Sunday, March 06, 2005

WHEN RAFIK HARIRI, the former Lebanese prime minister, was killed last month in a car bomb blast, Condoleezza Rice recalled Margaret Scobey, the U.S. ambassador to Syria; Scobey sent a message of "outrage" to the Syrian government, which was suspected of being involved in the killing, and said she was returning to Washington for "urgent consultations"; and the State Department, via Rice, threatened to place diplomatic sanctions on Syria.

Compare that reaction with the U.S. response to the shooting attack, by American soldiers, on the car taking Giuliana Sgrena, the Italian journalist who had just been released from captivity in Iraq, to the airport to return to Rome. Sgrena's life was saved by the man who negotiated her release, Nicola Calipari. Calipari threw himself on Sgrena's body and was killed instantly by a bullet that Sgrena says may have been meant for her.

Granted, Sgrena was not a former head of state and her death would not elicit the uproar that the murder of a former Lebanese prime minister would. And of course one would expect the Bush administration to be muted in its response to a killing that U.S. troops were responsible for, as opposed to a killing done by people Washington considers enemies.

Still, allowing for all that, the U.S. response has been casual enough that it makes me wonder if Sgrena actually was targeted for death. The White House called the shooting a "horrific accident" and promised to investigate. Dan Bartlett, the president's communications adviser, offered as a defense Bush's phone call of condolence to Italy's prime minister and, again, his promise to "investigate." A phone call to Calipari's wife and children, not to mention to Sgrena's family, might have been a better indication of Bush's compassion and horror at what happened.

The U.S. says that American troops fired on the car because it approached a checkpoint at high speed and failed to slow down in response to hand signals and warning shots. Sgrena and other witnesses dispute that account, saying that the car was traveling at normal speed and that there were no hand or arm signals and no warning shots. Also, according to an Italian official, the car was not approaching a checkpoint. The official said that the gunfire came from "a patrol that shot as soon as they lit us up with a spotlight."

Sgrena feels she might have been targeted because of the Bush administration's anger at Italy for paying a ransom to secure Sgrena's release. She may be right, or she may be wrong. Obviously, if the Bush administration wants to put such suspicions to rest, it should take real action, meaning, the military personnel who fired the shots should be immediately relieved of duty pending an investigation; and if the investigation reveals that they acted improperly, there should be serious consequences. If Bush does not do that; if the "investigation" stops as soon as the story drops out of the papers, then it shouldn't be a surprise if this incident is added as one more reason for the world to hate the United States.

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