BAGHDAD, Iraq—American troops shot and killed an Italian intelligence agent and wounded an Italian journalist Friday as they were en route to the Baghdad airport hours after the reporter was freed from a month-long hostage ordeal.
The fatal shooting at a U.S. checkpoint marred what had been a day of celebration at the release of Giuliana Sgrena, who was kidnapped in Iraq last month while on assignment for the Rome-based newspaper Il Manifesto. American soldiers opened fire on the car taking Sgrena to safety just before 10 p.m. local time because the driver had approached the checkpoint "at a high rate of speed," according to a U.S. military statement.
In political developments, two members of Iraq's powerful Shiite Muslim alliance withdrew Friday and others threatened to follow as tempers flared over the delay in forming a new government a month after landmark elections.
South of the capital, Iraqi police detained dozens of Sunni Muslims after Friday prayers and throngs of Shiite protesters took to the streets to blame Sunni extremists for a devastating car bombing that killed more than 100 people in the city of Hillah earlier this week.
Also Friday, four U.S. soldiers were killed while conducting security operations in the Anbar province, the U.S. military reported.
The military released few details on the shooting of the Italian agent, Nicola Calipari, saying it was under investigation. News reports out of Rome said the agent, who'd helped negotiate Sgrena's release, was killed as he threw himself in front of her to protect her from the bullets.
Calipari died at the scene. Sgrena was taken to a U.S. military hospital, where shrapnel was removed from her shoulder, Italian officials said in Rome. The military said a second occupant of the car also was wounded in the incident.
President Bush called Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to express regret over the incident and said it would be "fully investigated," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
Sgrena, 57, was kidnapped Feb. 4 near Baghdad University after she'd visited a camp for Iraqi families displaced by violence. She later appeared sobbing and wringing her hands in a video released by her captors and aired on Arabic-language satellite television stations. Another video released Friday showed her at a table, thanking her captors for treating her well.
As negotiations to form a new government continued, two minor figures from the United Iraqi Alliance announced their withdrawal with blistering criticism that the Shiite-dominated ticket—the biggest winner in the Jan. 30 parliamentary elections—focused too much on religion and wasn't working fast enough to install new leadership.
If the discontent deepens, the cleric-backed alliance could lose more seats to a secular bloc that's gathering steam under the stewardship of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.
Ali Hashem Youshaa, who represents a small group of southern tribesmen, and Abdel Karim al Mohammedawi of Hezbollah, which is unrelated to the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah, said they expected other members to withdraw unless the Shiite ticket's leadership included secular and moderate politicians in deal making.
Even with the withdrawals, the alliance holds about 148 seats in the 275-member Parliament. The influential Kurdish minority holds the next highest number of seats and has been in intense negotiations with the alliance all week. Those talks have failed to resolve key issues over territory and the role of religion, further stalling the debut session of the new Parliament.
Some prominent parties, including the Iraqi National Congress, led by one-time Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi, threatened to leave the alliance over what one spokesman called "the arrogance" of the largest factions.
He referred to two Iran-backed groups: the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa Party, whose leader is the top contender for prime minister.
"This is not an alliance of Islamic parties only, and they shouldn't dominate," said Nabeel al Musawi, a spokesman for Chalabi's secular Iraqi National Congress.
Allawi's camp seized on the departures with invitations to join its stand against an Islamist government. It accused the United Iraqi Alliance of promoting sectarian tension and using Iraq as "an Iranian forum."
Allawi is struggling to keep his post as prime minister by casting himself as the open-minded antidote to a hard-line Muslim government like the Islamic republic next door.
"We represent men in suits. They represent men in turbans," Mohammed Ali, a spokesman for Allawi, said of the United Iraqi Alliance.
Saad Jawad, an alliance spokesman, played down the loss of the group's allies. "Those who withdrew don't affect us. They only had two seats," Jawad said.
In the southern Shiite city of Hillah, sectarian trouble surfaced in the aftermath of a suicide bombing Monday that killed 125 people outside a clinic where Iraqi army and police recruits had lined up for physicals.
On Friday, Iraqi police rounded up several Sunni worshipers in Hillah after weekly prayers, Sunni clerics and police officials said.
Hundreds of outraged Shiites also marched through Hillah accusing the Muslim Scholars Association, an umbrella group for Sunni clerics, of negotiating with terrorists. They demanded revenge against Sunnis and members of Saddam Hussein's former regime.
Sheik Zakariya Abu Yahya, the leader of a militant Sunni mosque in Baghdad, condemned the bombing and said innocent Sunnis shouldn't be scapegoats.
"The Hillah police are arbitrarily detaining Sunni citizens and raiding mosques," he said. "We condemn this cruel explosion, but we also condemn these detention operations."
A police official in Hillah, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the raids were part of an operation that began before Monday's blast. He said the arrests were based on intelligence that Sunni extremists were planning large-scale attacks on police in the area.
(Al Awsy is a special correspondent. Knight Ridder special correspondents Huda Ahmed, Omar Jassim, Qassim Mohammed and a reporter who isn't named for security reasons contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.