Italy's relations with US soured by attack on hostage

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The return to Italy of the journalist Giuliana Sgrena from captivity in Iraq was meant to be another triumph for Silvio Berlusconi's chequebook foreign policy - a boost for his ruling coalition as it faces regional elections next month. Instead, the killing of the chief negotiator, Nicola Calipari, by American "friendly fire" and the wounding of Ms Sgrena have created deep public anger against the Americans, which will take all Berlusconi's political skills to defuse.

The return to Italy of the journalist Giuliana Sgrena from captivity in Iraq was meant to be another triumph for Silvio Berlusconi's chequebook foreign policy - a boost for his ruling coalition as it faces regional elections next month. Instead, the killing of the chief negotiator, Nicola Calipari, by American "friendly fire" and the wounding of Ms Sgrena have created deep public anger against the Americans, which will take all Berlusconi's political skills to defuse.

Sorrow and admiration for Mr Calipari are contending with seething indignation at the allies who killed him with a single bullet in the head. Thousands filed past his coffin, lying in state at the Vittoriano in central Rome yesterday, paying their last respects to the military intelligence agent who twice saved the life of Ms Sgrena on Friday, once by securing her release, a second time by shielding her from American fire at Baghdad airport, sacrificing his own life for hers.

President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi announced that he was posthumously awarding Italy's highest military honour, the Medaglia d'Oro, to the ex-immigration officer who became a hostage negotiator, overseeing the release of six Italians abducted in Iraq in the past year.

As Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, telephoned his Italian counterpart, Antonio Martino, to express regret for the killing, Italian government ministers and opposition politicians denounced the shooting. Gianni Alemanno, the Minister for Agriculture, said: "We need to see the guilty punished and an apology from the Americans. We are trustworthy allies but we must not give the impression of being subordinates."

Romano Prodi, the opposition leader, said: "What is required is a precise analysis of the events, beginning with the testimony of the American unit that fired."

Mr Berlusconi has long competed with Tony Blair for the title of most loyal ally of America, but now he is struggling to contain a rising tide of anti-Americanism which poses the critical question: if Italy, with the third biggest military contingent in Iraq after Britain's, is the esteemed ally that Berlusconi claims it to be, why should US soldiers fire on the car taking the released hostage to Baghdad airport - and then seek to palm Italy off with an obviously mendacious explanation?

Edward Luttwak, an American military commentator interviewed yesterday in La Repubblica, said Mr Calipari's death was "the sort of thing that happens all the time in a war", and he advised Italy to "take an aspirin and go to bed, you'll feel better in the morning". But for many Italians the secret agent's death exposed a gulf of mistrust and loathing.

The story began early on Friday afternoon when Mr Calipari and his team of military intelligence agents arrived in Baghdad from Abu Dhabi. After weeks of haggling, the ransom for Ms Sgrena had finally been agreed: at least $6m (£3.1m), according to the Italian press, and perhaps as much as $8m, had been handed over. The time and place for the release was settled.

Italy is well aware that its habit of paying large sums to secure the release of its nationals is disapproved of by the Americans and British. All negotiations are therefore carried on in secret. But at Baghdad airport Mr Calipari explained at the US headquarters what his team had come to do. It was arranged that an American colonel would be on hand at the airport when Ms Sgrena arrived for her flight back to Italy. By the time the team had rented a four-wheel drive it was already 5pm.

At 8.20pm, Mr Calipari's team reached the rendezvous on the outskirts of Baghdad. The vehicle they were looking for was there. Ms Sgrena's abductors had left her blindfolded in the back of the car. "I'm a friend of Pier and Gabriele," Mr Calipari said, naming Ms Sgrena's partner and editor. The 57-year-old journalist was a bundle of tension as they got her into their vehicle and left for the airport.

By now it was dark and pouring with rain. Baghdad is far too dangerous for people to go out after dark without excellent reason, and all scheduled flights had left. But the Italians decided that, with their plane waiting on the Tarmac, it was better to get Ms Sgrena home without delay.

They passed two American checkpoints along the airport road without incident and were 700 metres or so from the airport building. The road narrowed to a single, one-way lane and took a 90-degree turn. The car was going slowly now, approaching the end of the journey.

"At last I felt safe," Ms Sgrena said. "We had nearly arrived in an area under American control, an area more or less friendly, even if it was still unsettled."

Then, turning the corner, they found their progress baulked by an American tank. They were blinded by a powerful light. "Without any warning, any signal, we were bombarded with a shower of bullets," Ms Sgrena said. "The tank was firing on us, our car was riddled with bullets. Nicola tried to protect me, then his body slumped on top of mine, I heard his death rattle, then I felt a pain but I couldn't tell where I had been hit. Those who had fired came up to the car, but before I was taken to the American hospital there was an interminable wait, it's hard to know how long I was lying there wounded but perhaps it was 20 minutes."

Was Ms Sgrena, correspondent of the communist daily Il Manifesto, who has repeatedly demanded an end to the occupation, the true target? She couldn't rule it out, she said. "Everybody knows that the Americans are opposed to hostage negotiations. So I don't see why we must exclude the possibility that I was their target. The Americans don't approve, and so they try to frustrate the negotiations every way they can."

Ms Sgrena, who is recovering in hospital, added that she did not intend to go back to Iraq because "the conditions don't exist for getting information". Her abductors, she said, "don't want witnesses, and they regard all of us as possible spies".

CONFLICTING VERSIONS

There are some glaring discrepancies in the Italian and American versions of the killing of the agent Nicola Calipari and the wounding of released hostage Giuliana Sgrena and two other Italian secret service agents:

The Americans say: the car was travelling at high speed
The Italians say: it was travelling at 40-50kph

US: It approached a checkpoint near the airport at speed when soldiers fired on it to force it to stop as a "last resort"
Italy: It had passed three checkpoints without incident and was 700 metres from the airport when fired upon

US: The soldiers used hand signals and bright lights and fired warning shots before hitting the car with shots
Italy: There was no warning. Three to four hundred rounds were fired, afterwards the car seats were covered in spent cartridges. The Americans forced the Italians to remain in the car without medical attention for an hour

US: There was a lack of co-ordination between the Italians and the Americans
Italy: The Americans were kept fully informed

US: It was a regrettable accident which will be aggressively investigated
Italy: Ms Sgrena claims it was a deliberate ambush to kill her, as the Italians had paid a ransom, a practice America opposes, and as she had learnt inconvenient facts from her abductors.

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