Dueling views of the Sgrena shooting

On March 4, shortly before 9 p.m., Italian intelligence agent Nicola Calipari was killed as the car he was riding in approached a US military checkpoint in Baghdad. He had just negotiated the release of Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena, who had been held hostage by Iraqi militants. US soldiers fired on the car, killing Mr. Calipari and wounding Ms. Sgrena. The uproar in Italy prompted Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to announce the withdrawal of some 3,000 Italian troops from Iraq. He has since hedged on the timing. This week, the US and Italy released separate reports - coming to different conclusions. The Monitor's Sophie Arie looks at the key disagreements over an incident that has strained ties between the US and one of its staunchest allies in Iraq.

How fast was the Italian car traveling?

The car's speed is a key point of disagreement. Both countries agree that the Toyota Corolla carrying Ms. Sgrena, Mr. Calipari, and an Italian driver was traveling south on a road the US military calls "Route Vernon." It reached a US checkpoint stopping traffic feeding onto "Route Irish," the notoriously dangerous highway to Baghdad International Airport.

But the two reports disagree over whether the Italian car approached at a reasonable speed and whether it accelerated or slowed down once warnings were given.

According to the US report, the two soldiers manning guns said they thought the Italian car was traveling "in excess of 50 m.p.h." when they first saw it - about 140 meters from the checkpoint.

Despite light signals, the car continued to approach "at a high rate of speed" coming closer to the soldiers, and at a higher rate of speed than any other vehicle that evening, the US report says. The report says the soldiers had "successfully turned around 15 to 30 vehicles" before the Italian car arrived, "with none getting more than a few meters beyond the Alert Line," which is where soldiers flashed light signals.

Even after warning shots had been fired, the Italians' car continued to travel at about 50 miles per hour, according to a US soldier (a New York City police officer trained in estimating vehicle speed) at the roadblock.

The Italian report says estimates from the soldiers vary from 50 m.p.h. to 80 m.p.h. and "seem to be influenced by emotive factors." "The [soldier] who fired, felt threatened and said he was thinking about his young daughters as he frantically counted the seconds and watched the space the car covered, carrying out the necessary mathematical operations to calculate the speed."

According to the Italian report, both the driver and Sgrena say their car began to slow down from a "normal speed" of about 70 kilometers per hour (about 43 m.p.h.) when it was still about 1,200 meters away. It was raining and the driver, who knew the area well, slowed down first to cross a large puddle and then further as he approached the intersection with the airport road.

But the US says a soldier who spoke to the Italian driver after the incident in Spanish, their only common language, told investigators the driver "heard shots from somewhere," and "panicked and started speeding, trying to get to the airport as fast as possible." The Italians insist the driver "was not in any hurry" and suggest that the US soldier misunderstood the driver's Spanish.

Both countries agree that the car was hit 11 times in the windshield and along the right side of the car from one single firing point. Neither report suggests, nor, does Sgrena in an e-mail to the Monitor, that the car was fired upon from behind or that she was traveling on a "secret" secure road - as some media have reported.

Did the Italians realize they were approaching a US roadblock?

The Italians' major complaint is that the roadblock was set up hastily without due consideration of security for civilian drivers. The US report acknowledges that no road signs or lights were in place leading up to the checkpoint. The soldiers decided the three "Jersey" barriers, half blocking the road, were enough. Warning signs were not used because they were in storage at the time.

The Italians say that the use of barriers "does not even remotely correspond to the norms for this kind of roadblock." They say the roadblock was set up without "the most elementary precautionary measures" to warn oncoming traffic. The US report is adamant that the rules of engagement were respected: Shouts and light signals were given before warning shots were fired. The Italian driver says that the light signals and gunfire came only seconds apart.

Were the US soldiers inexperienced, tired, and scared?

The US report says that seven soldiers manning the roadblock had been in Iraq for four months and had already conducted more than 1,000 traffic controls, mostly along the airport road. They had been fully briefed on the rules of engagement, given a refresher course one month before, and reminded of the rules every morning before going on duty.

The US report confirms that the airport road is "a road filled with dangers that can kill, maim, and injure soldiers and civilians." At the point where the roadblock was set up, 13 attacks had occurred in the previous four months. Between November 2004 and March, 135 insurgent attacks occurred along the six-mile airport highway.

Both countries confirm that the soldiers were tired and preoccupied. The roadblock, normally set up for only 10 to 15 minutes, had been in place for more than an hour. The unit was sent to block that access ramp at 7:30 p.m. while the US ambassador drove by. Normally, the ambassador travels to the airport by helicopter.

At 8 p.m., the unit was told that the convoy had not yet passed. They asked to lift the roadblock until needed but were told to stay in place. At 8:30, they were told that the convoy would be passing 20 minutes later. In fact, the ambassador had passed already, arriving at the airport by 8:10 pm.

The soldiers worried that their continued presence might attract an insurgent attack. Two days before, at a similar point on the same road, two soldiers were killed.

The Italian report says that "The state of tension because of the circumstances ... and probably to some extent, because of inexperience and stress, means it is likely that some of the soldiers made instinctive and barely controlled reactions."

Did the Italians inform the US command that they were on their way to the airport with Sgrena?

Both reports confirm that the US authorities knew the Italian intelligence agent had arrived in Iraq. But says the US report, "the US military was totally unaware of the recovery and transport of Ms. Sgrena on March 4 until after the shooting incident had occurred."

Both countries report that about 20 minutes before the car came under fire, the Italian major general, Mario Marioli, waiting at the airport for Sgrena's car to arrive, told his aide, US Captain Green, that it was "best if no one knows" that the Italian hostage is arriving.

The captain took this as an order not to pass on information to anyone. "It is clear that while the hostage mission might have been a success, prior coordination might have prevented this tragedy," the US report says.

The Italian reports says there was no reason the Italians should have informed the US military of their movements. Before the 11 p.m. curfew, no one in Iraq is required to inform the US military of their movements. "It would be strange," the Italians say, "if in order to go through a US roadblock safely it was necessary to inform military command ... that would be equivalent to admitting that roadblocks are intrinsically dangerous."

Did the US military destroy evidence?

Both countries acknowledge that because the vehicles involved in the incident were moved almost immediately after the shooting, it was impossible for forensic experts to establish the speed of the car, how quickly it stopped, or the trajectory of the bullets.

The Americans say that the Italians' car was moved almost immediately after the incident to clear the road. The Italians express amazement that even if it was necessary to clear the road, no markings were made where the car had stopped, despite the fact that two of the US soldiers were experienced police officers.

The Italians also say that duty log books for the evening were destroyed. But the Italians reject reports that satellite images of the area were withheld from investigators.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Dueling views of the Sgrena shooting
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today