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A tragic mishap
by John Hall
Media General News Service


March 10, 2005

Washington - What really happened in the fatal shooting of an Italian intelligence officer and the wounding of a journalist at a checkpoint near Baghdad must await an investigation. But it is one more indication that stability in Iraq is no closer to being achieved than it was on the day that Baghdad fell.

Troops who have to stand watch at night on dark roads leading to the Baghdad airport don't get a second chance if they guess wrong. Whose vehicle hurtles toward them in murky half-light, ignoring warnings to stop, isn't a computer game.

Around the world, blood boils over, and the blame-America-first crowd on the left loves leaping to conclusions each time something goes wrong with the war operation.

Sure, something went haywire. The investigation of the shooting death of Italian military intelligence officer Nicola Calipari will likely focus on the U.S. practice of using hand signals and flashing lights at approaching vehicles, and whether the signals are adequately understood. Shots fired at cars mistaken for suicide bombers have reportedly caused heavy civilian casualties on the road to the airport, including many women and children.

Giuliana Sgrena, the former hostage whose life Calipari saved, is a journalist for Il Manifesto, described by The New York Times' Rome correspondent as a "far left" newspaper and by the BBC as a "communist newspaper."

In Italy, of course, the politics are too crazy to be clarified by such designations. Suffice it to say that Sgrena's newspaper does not like the Bush administration's policy on the war in Iraq.

She was abducted Feb. 4 in Baghdad and, after her release, was wounded by shrapnel after Calipari had led the negotiations for her release and sped her away. It is not clear who kidnapped her.

Calipari was shot with a bullet to his temple. The Italian agriculture minister has said it is very probable that a ransom was paid. Associated Press Television News in Baghdad reported that a video purportedly made by insurgents claimed they had received no ransom, but the authenticity of the video was unverified.

Sgrena, in interviews, said it is possible American troops deliberately targeted her because of the U.S. policy that opposed negotiating with kidnappers.

"I cannot rule out that I was the real target," she told the Rome-based daily La Repubblica.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan, while hundreds of mourners were paying their respects to Calipari in Rome, said Sgrena's remarks were "absurd."

''It's absurd to make any such suggestion that our men and women in uniform would deliberately target innocent civilians,'' he said. She has offered no evidence to back up her claim, and Italy's foreign minister called the shooting an accident.

There doesn't seem to have been much communication between Italian and American officials prior to the movement of Calipari's vehicle. He appeared to have been acting in the shadows without the knowledge of most of the Italian delegation in Iraq.

You would ordinarily want a president to call a person who had been wounded by friendly fire and say he was sorry on behalf of the nation. The news of Sgrena's shooting was hard to take for a lot of us journalists. But her remarks were unacceptable, even given her condition at the time.

President Bush called Italian President Silvio Berlusconi, a solid backer of Bush's Iraq war policy, shortly after the shootings to express regrets. But the White House felt that an insult like the one Sgrena hurled at the integrity of U.S. troops had to be answered.

The other thing that has to be answered on behalf of U.S. troops is why the Army has not been able to rush enough bulletproof vests and vehicles into Iraq. Combat units have become increasingly open in complaining about the slowness in making the highest-quality armor and technology available for the troops and their Humvees.

Perhaps they might be more secure and feel less need to fire away if the armor around them was better.

Management problems have allowed contractors to get away with inexcusable delays in fulfilling body-armor contracts, and new congressional fraud and abuse rules have created more bottlenecks. The insurgents, meanwhile, get more sophisticated and more powerful with roadside bombs and suicide attacks in this ugliest of wars.


John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service.
E-mail jhall(at)

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,


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