By EDWARD WONG and JASON HOROWITZ
BAGHDAD, Iraq, Saturday, March 5
American soldiers guarding a checkpoint here fired Friday night on an approaching car carrying a kidnapped Italian journalist who had just been released, wounding the journalist and killing an Italian intelligence agent, according to American and Italian officials.
The Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, said in Rome that the intelligence agent had been instrumental in negotiating the release of Giuliana Sgrena, the abducted journalist. Two other intelligence agents in the car were wounded in the shooting, Mr. Berlusconi said.
The military did not know that the hostage was in the car, a State Department official in Washington said.
According to a statement released by the United States Army’s Third Infantry Division in Baghdad, the soldiers tried to warn the driver to stop before firing at the speeding vehicle’s engine block.
“About 9 p.m., a patrol in western Baghdad observed the vehicle speeding towards their checkpoint and attempted to warn the driver to stop by hand-and-arm signals, flashing white lights, and firing warning shots in front of the car,” the statement said.
The circumstances of Ms. Sgrena’s release remain murky, and Italian officials have shed no light on how, or from whom, she was released.
Mr. Berlusconi said that American troops had taken Ms. Sgrena to an American hospital to remove shrapnel from her left shoulder and that she had told an Italian government official on the telephone that “I am well.”
The American military did not say whether she was still in Baghdad or had been moved elsewhere. People seriously wounded here are often treated at a military hospital in the heavily fortified Green Zone on the west bank of the Tigris River and, if needed, are flown on a C-130 transport plane to Germany.
The shooting occurred as the Italians were driving toward Baghdad International Airport and the headquarters of the American command here. Insurgents regularly detonate roadside bombs and shoot at military and civilian vehicles along the five-mile-long road to the airport. American soldiers across Iraq are wary of speeding cars approaching checkpoints or convoys.
President Bush, who visited New Jersey and Indiana on Friday, called Mr. Berlusconi from his cabin on Air Force One to express “regret” over the incident, the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, told reporters traveling with the president.
“The president assured Prime Minister Berlusconi that the incident will be fully investigated,” Mr. McClellan said, adding that their conversation lasted about five minutes.
The intelligence agent who was killed, Nicola Calipari, had hurled himself atop Ms. Sgrena to protect her, Ms. Sgrena’s editor, Gabriele Polo, told Apcom, an Italian news agency.
Mr. Berlusconi, a staunch ally of Mr. Bush, demanded answers Friday night for the souring of such a potentially sweet day.
“Given that the fire came from an American source, I called in the American ambassador,” the prime minister told reporters. “I believe we must have an explanation for such a serious incident, for which someone must take the responsibility.”
Mel Sembler, the ambassador, arrived at Mr. Berlusconi’s offices at around 11 p.m. Friday for an hourlong meeting.
Speaking in response to the news, Mr. Berlusconi said: “On this great joy has fallen an enormous grief. We were turned to stone when the officials told us about it on the telephone.”
His office refused to comment about how fast the vehicle carrying Ms. Sgrena and Mr. Calipari had been traveling.
In his statement, Mr. Berlusconi noted the key role Mr. Calipari, the secret service agent, had played in freeing other Italian hostages in Iraq, and paid tribute to the valor he exhibited in shielding Ms. Sgrena.
“Calipari covered Ms. Sgrena with his own body, but he was unfortunately struck by a fatal bullet,” the prime minister said.
Political analysts doubted that the shooting would strain the relationship between Italy and the United States, or threaten the mission of Italy’s roughly 3,000 troops in Iraq. Last month, the Italian Senate voted to extend financing for the deployments.
Mr. Berlusconi supported the American-led invasion of Iraq despite its unpopularity in Italy, keeping Italian troops in this country even as protesters have flooded the streets of Rome.
The number of Italian troops is tiny compared to the American or even the British presence here, but Italy’s commitment is symbolically important for Mr. Bush.
Italy has anxiously followed Ms. Sgrena’s ordeal.
She was abducted on Feb. 4 in Baghdad after she finished conducting several hours of interviews with refugees from the decimated city of Falluja who were at a mosque on the grounds of Baghdad University. Gunmen pulled up in front of her car as she was leaving and dragged her into their vehicle. Her Iraqi employees somehow managed to escape.
Two weeks later, Ms. Sgrena’s captors released a video showing her tearfully pleading for her life and asking for the withdrawal of all the American-led forces. The words “Mujahedeen Without Borders,” presumably the name of the group holding her, appeared in digital red Arabic script on a backdrop.
Days after that video was released, tens of thousands of Italians marched through Rome demanding that she be returned.
Ms. Sgrena had filed many articles harshly criticizing the American war here, but had also written of the shortcomings of Islamic fundamentalism.
At the Rome offices of Il Manifesto, the left-wing newspaper for which Ms. Sgrena works, reporters celebrated the news of Ms. Sgrena’s release with champagne. The paper’s editor, Mr. Polo, told Sky Italia television that the shooting showed that “everything that’s happening in Iraq is completely senseless and mad.”
A senior military official in Baghdad said the checkpoint where the shooting took place was being operated by the 10th Mountain Division. The 69th Infantry Regiment of the 42nd Infantry Division, a National Guard unit, is also responsible for securing the road leading from the airport toward central Baghdad.
A senior official with a task force of the 69th in charge of securing a stretch of the highway was reached by telephone late Friday, but refused to say whether its members had been involved in the roadblock shooting.
Soldiers often fire warning shots in the air to slow on-coming or merging traffic when hand gestures do not work, though they have begun to adopt less aggressive techniques, like hand-held stop signs.
Occasionally the soldiers will set up roadblocks at key intersections to search vehicles and show force. If a vehicle ignores the soldiers’ requests to slow down or stop, they will respond with warning shots. If the driver fails to stop, soldiers will fire directly on the vehicle.
At least twice last week, soldiers under the command of the 69th fired on vehicles that they say ignored orders to stop.
The shooting raises questions about the rules of engagement for American soldiers here, particularly on roads frequented by civilian vehicles. The American military has never released statistics showing the number of incidents in which American troops have fired on innocent vehicles. But such incidents – including ones resulting in deaths – have taken place in recent months, and have been documented by reporters and photographers.
In January, soldiers with the 25th Infantry Division fired on a car carrying seven Iraqis, five of them children, after the driver ignored warning shots intended to dissuade the car from approaching an American patrol in the northern town of Tal Afar. The children’s parents were killed, and one child was wounded. Photographs of the incident showed the surviving children covered in their parents’ blood.
On Feb. 5, American soldiers at a checkpoint fired three shots into a truck carrying Western contractors on the airport road in Baghdad, according to an unclassified American government report. The truck had been approaching the checkpoint at 6 miles an hour when the shooting began. Though the truck took two shots to the side and one to the windshield, no one was hurt.
At least 200 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq, generally by criminal gangs looking to sell the hostages back to their companies or countries. Most have been released unharmed, but at least 30 have been killed. One was a freelance Italian journalist, Enzo Baldoni, who was kidnapped last August while driving from Baghdad to cover an uprising in the holy city of Najaf.
At least 27 journalists, including Iraqis, have been abducted, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Still being held is Florence Aubenas, a war correspondent for LibÃ©ration, a French newspaper.
“This incident will increase popular anti-Americanism,” said James Walston, a political scientist at the American University of Rome. ” But it won’t seriously prejudice the official Italian position of keeping troops in Iraq.”
Edward Wong reported from Baghdad for this article and Jason Horowitz from Rome. Reporting was contributed by James Glanz in Baghdad, Kirk Semple in London, and Steven R. Weisman and Thom Shanker in Washington.