U.S. orders probe of fatal shooting of Italian officer

/ Source: The Associated Press

The U.S. military decided Tuesday to conduct an accelerated inquiry to learn why American troops opened fire, killing an Italian intelligence agent and wounding an Italian journalist he helped rescue from insurgents in Iraq — an attack that has strained relations with a key American ally.

The decision to fast-track the investigation came as the military also opened an inquiry into the shooting death of a Bulgarian soldier in what appeared to be another friendly fire incident on the same day.

Both probes were an indication of the pressure being brought on the Bush administration by the few American allies in Europe that have steadfastly supported his policies in Iraq.

Italy and its prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, sent 3,000 troops to Iraq, while Bulgaria has 460. Both countries have said they will not withdraw their troops, but domestic pressure to bring them home has been growing — especially in Bulgaria where it has become an election issue.

Also Tuesday, American troops fought insurgents Tuesday in Ramadi, a city 70 miles west of Baghdad. At least two Iraqis were killed in the clashes, and at least six other Iraqis died in other violence around the country.

Interim National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie said ousted dictator Saddam Hussein could stand trial by year’s end. “I will be surprised if I do not see Saddam in the box before the end of the year,” he said. “I am very much hopeful that Saddam will be in the box around September and October, before the general referendum” on a constitution.

The constitution is to be drafted by the National Assembly, which convenes March 16. Negotiations to form Iraq’s first democratically elected government focused Tuesday on the makeup of the Cabinet, after Kurds said they were close to a deal with the Shiite clergy-backed United Iraqi Alliance.

Fragile alliances
The shooting Friday that killed intelligence officer Nicola Calipari and wounded Giuliana Sgrena, a 56-year-old journalist for the left-wing Il Manifesto newspaper, angered Italians and rekindled questions about the country’s involvement in Iraq.

In Bulgaria, the death of Pvt. Gardi Gardev made the country’s presence in Iraq an issue ahead of general elections in June. Opinion polls show a growing majority of Bulgarians oppose the deployment. The opposition party has promised a withdrawal if it wins the election.

In Rome, Berlusconi’s office said the premier had “expressed the satisfaction of the Italian government” at the U.S. military investigation.

Berlusconi called President Bush after the shooting and demanded a full investigation into the attack, which took place after nightfall as the car carrying Sgrena, Calipari and two other agents approached Baghdad airport. Another agent also was wounded.

Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini told parliament Tuesday that U.S. troops killed Calipari by accident, but disputed Washington’s version of events.

Fini said the car carrying Calipari and Sgrena was not speeding and U.S. troops did not order it to stop, contrary to what U.S. officials say. But Fini dismissed allegations made by Sgrena that the shooting was an ambush.

Murky issues
“It was an accident,” Fini said. “This does not prevent, in fact it makes it a duty for the government to demand that light be shed on the murky issues, that responsibilities be pinpointed, and, where found, that the culprits be punished.”

The U.S.-led coalition said a follow-up investigation would be led by U.S. Brig. Gen. Peter Vangjel and that it would to take three to four weeks. Italian officials were invited to participate.

“The follow-on investigation to the multinational division-Baghdad commander’s initial inquiry into the incident is expected to take approximately three to four weeks to complete,” a military statement said.

Vangjel is the 18th Airborne Corps Artillery Commander and the investigation was ordered by the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. George Casey. Vangjel, commander of all Army artillery in Iraq, arrived in the country in January.

In Washington, Casey said he had no indication Italian officials gave advance notice of the car’s route. “I personally do not have any indication of that, even on a preliminary basis,” Casey said.

The U.S. 3rd Infantry Division, which controls Baghdad, said the vehicle was “traveling at high speeds” and “refused to stop at a checkpoint.”

An American patrol “attempted to warn the driver to stop by hand and arm signals, flashing white lights, and firing warning shots in front of the car,” it said. “When the driver didn’t stop, the soldiers shot into the engine block which stopped the vehicle, killing one and wounding two others.”

However, Fini said the car was “traveling at a speed that couldn’t have been more than 25 miles per hour.” A light, he said, was flashed at the car after a curve and gunfire started immediately afterward. It lasted 15 to 20 seconds, he said.

Bulgarian incident
The investigation into the shooting of the Bulgarian soldier, killed near the central city of Diwaniya, will focus on reports he also was shot by U.S. troops.

“The multinational forces-Iraq values greatly our partnership with Bulgaria in helping the Iraqis achieve democracy. We are committed to working with our Bulgarian partners to determine the cause of” the soldier’s death.

“It’s another unfortunate incident,” Casey said, adding “we’ll get to the bottom of it.”