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U.S. troops cleared in Italian agent’s death

U.S. investigators have found that American troops who shot dead an Italian agent at a Baghdad checkpoint March 4 committed no wrongdoing and will not be disciplined, an Army official said Monday.
/ Source: Reuters

U.S. investigators have found that American troops who shot dead an Italian agent after he secured the release of an abducted journalist did nothing wrong and will not be disciplined, an Army official said on Monday.

But Italy disagrees with findings in the preliminary report by the U.S. military investigators and has balked at endorsing it, added the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

U.S. troops accidentally killed Italian intelligence officer Nicola Calipari when they opened fire on a car heading for Baghdad airport in which he was escorting Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena, who had just been released.

Tensions between allies
The friendly fire incident has caused tension between the United States and Italy, one of Washington’s staunchest allies in Iraq. Calipari, hailed as an Italian national hero, was fatally wounded as he threw his body over Sgrena to protect her from a hail of bullets.

Sgrena, an award-winning journalist, was held hostage by insurgents for a month before Calipari masterminded her release. She was wounded but survived.

The Army official said Italy was disputing two factual issues in the report: the car’s speed as it approached the checkpoint; and the nature of communications between the Italians and U.S. forces before the incident.

“The soldiers were only complying with the standard operating procedures for those checkpoints, so therefore are not culpable to dereliction of duty (charges),” the Army official said.

‘Everybody feels terrible’
“Everybody feels terrible about it. But given the climate and the security atmosphere, the security procedures at the checkpoint operations have to be run by the letter,” the official added.

President Bush expressed regret over Calipari’s death in a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Rome on April 7.

The Army official said the fact-finding aspect of the investigation was complete, but it remained to be seen whether the report would be released solely by the United States or with the blessing of the Italians.

A senior defense official, who also asked not to be named, expected the report was to be released “in the next couple of days for sure,” but was careful not to call it a joint report, as the two countries continued to discuss the issue.

“The final language is still being written,” the official said.

The Army official said one of the “trip wires” in the incident was that “there was, in fact, poor communications between the Italians and the Americans.”

Italy’s government has said the Italians had been driving slowly, received no warning and had advised U.S. authorities of their mission to evacuate Sgrena from Iraq.

“There is disagreement over the communication aspect of when somebody was told and what evolved thereafter,” the Army official said.

After the incident, the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division in Baghdad released a statement saying the U.S. soldiers tried to warn the vehicle carrying Sgrena to stop, by using hand and arm signals, flashing white lights and firing warning shots.

The statement said the vehicle was “speeding” toward the checkpoint and the U.S. soldiers then shot into its engine block when the driver did not stop.

Too quick to fire?
Iraqis often complain that U.S. troops are too quick to fire from checkpoints that are difficult to spot.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has said the soldiers fired from a checkpoint set up temporarily to boost security for U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte as he drove to a dinner meeting with Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

Army Brig. Gen. Peter Vangjel, the American 18th Airborne Corps Artillery Commander, was named to head the U.S. probe of the incident.

Berlusconi announced last month Italy would begin withdrawing its 3,000 troops from Iraq in September. The White House has said Italy’s decision to do so was not connected to Calipari’s death.