Italy's friendship with US 'unaffected'

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi told parliament today he disagreed with some of the US military’s conclusions into the March shooting death of an Italian agent in Baghdad, but insisted those differences won’t affect Italy’s friendship with Washington or the deployment of Italian troops in Iraq.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi told parliament today he disagreed with some of the US military’s conclusions into the March shooting death of an Italian agent in Baghdad, but insisted those differences won’t affect Italy’s friendship with Washington or the deployment of Italian troops in Iraq.

Days after Rome and Washington issued rival reports into the death of Nicola Calipari, Berlusconi tried to strike a balancing act: easing any tension with the administration of US President George Bush while defending the dignity of his country before a powerful ally.

“Our friendship with the US has overcome more difficult tests than this one,” the premier said.

“We have no intention of establishing any connection between the assessment of the case in which our official lost his life and the role of our country in Iraq.”

Calipari was shot at a checkpoint near Baghdad airport on March 4 less than an hour after he secured the release of Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena, who had been in the hands of her abductors for a month. Sgrena and another intelligence agent in the vehicle were wounded.

The US report into the death cleared the soldiers of any blame. It said the car was speeding, didn’t heed warning lights and shots, and said better co-ordination between the Italians and Americans could have prevented the tragedy.

But Berlusconi said it couldn’t be ruled out that US troops who fired on the agent’s car from a checkpoint were to blame even if they fired mistakenly.

“Indeed, the lack of deliberate action doesn’t rule out blame attributable to negligence, imprudence or even simple incompetence,” he told MPs.

At Rome’s insistence, Italian investigators were allowed to join the US probe, but the two sides failed to agree on conclusions.

Italy’s own report concluded that the soldiers’ inexperience, stress and fatigue played a role in the fatal shooting.

Today, Berlusconi stood by the Italian investigators’ findings that a temporary US checkpoint set up along the dangerous highway to Baghdad airport wasn’t properly marked. He also said the scene of the shooting wasn’t left untouched.

But he added that “the impartiality and good faith of the US investigators cannot be questioned.”

Opposition MP Piero Fassino demanded an apology from the US.

“Words of friendship have come from the US government, but not an apology for a tragic accident,” he said in a parliamentary debate that followed Berlusconi’s remarks.

“Those who are responsible would do well in recognising (their responsibility) and apologise.”

On Wednesday, Bush called Berlusconi to again express regret over Calipari’s killing, and both leaders reaffirmed their countries’ alliance.

Calipari’s death, as well as the American conclusions, angered Italians and fuelled calls for the withdrawal of Italy’s 3,000 troops in Iraq.

Berlusconi – who defied strong opposition at home when he sent the contingent to help with reconstruction after Saddam Hussein’s ousting – said today the troops would stay.

“We must insist in our commitment and assist the forces of a free and democratic new Iraq,” he told parliament.

Two months ago, Berlusconi said if security conditions allowed and the other allies agree, some Italian troops might start coming home as early as September. But no timetable for the start of withdrawal has been set.

Cabinet minister Roberto Calderoli urged the government earlier this week to “reflect on the timetable for an exit strategy”.

Rome prosecutors are conducting their own investigation into the case.

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