Wednesday, March 09, 2005

MORE ON GIULIANA SGRENA ... A reader passed along a link to an article in The Independent, which is considerably more blunt about the Italians' side of the story than I've seen in the U.S. press.

In addition to the details we've already heard about the shooting itself -- that Sgrena's car passed several checkpoints without incident and that there was no warning from the Americans before the shooting started -- the Independent piece mentions what could be a significant detail from when Nicola Calipari first arrived in Iraq to negotiate for Sgrena's release. Italy was well aware that the Bush administration strongly disapproved of Italy's practice of paying ransoms if necessary to get a hostage released; consequently, the negotiations between the Italian negotiators and the Iraqi kidnappers were always done secretly. But this time, for reasons that the Independent does not make clear, Calipari told the U.S. military authorities, upon his arrival in Iraq, the purpose of his team's trip to Iraq.

Italy is well aware that its habit of paying large sums to secure the release of its nationals is disapproved of by the Americans and British. All negotiations are therefore carried on in secret. But at Baghdad airport Mr Calipari explained at the US headquarters what his team had come to do. It was arranged that an American colonel would be on hand at the airport when Ms Sgrena arrived for her flight back to Italy. By the time the team had rented a four-wheel drive it was already 5pm.

At 8.20pm, Mr Calipari's team reached the rendezvous on the outskirts of Baghdad. The vehicle they were looking for was there. Ms Sgrena's abductors had left her blindfolded in the back of the car. "I'm a friend of Pier and Gabriele," Mr Calipari said, naming Ms Sgrena's partner and editor. The 57-year-old journalist was a bundle of tension as they got her into their vehicle and left for the airport.

By now it was dark and pouring with rain. Baghdad is far too dangerous for people to go out after dark without excellent reason, and all scheduled flights had left. But the Italians decided that, with their plane waiting on the Tarmac, it was better to get Ms Sgrena home without delay.

They passed two American checkpoints along the airport road without incident and were 700 metres or so from the airport building. The road narrowed to a single, one-way lane and took a 90-degree turn. The car was going slowly now, approaching the end of the journey.

"At last I felt safe," Ms Sgrena said. "We had nearly arrived in an area under American control, an area more or less friendly, even if it was still unsettled."

Then, turning the corner, they found their progress baulked by an American tank. They were blinded by a powerful light. "Without any warning, any signal, we were bombarded with a shower of bullets," Ms Sgrena said. "The tank was firing on us, our car was riddled with bullets. Nicola tried to protect me, then his body slumped on top of mine, I heard his death rattle, then I felt a pain but I couldn't tell where I had been hit. Those who had fired came up to the car, but before I was taken to the American hospital there was an interminable wait, it's hard to know how long I was lying there wounded but perhaps it was 20 minutes."

Was Ms Sgrena, correspondent of the communist daily Il Manifesto, who has repeatedly demanded an end to the occupation, the true target? She couldn't rule it out, she said. "Everybody knows that the Americans are opposed to hostage negotiations. So I don't see why we must exclude the possibility that I was their target. The Americans don't approve, and so they try to frustrate the negotiations every way they can."

The Bush administration has done serious damage, at least in the short-term, to the cooperative relationship between Italy and the U.S. with regard to Iraq. The Italian people were overwhelmingly opposed to the invasion and occupation, and Italy's role in it, from before it began; and now the government of Silvio Berlusconi has to deal with the fury of the Italian public over what looks to them like an intentional targeting of Sgrena. The anger is only increased by the incredible heroism shown by Nicola Calipari, who, as the article points out, saved Sgrena's life twice: the first time by negotiating her release, and again by shielding her body with his own and taking a bullet straight to the temple.

The Bush administration's response to this incident has been perfunctory and very insincere. "We regret the killing," is what people say when they really don't give a damn, but have to say something for form's sake. And making that minimal acknowledgment of this event about ten thousand times worse, along comes an American military commentator, Edward Luttwak, telling a reporter in an interview for La Repubblica that "Mr Calipari's death was 'the sort of thing that happens all the time in a war,' and [advising] Italy to 'take an aspirin and go to bed, you'll feel better in the morning.' "

What a callous and stupid thing to say. I wonder how Mr. Luttwak would have responded if Italian commentators had said, when 3 contractors were murdered and their bodies burned and hung from a bridge in Fallujah, that "this is the sort of thing that happens all the time in a war," and the U.S. should "take an aspirin and go to bed, you'll feel better in the morning."

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