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.

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.

Justice served?

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.

"In a lot of cases, victims are not satisfied," says Daniel Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute, in Arlington Va. "The cases that give the most pain are the ones where the military justice system appears not to punish. In a sense, the military justice system is biased, but in the same way that a judicial system is. There is a long tradition of this in military justice around the world, not just [US] military justice.

"You do not want a military man hesitating to fire because he's worried about the legal ramifications," he adds.

Italy is not the only country feeling uneasy as the American military investigates its own mistakes. US friendly fire claimed the death of one Bulgarian soldier last week in Iraq. US officials have pledged to investigate both incidents.

In Italy, which has troops in Iraq despite the fact that at least 60 percent of the population opposed the war, the death of Calipari has snowballed into a diplomatic stand-off. Mr. Berlusconi is not likely to withdraw Italian troops in retaliation, but he is under pressure to demand answers from his US allies.

Tension is high because Italian and US officials offer competing versions of the accident. US officials say the Italian authorities themselves may have played a part in the incident by failing to inform the US command in Baghdad of their movements.

George Casey, US chief of command in Baghdad, said the Italian government had not given the US advance warning about the convoy carrying Ms. Sgrena, the kidnapped journalist who was injured in the shooting. "I personally do not have any indication of that, even on a preliminary basis," he said Tuesday.

Italy initially complained that its agent had been shot despite having notified CIA officials at Baghdad Airport.

Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini confirmed the incident had been an accident, but said Calipari's car had not encountered a US checkpoint on the airport road, it had not been driving at high speed, and US forces had not issued warnings before opening fire.

The US ambassador to Rome has met three times with Italian government officials to lay out the US assessment of the incident. Italian media have published photos of the car showing eight bullet holes in front and side windows.

Sgrena has told local media that despite her suspicions of a deliberate attack she did not mean to say that American troops tried to kill her.

The incident has exposed the divide between the Italians and the Americans over policy on hostage taking. While the US firmly opposed all form of negotiation, the Italians have secured the release of three female hostages in recent months, reportedly paying ransoms up to $8 million dollars.

Berlusconi insisted before parliament on Wednesday that the decision for a joint investigation was "of the utmost importance."

"I am sure that in a very short time every aspect of this affair will be clarified," he said.

Italian legislation makes it impossible for Italy to try those alleged to be responsible for acts committed against Italians in foreign territory. Only a US tribunal can give final judgment.

With its judicial hands tied, the best the Italian government can do, according to Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini, is "demand that light be shed on points that are still unclear, identify those people responsible, if there are any, and ask that they be punished."

But many are skeptical that an Italian court would achieve a better result in such a highly politicized case.

Political pressure

"What people want is a major political admission of guilt," says Roberto Menotti, analyst at Rome's Aspen Institute. "There is mounting pressure among US allies to find a way for independent tribunals to judge these cases."

But the US, he notes, opposes the International Criminal Court. "The US is one of the few democratic countries in the world that does not accept the idea of supernational legal action," says Menotti. "As long as America insists on judging itself, that is a problem for all of its allies."

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