Hostage claims US may have targeted her

ITALIAN hostage Giuliana Sgrena, shot and wounded after being freed in Iraq claimed that US forces may have deliberately targeted her because Washington opposed Italy’s policy of dealing with kidnappers.

She offered no evidence for her claim, but the sentiment reflected growing anger in Italy over the conduct of the war, which has claimed more than 20 Italian lives.

Friday evening’s killing of the agent and wounding of the journalist has sparked tension with Italy’s US allies and put pressure on Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to take a hard line with President George Bush.

The US has promised a full investigation into incident, in which soldiers fired on the Italians’ car as it approached Baghdad airport.

The US military says the car was speeding toward a checkpoint and ignored warning shots, an explanation denied by government ministers and the driver of the car.

Speaking from her hospital bed Ms Sgrena said it was possible the soldiers had targeted her because Washington opposes Italy’s dealings with kidnappers that may include ransom payments. “The United States doesn’t approve of this (ransom) policy and so they try to stop it in any way possible,” she said.

According to Italy’s leading daily Corriere della Sera, the driver, an unidentified Italian agent, said: “We were driving slowly, about 40-50 km/h (25-30 mph).”

Ms Sgrena wrote in Sunday’s Il Manifesto newspaper that the secret agent, Nicola Calipari, saved her life by shielding her with his body.

“Nicola threw himself on to protect me and then suddenly I heard his last breath as he died on top of me,” she wrote.

Although Italy has denied paying kidnappers in past hostage releases, Agriculture Minister Gianni Alemanno told the Corriere that “very probably” a large ransom had been paid in this case.

Italian newspapers have speculated that anything up to €8 million may have been paid.

Meanwhile in Iraq, the deputy prime minister said a meeting of its newly elected National Assembly will be held within 10 days.

Five weeks after elections, the lack of agreement between leading parties over who will lead the new government has fanned fears insurgent violence will spiral unchecked.

Barham Salih said he hoped politicians would end horse-trading over top posts soon, so the National Assembly could meet for the first time.

“The meeting will be on March 16 and we agreed to continue meetings (on a government) and hope to reach an agreement by then,” he said.

“If we don’t reach an agreement then the National Assembly will begin its work and discussions will continue inside the assembly.”

The main point of contention between the three leading parties is who will be prime minister.

A Shi’ite Muslim alliance which won a slim parliamentary majority in the January 30 polls, gaining power after decades of Sunni domination under Saddam Hussein, has chosen Ibrahim Jaafari as its candidate for prime minister. Pro-US interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is also bidding to keep his job.

Both have launched a charm offensive with the Kurds who, having come second in the elections, can make or break a deal.

The Shi’ite alliance needs the Kurdish vote to secure the two-thirds majority required to select a new government.

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