops who killed him.

Italians have reacted with outrage to news that an inquiry in the United States into the shooting of an Italian secret service agent in Iraq has cleared the American troops who killed him.

On 4 March, Nicola Calipari, an envoy of the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, had just taken delivery from Iraqi insurgents of the hostage Giuliana Sgrena, a journalist with the left-wing Rome daily Il Manifesto, and was on the way with her to Baghdad airport when their car was fired on by American forces. Mr Calipari threw himself across Ms Sgrena to protect her, and was killed by a bullet to the head. Ms Sgrena was wounded in the shoulder.

The killing provoked outrage in Italy and threatened the relationship between the US and an ally which had dispatched 3,000 troops to Iraq. Mr Berlusconi immediately summoned the American ambassador, Mel Sembler, and gave him a dressing-down in the middle of the night.

A commission of inquiry was set up, with two senior Italian diplomats as members of the panel. But according to Pentagon officials the report, which could be released today, exculpates the American soldiers.

In Il Manifesto yesterday, Ms Sgrena described the report as "a slap in the face for the Italian government".

"After the apologies," she wrote, "comes the slap in the face."

She said the Americans had paid no attention to her testimony or that of the other survivor, an Italian secret service major who had been driving, even though she and the major had not discussed the incident with each other.

"Obviously our two testimonies given to the American commission were useless," she wrote. "Or will I be charged with perjury. The greatest disappointment would be if the authorities were to accept this insult without reacting."

Italian opposition parties demanded that the government take a tough stand on the issue. "A one-sided conclusion absolving anyone of blame, a conclusion that the Italian side does not accept, is an insult to the truth and to the memory of Nicola Calipari, apart from being a serious act of arrogance towards Italy," said Giuseppe Fioroni, of the centre-left Margherita party.

The Italian foreign ministry declined to comment as the report had not been officially released, although in Washington officials admitted that it was unclear whether the Italian government was prepared to sign off on the investigation.

The Pentagon has offered a sharply different account of events to that suggested by Ms Sgrena.

Military commanders insisted that the Italians' car had been warned to stop by bright lights and shots fired in the air before the fatal shooting occurred.

They also said the car, which was nearing Baghdad airport, was travelling at speed. The Italians said the car was travelling at no more than 50kph, (30mph) and they received no warning before the shooting started.

Ms Sgrena has even suggested that she was deliberately targeted because of her newspaper's opposition to the war and the fact that the Italian authorities had apparently paid a ransom to her captors.

Pentagon officials have briefed reporters that the inquiry found that the soldiers - members of a New York army national guard unit - generally followed the so-called rules of engagement, which call for an escalating series of warnings before using lethal force. The report could, however, raise questions about whether the rules of engagement provided to soldiers at checkpoints require revision.

It is also unclear whether the troops will face some criticism for their conduct, although if a conclusion has been reached that they were following orders it is unlikely they will face serious rebuke.

Mr Sembler, the US ambassador, met an aide to Mr Berlusconi yesterday in an effort to "listen and to try to determine a way forward".

Italian magistrates are conducting their own investigation into the shootings and are to be given access to the car in which Mr Calipari and Ms Sgrena were travelling.

Soldiers off the hook

* In 2003 a US military inquiry concluded that a US tank crew acted in self-defence when it fired at a Baghdad hotel used by journalists and killed a cameraman. The tank was said to have fired because a spotter was thought to be co-ordinating Iraqi fire from it. Journalists had informed the US they were based at the hotel.

* Last week a Pentagon inquiry cleared the senior officer at Abu Ghraib jail of blame for abuses. Claims that Lt Gen Ricardo Sanchez was culpable were "unsubstantiated".

* CBS reported in February that an inquiry into the killing of a wounded and unarmed Iraqi fighter in a Fallujah mosque last year had decided not to charge the US Marine who was filmed shooting the man. The Pentagon said the inquiry was continuing.