ROME, March 9 -- U.S. military officials in Iraq had approved an Italian intelligence
officer's mission to free a kidnapped journalist and were expecting their arrival
at Baghdad's airport on Friday when U.S. soldiers opened fire on the Italians
at a checkpoint, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said Wednesday.
In a speech, Berlusconi provided new details of how the Italians worked over
the past month to free journalist Giuliani Sgrena from her Iraqi kidnappers,
only to have the effort end in the death of the Italian intelligence officer
who arrived in Baghdad that day to receive her from her captors.
The prime minister's remarks, building on a statement Tuesday by Foreign Minister
Gianfranco Fini, showed that his government is determined to challenge the U.S.
version of the Italian's death, which has strained relations between the two
Though Berlusconi has come under growing domestic criticism for keeping 2,700
Italian troops in Iraq, his speech drew a standing ovation from opposition senators
as well as members of his governing coalition.
In the weeks after Sgrena was taken hostage in Baghdad on Feb. 4, Italian intelligence
officers worked to identify the kidnappers, determine that she was still alive,
locate her and negotiate her release. Along the way, Fini said, information
was shared with the U.S. Embassy's hostage working group in Baghdad.
Nicola Calipari, a senior intelligence officer familiar with working in Iraq,
arrived with a colleague at Baghdad International Airport on Friday. Calipari
spent 40 minutes contacting U.S. military authorities in charge of the airport
to notify them of his mission and receive a safe-conduct document to move around
the airport, according to the Italian leaders.
Neither Berlusconi nor Fini explained how contact was made with the kidnappers
or who they were. But by their account, the two operatives left the airport
and, after a two-hour wait in a Toyota Corolla near the Mansour district of
Baghdad, were approached by a green van and led through various parts of the
At an unlit area, the van stopped, the driver pointed to an abandoned car and
drove off. Sgrena was inside the car, dressed in black and blindfolded.
Calipari put the journalist in the back seat of the car and, with his colleague
driving, they headed toward the airport, where a plane was waiting to take them
back to Italy.
With the inside light on, Calipari sat alongside Sgrena and made phone calls
to superiors to report his success. One was to an Italian official who was standing
next to an American colonel at the airport, the prime minister said Wednesday,
addressing the Italian Senate.
Calipari "therefore warned the American military officials of their immediate
arrival in the airport zone," Berlusconi said.
"Only a frank and reciprocal recognition of final responsibility"
will assuage Italians' anguish over the shooting, "which was so irrational
to us," Berlusconi said.
U.S. Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top American commander in Iraq, said Tuesday
in Washington that he had been unaware on Friday that Italian officials had
entered Iraq to rescue Sgrena and said he had heard nothing since to indicate
the Italians had told U.S. forces of the car's route.
In a statement after the shooting, the Army's 3rd Infantry Division said the
Italians' car was "traveling at high speeds" and refused to halt at
a checkpoint despite attempts by U.S. soldiers to warn the driver to stop "by
hand and arm signals, flashing white lights, and firing warning shots in front
of the car."
Fini, citing testimony by the driver, also an intelligence officer, said Tuesday
that the car was traveling at no more than 25 mph as the driver steered around
concrete blocks. Fini said the driver was applying the brakes when the car was
hit by gunfire that lasted 10 to 15 seconds.
A Pentagon spokesman on Wednesday declined to comment on the Italian leaders'
accounts on grounds that the matter is under investigation. "The information
from the Italians will be considered as part of that investigation," he
When Sgrena was seized, a radical Web site operated by the Islamic Jihad Organization
asserted responsibility and gave Italy 72 hours to withdraw its troops from
Iraq. It did not say what would happen to Sgrena if Italy did not comply.
The Italians did not know who had seized the journalist. But channels were
opened through a variety of sources, including religious organizations and friendly
Arab governments, the Italian leaders said. They were seeking, among other things,
assurances that the reporter was still alive.
On Feb. 16, she was shown in a video sobbing and pleading for her life. The
Italians saw the video as a response to their feelers and a sign of progress
in identifying her captors.
Berlusconi, like Fini, described the shooting as an accident. Italian newspapers
have reported that a ransom of $6 million to $8 million was paid for Sgrena's
release, but neither leader mentioned any payment.