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Italians angry, saddened over killing of agent in Iraq

ROME—Italians expressed bewilderment and anger on Saturday over news that U.S. troops had killed an Italian intelligence agent who had just helped to free an Italian hostage in Iraq.

American soldiers in Baghdad on Friday night fired on a car taking journalist Giuliana Sgrena to the airport hours after she was freed from a month-long hostage ordeal. Italian secret service agent Nicola Calipari, 50, was shot and killed after he leaned over Sgrena as U.S. troops fired.

Two other Italian agents in the car were injured, and Sgrena was wounded in the shoulder, Italian officials said. The Italian officials had just negotiated the reporter's freedom.

"We thought the danger was over after my rescue," Sgrena told Italian state television by phone from a hospital room in Rome. "And instead, suddenly there was this shooting. We were hit by a spray of fire. I was talking to Nicola ... when he leaned over me, probably to defend me, and then he slumped over. They continued shooting and the driver couldn't even explain that we were Italians. It was really horrible."

The soldiers fired because the driver approached a checkpoint "at a high rate of speed," according to a U.S. military statement Friday.

Sgrena, however, told Italian prosecutors on Saturday that there was no checkpoint, the Italian news agency ANSA reported.

"It was not a checkpoint, but a patrol that fired after having shone a floodlight at us," she told ANSA.

Sgrena also disputed that the car was speeding.

The U.S. military did not describe the nature of what it called a checkpoint, such as whether it was marked or well lighted. An American spokesman in Baghdad said he had no further information.

When stopping a car or investigating a possible bomb, U.S. patrols often set up makeshift checkpoints by parking Humvees in the middle of a darkened highway and treating any vehicle approaching as hostile. Iraqi drivers sometimes don't realize they are upon an American position until it is too late. Dozens and perhaps hundreds of Iraqi civilians have been killed in the last two years after failing to stop while approaching military convoys or checkpoints, including at least nine in the last two months, according to news reports and U.S. military statements.

On the streets of Rome, some people said it was accident that shouldn't mar U.S.-Italian relations, while others branded it typical American aggression.

Polls show that most Italians, like most other Europeans, have deep misgivings about U.S. foreign policy. Most Italians also oppose the continued presence of 3,000 Italian troops in Iraq.

"As usual, the Americans, with their love of weapons, shoot without checking," said Alessandro Miglirucci, a computer seller, who said he has many relatives in the United States. "I think this will make Italians even more against America."

Sgrena underwent surgery in Baghdad and on Saturday returned to Italy. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, one of President Bush's staunchest allies in the Iraq coalition, met her at the airport.

Berlusconi, while stopping short of condemning American conduct, demanded an explanation.

"We were turned to stone when the officials told us about it on the telephone," the premier said on national television Friday night. "The behavior of the American soldiers, in such a serious incident, must be explained. Someone must take responsibility."

Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini told the newspaper Corriere della Sera that the shooting and Calipari's death should not undermine relations between Italy and the United States.

"My position on the United States will not change one iota from what I have expressed a thousand times," Fini was quoted as saying. "This was a macabre twist of fate," he said, and an anti-American backlash would be "the most deceitful attack on the memory of this hero."

Still, the incident posed the most serious threat to U.S.-Italy relations since 1998, when a low-flying U.S. Marine aircraft sliced a ski lift cable in the Italian Alps and sent 20 people plunging to their deaths. The U.S. ambassador then, Thomas Foglietta, went to the scene, apologized and fell to his knees in prayer, a gesture that touched the hearts of Italians.

The current American ambassador to Italy, Mel Sembler, has requested "urgent clarification" from Washington, the Italian government said in a statement.

Sgrena was abducted Feb. 4 by gunmen who blocked her car outside Baghdad University. Last month, she was shown in a video pleading for her life and demanding that all foreign troops leave Iraq.

The circumstances of her release were unclear. Italian officials said Calipari was a veteran Middle East operative who had helped negotiate the release of two Italian aid workers in September. He left a wife, a 19-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.