News and opinions on situation in Iraq

Tinkers, tailors, soldiers, spies on the desert dune By Luciana Bohne

Online Journal Contributing Writer

March 28, 2005

Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena, who was shot by US troops on her way to Baghdad airport after being freed 4 March by her abductors, was released from Celio military hospital in Rome last Friday.

She’d been interviewed on TV midweek (on the program “Ballaro’”) and insisted that she wanted to make it clear that she had never said that she had been the target for assassination by the patrol unit of the US III Infantry Division at Baghdad airport on 4 March [actually, she’s been reported as having said: “They wanted to kill me”]. She had simply noted that the shooting had the “mechanics” of an ambush˜which she had said previously on 8 March. She declared that the death of Nicola Calipari, the senior Italian intelligence (SISMI) official who shielded her from the bullets and saved her life, weighed heavily on her mind. “We thought the danger was over after my rescue . . . And instead, suddenly, there was this shooting. We were hit by a spray [she called it “rain” in previous statements] of fire. I was talking to Nicola, when he leaned over me, probably to defend me, and then he slumped over,” Sgrena said, this time, on RAI News 24.

She said she was feeling weak and found it hard to recover her emotional strength. On Democracy Now, journalist Naomi Klein confirmed the shock she felt at finding Sgrena in a weaker condition than press reports had led her to expect. The bullet (or shard of the bullet that killed Calipari by penetrating the right temple, the direction from where the fire came, and exiting a little above the left ear) had penetrated her shoulder area and bruised the edge of her lung. There had been complications.

Pier Scolari, her husband/companion had said earlier upon her arrival, “Giuliana told me and the other people [sic] who were there told me that the American attack was completely unjustified. They had alerted the whole chain of command. The Italian troops were awaiting them at the airport. And then they fired with 300, 400 rounds.” In “My Truth,” published in Il Manifesto on 6 March, Sgrena had reported that “our car was going slowly. The Americans opened fire without a motive. Calipari died in my arms.”

Last week, the Parliamentary Committee for Control of Intelligence Services (COPACO) was told that on the left-hand side of the seat behind the driver (authentic photos of the car were shown on TV), where Giuliana rested her head, there were four bullet holes. She seems to have saved herself only because instinct made her slide down in her seat; then Calipari threw himself over her.

Testifying before COPACO, presidential undersecretary Gianni Letta and SISMI chief Nicoḷ Pollari both defended SISMI agent Calipari’s actions. “We considered all options. The government, SISMI, and agents in the field all agreed on a course of action that involved the fewest risks. Considering the various options, going it alone was the least risky,” Letta said. These choices involved not informing US authorities of any details before the hostage was secured, using a non-armored-car, and refusing a car-escort convoy. Il Manifesto reporting on a COPACO briefing commented that no one now will be able to say that Calipari had run useless risks, as an internal Pentagon memo, reported in the Washington Times, had insinuated˜a voice then picked up by the press in Italy.

Letta warned that he would not answer questions on the ransom or on concessions made to the kidnappers. “In Iraq, there are people who risk lives to help us out,” Letta pleaded. Committee chair Enzo Bianco, and members of opposition parties agreed not to ask. Letta reiterated what Vice Premier and Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini had said on many occasions (significantly to the Chamber of Deputies on 8 March), as had Berlusconi (to the Senate on 9 March). The Italian government and the American government continue to think differently on what happened at the airport.

On the speed of the car said to be 40 kilometers per hour by the driver and Sgrena, the US claims it was going at 160 kilometers per hour, an unrealistic claim because the car would have sped off the road or overturned when hit by a 20-second barrage of some 400 rounds. As for the exact location of the car when the shooting started, the US authorities claim to have shot at the front of the vehicle to disable the motor, but, though the car was hit in many places, no shot disabled the motor. The front left tire was flat in the photo. Instead, the driver, a major in the police and familiar with Baghdad roads, where he had worked up to a few months earlier, said that he was blinded by a light and the shots began simultaneously.

He had hardly time to apply the brakes, went on for two meters, and stopped. His version is consistent with evidence in the photo that shows the car’s rear window completely smashed. Far from appearing to be heading toward the patrol, as the soldiers claimed, it was moving slightly away. Above all, the two governments disagree over the signals that the Americans put out. Letta pointed out that “the police officer who drove said that the shots occurred immediately after a light flashed blinding him, giving him barely the time to apply the brakes.”

Almost concurrently with the COPACO report, the investigation by the Italian justice ministry suffered a humiliating setback. Public prosecutors in Rome sought to have the Toyota Corolla, in which the Italians were traveling when they came under attack, inspected. In question are the car’s speed and the quantity and direction of the rounds fired into it. The Italian minister of justice, Roberto Castelli, had authorized two police analysts to travel to Baghdad. Almost on the point of departure, orders arrived from the Italian Embassy in Baghdad to abort the mission. The American authorities apparently opposed the inspection. “The Americans’ refusal to permit investigators authorized by public prosecutors and the justice ministry to proceed is an alarming sign,” said Letta. “It is a serious development, which evidences the scarce will to collaborate.”

The Italian government’s vicissitudes in trying to get hold of the Toyota Corolla is a source of acute political embarrassment to Premier Silvio Berlusconi who is facing regional elections this spring. He is Bush’s second most important coalition ally, after British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in the invasion and occupation of Iraq˜but his transatlantic ally’s intransigence is endangering his hold on power. To boot, Berlusconi’s questionable “reforms” of the Italian constitution aimed at placing more power in the executive and practically reversing the 1948 constitution crafted to insure a power balance among the branches of government and to insure popular representation, are now receiving more scrutiny than before.

When the Associated Press asked to see the car on 5 March, it was told that the Americans didn’t know where it was. On 10 March a C130J military plane of the VII autonomous Italian division or “group” left Bateen base at Abu Dhabi for Baghdad, charged with bringing back the Toyota Corolla and delivering it to Rome. The plane returned empty; Calipari’s car remained in Baghdad. Shortly before 10 March, a photo of “the” car surfaced with fewer bullet holes than suggested by the description of a “rain of bullets” in Sgrena’s account. It was the wrong car. The Washington Times’ Rowan Scarborough had claimed that the shots had been eight not 400 and further blamed Calipari for supposedly not securing an exit strategy. And so on. Eventually, the Italian public prosecutors at the court of magistrates in Rome located the owner, who leased cars to the Italian embassy in Baghdad, and bought the vehicle, but the Americans refused to surrender it, keeping it in a hangar at Camp Victory, in the area of Baghdad airport.

Last week’s orders to abandon the inspection of the car added a further wound to an already aggrieved sense of national pride, following Berlusconi’s declaration on 17 March that he was withdrawing the withdrawal of Italian troops from Iraq, announced just 24 hours earlier.

“I told him: ‘George, everything is as it was before. Nothing has changed,’” blubbered what many call the “Pagliaccio of Europe,” the unctuous Berlusconi. It was understood that this about-face was instigated by Bush, who seems to have taken Berlusconi to the proverbial woodshed and demanded that he change his mind. Justifiably, Italians wanted to know whether Italy had any sovereignty in foreign policy left or whether it was now being dictated by Washington. The refusal to allow public prosecutors to have access to the Toyota Corolla has Italians now asking whether Italy has any self-determination left even regarding internal policy.

The immense political damage done to Italian public trust in their US ally, admittedly not very solid to begin with (80 percent opposed the war), is hard to grasp on this side of the Atlantic, where the killing of a top Italian government intelligence official and the wounding of a rescued kidnapped journalist are dismissed as the result of an unfortunate mishap at a “checkpoint” on “the most dangerous highway on earth,” caused by either trigger-happy and/or frightened soldiers. In some accounts, Calipari has been passed off as an anonymous “bodyguard”˜not as the second in command, at times, of the Italian equivalent of the CIA and currently chief of operations in “foreign searches.”

Sgrena has been painted as a latter day Patricia Hearst, Svengalied by her captors into some sort of hysterical adoration, ignoring the fact that Sgrena is an astute political journalist and veteran of West Asia and the Middle East. It’s not that she loves the resistance in an ideological knee-jerk response˜there’s hardly any notable “left” presence in the Iraqi resistance, thus far, which may be its Achilles’ heel, as political analyst Tariq Ali has already noted. It’s that she understands the desperate logic and inevitability of the resistance, especially given the slaughterhouse that Iraq has become under occupation.

Unembedded and unbrainwashed, Sgrena cannot be expected to call her captors “cutthroats” when she’s perfectly aware of her own government’s responsibility in the massacres that took place in Fallujah˜to mention just one of the bloodiest episodes of that murderous war. Sixty percent of Iraqi civilian deaths are a result of American bombardments, a study by the Iraqi Ministry Of Health confirmed on 4 February 2005.

What these typically cartoonish and simplistic accounts in our media fail to grasp is that Italians are not Fox News addicts. In their eyes, their own government has taken them to war in violation of their constitution for an ally that is treating their country as an inconsequential doormat. Five hundred thousand Italians had mobilized on 19 February in mass demonstrations in Rome and all over Italy demanding Sgrena’s release and the withdrawal of the troops from Iraq. (Fini, himself, has acknowledged that the people of Italy were the force behind Sgrena’s rescue and release.) Two hundred thousand Italians showed up for Calipari’s funeral. Polls conducted in Italy in these past weeks indicate that 70 percent of the public favor recalling the troops. But, apparently, their government no longer has the authority to respond to their will or to carry out a straightforward investigation into the killing of one of their chief public servants. Their ally in Washington obstructs both measures.

Too, what Italians know about the tragic incident of 4 March approaching Baghdad terminal at the airport is vastly more than what their counterparts know in the land of Weapons of Mass Deception.

Nicola Calipari left Rome for Baghdad on 4 March with a squad of ten SISMI agents, landing at Kuwait City (not Abu Dhabi as first reported). Principal task: to deposit the ransom of from $6 to $8 million˜a ransom Bush forced to have Berlusconi deny. Reporting to the Senate on the incident (9 March), Berlusconi never mentioned the word “ransom,” but his vice-premier, Fini, dutifully denied the handover of the ransom on television˜such a claim in the Senate would have had the opposition in stitches, since the ransom had been reported in the press without eliciting denial by SISMI or the Berlusconi triple entente (Berlusconi’s own soccer-sounding team of Forza Italia, Bossi’s immigrant-bashing and secessionist Northern League, and Fini’s Alleanza Nazionale, the re-named party of Mussolini loyalists˜US allies in Rome!). Supposedly, the denial of the ransom was part of the deal Bush made in agreeing to have two Italians sit as “external” observers on his military investigation of the shooting.

In Kuwait City, Calipari was told that Sgrena was to be released. Taking with him only the police major, he said nothing to the CIA but is said to have been in contact with US military intelligence, who had direct contact with military troops. Arriving in Baghdad at 4:30 pm, Calipari obtained security badges˜and permission to carry two guns. According to Letta, “Calipari had activated all the necessary contacts with US authorities required by airport security between 4:30 pm and 7:10 pm.”

In some reports, he met a Captain Green to obtain the badges˜it’s not clear if Green was CIA or military intelligence. This is a curiously obfuscated point because Captain Green was waiting, along with the SISMI chief in Baghdad, and General Maioli, vice-commander of coalition forces under US control, at the airport for the rescue party’s night arrival. (In some reports, the CIA station chief was a member of the party.) According to Letta, reporting to COPACO hearings, Captain Green and the others were kept in the dark about the details until 8:30 pm, because Reuters was releasing the news of the rescue at 8:35 (actually the news was first announced by Al Jazeera). Green, Letta said, had a radio with which he could have given all information necessary to the patrols in the area. It is not known what he did, but, at the very least, he did not give orders not to shoot at the rescue party. At 8:55 pm the patrol fired on the rescue car. Who is Green? I could not find anything useful on him. If CIA, Green knew something was afoot from 4:30 pm. If he was not CIA, was the station chief at Baghdad airport, too? All accounts confirm a CIA presence at Baghdad airport.

Whatever Green’s role may have been in operation, Calipari was in an awful rush to get Sgrena out of Baghdad. He made no arrangements for her to stop at the embassy and rented his own car with an Iraqi license plate, although Italian police in Baghdad had a pool of their own cars. The rush is evidenced by the fact that Simona Parri and Simona Torretta, released in September through Calipari’s efforts, stayed in Baghdad two days before returning to Rome.

Waiting in the house where she was being held, two kidnappers told Giuliana Sgrena that she was leaving for Rome (”Te ne vai a Roma,” in Sgrena’s account to the Corriere della Sera). Later, they told her that they were committed to her freedom but that “the Americans wanted her dead.” Which “Americans”? She didn’t believe them. She only remembered those words when she was hit by the “rain of fire” on the way to her flight back to Rome. In COPACO’s hearings, on 21 March, Il Manifesto reported that Letta and Pollari testified that “the car in which the kidnappers delivered Sgrena was stuffed with explosives. At the least incident, they would have blown it up.”

Sgrena, confirmed this detail in her latest interview on television (”Ballaro’”). “When the kidnappers left the car, one of them told me, ‘If they attack us, we open fire.’ And the other added, ‘In that case we’ll all be blown up.” Was this possibility behind Calipari’s rush and behind his secrecy, particularly regarding the CIA? Was it why the kidnappers knew she was leaving for Rome? Had it been agreed as the best course because of some danger? Why was the car booby-trapped? To prevent capture?

She waited in her car-bomb for half an hour, before Calipari came and helped her out, saying, “Giuliana, I’m Nicola. You are free.” They took an alternate road to the one reputed to be “the most dangerous road on earth”˜the one with the car bombs and the regular mayhem, the one the press in the US had advertised as the logical place where soldiers would be fearful, the one, military authorities said, where a number of car-bomb incidents had occurred just that week.

On 9 December 2004, Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune reported: “The Iraq war goes from bad to worse. That’s the maddening paradox: we liberated Baghdad, but we can’t use the airport road. US officials in Baghdad barred embassy staffers from using the 10-mile segment of highway that connects the embassy to the airport. Why? Because it isn’t safe. They’ll have to go by helicopter instead. Think of that.”

It was, therefore, unusual for US Ambassador John Negroponte to be on that road that night (and not flying over it by helicopter), as US authorities claimed when they released their news that the patrol that attacked Sgrena was protecting the ambassador driving to a 7 or 7:30 dinner appointment at Camp Victory. In fact, it was against his own orders. And which road? The “most dangerous highway” or the alternative route? No distinction was made at the time of the statement. And the thought of Negroponte loose on that road (whichever he was supposed to be on) at that time seems ominous, if it is true. The soldiers had no idea if he had passed, it was said˜though he had to have passed, for Sgrena’s car was attacked at 8:55 pm˜when they shot at the allegedly crazily speeding car, driving improbably fast on a road that was flooded and potholed, around a 90-degree curve on a rainy and dark night˜driving recklessly but with the interior light on!

The police major didn’t take the “most dangerous highway on earth.” He took the alternative route. “Did you recognize the road?” asked the Corriere della Sera to Sgrena (Interview, 11 March).

“Yes, because I know that road. It is the alternative road to the airport, the one that passes through the Green Zone, controlled by the Americans. It bypasses the inhabited zones. It’s a road I traveled on several times.”

“Did you meet checkpoints?”

“Not a one. We were never stopped. Sure, I was euphoric, and I can’t say if there were soldiers along the way. But I would remember a checkpoint. As the curve was ending, the shots. From the right and behind. It isn’t true that they shot from the front.”

And why were there no warning shots? The rules of engagement require warning shots and disabling the motor. Or is it, as a US sergeant appears to have said, “American soldiers have a right to shoot at anything they deem dangerous”?

From the interview with the Corriere (11 March):

“What do you see from the car?”

Sgrena: “It wasn’t a checkpoint but a patrol which shot after they lighted us up with a flash. An armoured car on the side of the road [right side]. A soldier opens the door on the right. When he sees us I have the impression that he is disconcerted (”che rimanga male”˜hard to translate. Perhaps “disappointed”?]. He curses. I think he said, “Oh, shit.” Even when the others appear, seven or eight, I have the sensation that they are disappointed.”

“You spoke of ‘a rain of bullets’ or of ‘handfuls’ of bullets.”

Sgrena: “I saw the bullets. I don’t know if they were 300 or 400, but the car was full of bullets.”

“And the driver?”

Sgrena: “From the ground I hear him speaking on the phone. I hear him shouting, ‘Nicola is dead. She’s far from me, but I see her eyes are open.’”

In his debriefing the police major, who was driving the car, said, “I remember that some 10 soldiers approached. I got out of the car. They made me kneel.” They took his weapon, but he was able to say on the phone to Rome that there was nothing to celebrate. In some reports he said, still on the phone but kneeling, “Nicola is dead, and I have a gun pointed at my head.” If the soldiers feared a car-bomb, why did they approach the car?

Some observers have noted that if assassination had been the intent, all should have been killed. The trouble was that Calipari died with his ear glued to the phone in direct communication with Rome˜with Berlusconi, Pollari, Letta, and even Scolari. The police major declared, “He made some telephone calls to inform the officer who gave us the badges [Green] and the officer who was supposed to facilitate our re-entry [to Italy].” Sgrena confirms that Calipari never spoke in English˜but it is known that calls to people like Green goes through channels. On the phone with Letta, as he was struck dead, Calipari transmitted the whole volley of fire. It is possible that the divergence from US versions springs from this evidence: no warning shots as of shots fired in the air, no shouts of “stop.” The volley is heard in real time by the government in Rome.

Last note: the bullets. Photos of the car show holes of different sizes. The police major himself testified that he heard shots of different “cadences.” Some of the holes are consistent with shots fired from M-4 rifles (or old M-16s), but some holes are consonant with bullets of 12 mm˜from machine guns. Sgrena feels very guilty because Calipari had said, “I will sit next to you, so you’ll feel more secure.” She needn’t feel guilty. Had Calipari sat in the passenger’s seat, he would not have escaped his death. In the center of the backrest is a large bullet hole. Shots seem to have been aimed at chest or head level, and that is why inspection of the car is so crucial. Minister of Justice Roberto Castelli commented, “The investigators’ travel plan, blocked at the last moment, is a strongly alarming sign.”

And the motive? First one has to determine the target. Most people, accepting the theory that this incident was no accident, seem to think the target was Sgrena. But she writes for a paper that prints 20,000 copies at most, and, though one of the most reliable in Italy for opinion and news, it is hardly worth worrying about. What she knows about Fallujah is already well known among her readership. However, I’m willing to consider that the abduction and what she may have seen, and has not yet processed, may make her dangerous. She has already noted that the woman who took care of her during her imprisonment spoke only English and French to the two kidnappers and that one of two of her very devout Muslim kidnappers unexpectedly shook her hand as she was about to leave. The other was a fan of the Italian soccer team that wore T-shirts imprinted with “Free Giuliana” during a game.

Who benefits? Certainly not Berlusconi. I don’t know about Bush. That depends on what Negroponte had for dinner that Friday night! Calipari’s two satellite phones were confiscated at the shooting and never returned. On it were the contacts he made to obtain Sgrena’s release˜the people who “risked lives” to help him secure her release. Negroponte has been charged with crushing the Iraqi resistance. He had experience in such things with the “Salvador Option.” And on 21 February, all Italian reporters left Baghdad, courtesy of orders by Bush’s man in Rome, “il cavaliere, signor” Berlusconi.

But the whole thing stinks of secret-service shenanigans˜really nasty stuff! And it’s been 30 years since I’ve been thrilled by John Le Carre’ scenarios. Meanwhile, Ambassador Mel Sembler in Rome blames a “failure of communication” on General Maioli, the liaison officer between Italy and the US. No! You think? But perhaps intentional, at least on Calipari’s part!

Could the US government/CIA/military have been annoyed at Italy for paying ransom, at Sgrena for sticking her nose in where it didn’t belong, and at Calipari for snatching the hostage without their supervision? Sure. But ordinary emotions cannot be allowed to be the sole motivating force of this extraordinary gang of conscienceless and corrupt thugs. They want cold, calculated, and long-term results˜preferably in profits. It’s part of their ethos as corporate planners!

Luciana Bohne teaches film and literature at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. She can be reached at

“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” – George Orwell

“The darkest moments of human history have always had silence on their side.” —Sister Joan Chittester, OSB

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