War mistake tests Italy's patience
Italy and the US have agreed to a joint investigation of the death of an Italian agent who rescued a hostage.
They've had the tears, the tributes, and the angry accusations. Now, Italians want answers.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
In an effort to solder their strained relations, the United States and Italy have agreed that they will join forces to investigate how an Italian intelligence agent was shot dead by American troops as he accompanied a rescued hostage, journalist Giulia Sgrena, to the Baghdad Airport last week.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi hopes the joint effort will soothe his country's raw emotions. "We can be satisfied," Mr. Berlusconi said, according to La Repubblica newspaper. "Because in this way [President] Bush has assumed responsibility for his friendship with me. He has done everything possible."
But for now, Italy - a close American ally that sent some 3,000 troops to Iraq - remains on edge, its pride dented by the wartime mistake. Many here fear that justice will never be served. The recent history of how US friendly-fire cases were resolved doesn't raise their hopes.
The death of Italian intelligence agent Nicola Calipari has revived anger over the way America dealt with its own soldiers who killed Italians by mistake in a much more clear-cut case in 1998.
In that incident, 20 people plunged to their deaths in an Italian ski resort when a low-flying US aircraft, on a military exercise from a nearby base, sliced a cable car from its cable.
Each of the four men manning the plane was initially charged with negligent homicide and involuntary manslaughter, but only the two men actually flying the plane were court-martialed.
During the course of the trial, it was found that the plane was flying at speeds in excess of 500 miles per hour - faster than military regulations allow - when it hit the cable car wire.
In the end, with a decision that enraged the Italian government, all serious charges against Capt. Joseph Schweitzer, the jet's navigator, who charted the low-flying mission, were dropped. He was not tried for involuntary manslaughter or negligent homicide and found guilty only of obstruction of justice after it was discovered he and the pilot had destroyed a videotape recorded from the plane on the day of the accident. The pilot, Capt. Richard Ashby, served six months in prison.
In more recent cases, involving other countries, America's attempts to do justice and pay compensation have fallen short of their victims' expectations. Two US fighter pilots who mistakenly dropped a bomb on Canadian troops exercising in Afghanistan in April 2002, initially faced up to 64 years in prison for manslaughter and aggravated assault. But Col. Patrick M. Rosenow, who presided over a nine-day investigative hearing in January 2003, concluded that although there was sufficient evidence to court-martial each pilot, criminal charges against them should be dropped.
In the end, Maj. Harry Schmidt was found guilty of dereliction of duty and docked one month's salary, about $5,600.
In other cases, such as the May 1999 bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade by US-led NATO forces, the US government agreed to pay $28 million to cover some of the reconstruction costs of the destroyed Chinese embassy, but Washington refused to term the payment as "compensation." Each family of the three Chinese journalists killed in Belgrade received $1.5 million as "humanitarian assistance," according to Chinese sources.
In many cases of US military errors, critics say there is rarely any recognition of a failure high in the American command chain. Technical glitches are identified or individual, junior soldiers are punished, usually lightly. "At best, they will tell us a soldier from Tennessee made a mistake," said Bobo Craxi, the son of Italy's former Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, dismissing the investigations.