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Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

As the Italian intelligence agent who lost his life protecting Giuliana Sgrena is laid to rest, Amy Goodman speaks with a founder of Sgrena's newspaper about differing accounts, Italians' reaction and the brutality of war.
 
 
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On Friday, U.S. soldiers in Iraq shot at the car of an Italian journalist, Giuliana Sgrena, killing the Italian intelligence agent who helped free her and wounding three others. Sgrena had just been released after a month in captivity by the Iraqi resistance.

The agent, Nicola Calipari, was killed as he tried to protect Sgrena from the bullets. Sgrena was wounded in the shoulder in the attack.

Giuliana Sgrena was kidnapped in Baghdad and been held captive since Feb. 4 by a group calling themselves "Mujahedeen Without Borders." She had just been released and handed over to three Italian agents on Friday when the car was shot at as they drove to the Baghdad airport.

In an interview with Sky Italia, Sgrena described what happened:

We were on our way to the airport, and we thought we were finally safe, because the area where we were was under the control of the United States. We therefore thought we had escaped the gravest area and entered into a more friendly area, although I was still nervous as my hostage takers had warned me to be careful, because it was the Americans who did not want me to be free and returned to Italy alive. I just took that as a last threat from my hostage takers and did not really take it seriously. But then suddenly we found ourselves under an immense amount of bullets, something terrible, without any warning, and we realized that nearby there was an American tank which was shooting at us.

The U.S. military has a different story. They say the car was speeding as it approached a checkpoint. In a statement, the military claims soldiers first tried to warn the driver to stop by "hand and arm signals, flashing white lights and firing warning shots in front of the car."

In an interview with Italian channel La 7, Giuliana Sgrena disputed the military's account, stating that there was no bright light, no signal – and that the car was traveling at regular speed. She also told SKY TG24 that a ransom was paid for her release and it was possible that she was deliberately targeted by U.S. forces. She said: "The fact that the Americans don't want negotiations to free hostages is known. The fact that they do everything to prevent the adoption of this practice to save the lives of people held hostage, everybody knows that. So I don't see why I should rule out that I could have been a target."

The Pentagon has said only that the incident is under investigation.

Amy Goodman speaks with Luciana Castellina, a leading public intellectual and one the founders of Giuliana Sgrena's newspaper, Il Manifesto . She had just returned from the state funeral of Nicola Calipari, the intelligence official who was killed.

Amy Goodman: It’s very good to have you on Democracy Now! again. Can you describe the funeral today and the atmosphere in Rome?

Luciana Castellina: There were thousands and thousands of people who attended the funeral. Since yesterday, in Piazza Venezia, there was a long queue; everybody wanted to go and [pay] homage to Nicola. He is called Nicola now by everybody, ... everybody was so grateful because he sacrificed his life. So, the funeral was very human. Everybody was there, from the government, the opposition, all the institutions, the family, the friends, the representatives of the church. I think the Italian government was quite embarrassed. ... It’s not an easy situation.

Talk about the attitude of people right now, what this means with a population very opposed to the occupation, but a prime minister, Berlusconi, who is very much an ally of President Bush.

Well, let's say that the population, in general, is very angry. Not because they think that this was a deliberate killing, you know. I mean, there is an inquiry of the judges. It's an inquiry for murder, bluntly, murder. They wouldn't say what really happened. Maybe would one never know. ... In Iraq, they shoot, and they shoot everybody with great arrogance, and not taking into account lives of human beings. And this is the war. This is the result of the war, of the violence which the war brings. And the majority of the Italian population has been against the war, we had perhaps the biggest demonstration for peace in Italy. So, you can imagine that now people have a sense of anger and the idea that you have to pull back the occupation, the military presence in Iraq, is very, very strong. Why should we stay there, because not only are we against the war, but ... if an American patrol can shoot a car without thinking seriously about what they were doing [we don't have a say]. This idea, of the violence which the war brings and that war never brings a new and better society, this is very strong, and people are really very angry. You can feel it in the population – I mean, among the people who were attending the funeral, this anger.

Do you think this could mean that the Italian troops could be called home?

Well, you know, I am not very optimistic about that, because Berlusconi is probably the best ally of Bush, and I don't think he's going to do it, but his position is now more difficult than it used to be, because of what happened.

You had said that you don't think that she was targeted, but Giuliana Sgrena herself has raised serious questions about this in interviews and in her writing. You have spoken to Giuliana?

Yes, of course, I have spoken with Giuliana. Giuliana herself says, 'I don't know.' What is important of what Giuliana said is that they were not at the checkpoint, they were not going fast, they were already within the area of the airport. Another agent of the secret services who was with Giuliana in the same car said the same thing, and he confirmed that the American authorities had been perfectly informed. It would have been impossible otherwise. So, again, I come back, it doesn't mean that it was deliberate, but it means that there are shootings against human beings made like that without thinking twice. This is a terrible thing. How many others have been killed in the same conditions? Hundreds or thousands, perhaps.

What about the ransom that was reportedly paid? Also in the case of the two Simonas, when they were released this issue was raised with officials in Italy anonymously saying, yes, we think they were worth it.

I think first of all, to pay a ransom and save lives in the conditions of war, you have to do it. You have to protect the life of journalists who are going and speaking to the people. Otherwise, the result would be that we wouldn't have any journalists anymore or only the embedded journalists. We want people to stay there and go and talk to people and give information about them. We have to guarantee them their life and the freedom to do their job, which is so important for democracy. So, I think that it was worthwhile paying the ransom, and you always have to do it when lives are in danger.

Finally, what do you think this means for the future of the very close relationship between Berlusconi and Bush, and do you think something unpredictable can happen at this point?

Well, I don't think so, really. You know, the coalition is so strong, and Berlusconi has made a point of honor of being the best friend, personal friend, and ally of Mr. Bush. But let's say that the option of the war in Iraq, which was not popular at the beginning, is becoming more and more unpopular. This is something which, of course, will make the position of Berlusconi more difficult, more embarrassed. Although, unfortunately I don't think he's going to derive the conclusions he should derive.

I want to thank you very much for being with us and also note whatever the real story is behind the shooting of Giuliana Sgrena and the killing of the intelligence official who helped to save her life through his own death, this seems to be a story all too often that takes place in Iraq, where you have a situation of U.S. soldiers opening fire. So often we get different stories or perhaps more often than not, especially if it's Iraqis who are killed, we don't even hear the other side. In this case, we hear at least that there is a dispute of the story.

Amy Goodman is the host of the nationally syndicated radio news program Democracy Now!