American troops fired on a car rushing Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena to freedom after a month in captivity, killing an Italian intelligence officer who helped negotiate her release and wounding the reporter in another friendly-fire tragedy at a US checkpoint in Baghdad.
Sgrena was discharged from a hospital in Baghdad and was on her way back to Italy early today, the news agency ANSA and Sky TG24 television reported.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, an ally of the United States who has kept Italian troops in Iraq despite public opposition at home, demanded an explanation “for such a serious incident, for which someone must take the responsibility”.
President George W Bush expressed regret and promised to investigate, the White House said.
The US military said the car was speeding as it approached a coalition checkpoint in western Baghdad at 8.55pm on Friday (5.55pm Irish time).
It said soldiers shot into the engine block only after trying to warn the driver to stop by “hand and arm signals, flashing white lights, and firing warning shots.”
The Americans said two people were wounded, but Berlusconi said there were three – Sgrena and two intelligence officers. One of the officers was in serious condition with an apparent lung injury, according to the Apcom news agency in Italy. The US military said Army medics treated a wounded man but that “he refused medical evacuation for further assistance”.
The intelligence agent was killed when he threw himself over Sgrena to protect her from US fire, Apcom quoted Gabriele Polo, the editor of the leftist Italian newspaper Il Manifesto, as saying. Sgrena works for Il Manifesto.
Berlusconi identified the dead intelligence officer as Nicola Calipari and said he had been at the forefront of negotiations with the kidnappers. The prime minister said Calipari had been involved in the release of other Italian hostages in Iraq in the past.
US troops took Sgrena to an American military hospital, where shrapnel was removed from her left shoulder.
US Lt. Col. Clifford Kent, a spokesman for the 3rd Infantry Division in Baghdad, said the checkpoint where the shooting occurred had been set up temporarily and was not permanent.
Asked how easy it would be to see American troops at such a checkpoint a night, he said: “depending on where it is, that could be difficult. But if you’re seeing soldiers in military uniform with military equipment, if you know it’s a dangerous area, then … you need to maintain your awareness. The event was very tragic, and my condolences go out to those killed and injured.
US Col. Bob Potter said coalition forces were ”aggressively investigating the incident”.
Sgrena, 56, was abducted on February 4 by gunmen who blocked her car outside Baghdad University. Last month, she was shown in a video pleading for her life and demanding that all foreign troops – including Italian forces – leave Iraq.
Bush called Berlusconi and, in a five-minute conversation, expressed his regret about the incident, White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters aboard Air Force One on Friday night.
“The president assured Prime Minister Berlusconi it would be fully investigated,” McClellan said. “I think he appreciated that.”
McClellan wouldn’t comment on what the incident might mean for participation by Italy or other countries in the coalition.
The shooting came as a blow to Berlusconi, who has kept 3,000 troops in Iraq despite strong opposition in Italy. The shooting was likely to set off new protests in Italy, where tens of thousands have regularly turned out on the streets to protest the Iraq war. Sgrena’s newspaper was a loud opponent of the war.
Iraqis have reported numerous incidents where confusion at US checkpoints has led to US soldiers killing innocent civilians.
In a 2003 friendly-fire incident involving Italians, American soldiers in northern Iraq shot at a car carrying the Italian official heading up US efforts to recover Iraq’s looted antiquities. Pietro Cordone, the top Italian diplomat in Iraq, was unhurt, but his Iraqi translator was killed.
Cordone, also the senior adviser for cultural affairs of the US provisional authority, was travelling on the road between Mosul and Tikrit when his car was fired on at a US roadblock, according to an Italian Foreign Ministry official.