- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 8, 2005

ROME — Italy yesterday rejected the U.S. version of the events that led to the killing of an Italian intelligence officer by American soldiers as Washington struggled to minimize the damage to its strong ties with Rome.

Faced with growing anti-U.S. sentiment among Italians, the Bush administration agreed to a joint inquiry into the slaying Friday night in Iraq.

“What we need now, and I think we and the Italians agree on this, is a complete and cooperative investigation, and we will be undertaking that with the Italians participating in the inquiry,” said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

“We will get to the bottom of this, together with the Italians,” he said.

Addressing the Italian parliament earlier, Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini rejected U.S. assertions that the vehicle carrying a freed hostage and two Italian secret service agents had been speeding and did not heed warnings for it to stop.

“It is our duty to demand truth and justice,” said Mr. Fini, who insisted that the car was traveling at no more than 25 mph.

He said that on their way to the airport after securing the release of reporter Giuliana Sgrena, the Italians left the lights on in the car to help identify themselves to U.S. checkpoints.

They slowed down as they approached the airport because the road was wet and the driver had to make a sharp turn, Mr. Fini said.

Halfway around the curve, he said, a searchlight picked out the car and guns opened fire for 10 to 15 seconds.

Mr. Fini said the intelligence officer who survived the shootout was forced to kneel on the road until the soldiers realized who he was. “Two young Americans approached our officer and, demoralized, repeatedly apologized for what had happened,” he said.

His account contradicted the version released by the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division immediately after the shooting. That report said the Italians’ vehicle had been “traveling at high speeds” and “refused to stop at a checkpoint.”

Mr. Fini demanded that the soldiers responsible be identified and punished, but he dismissed as “groundless” any suggestion that the shooting was calculated.

Miss Sgrena, who writes for the communist daily Il Manifesto, had suggested that she and Nicola Calipari, the intelligence agent who died, were targeted because U.S. forces disapproved of the operation, in which a large ransom is thought to have been paid.

Washington discourages such payments on the grounds that they encourage more kidnappings and help fund terror operations in Iraq. But a Pentagon official yesterday refused to criticize Italy, a loyal coalition member.

“It’s not helpful, but you won’t see a protest,” said the official, who declined to be identified.

Dan Gallington, a former policy adviser to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said that if the United States actively blocked coalition partners from freeing hostages, the nations probably would quit the alliance.

“While they really can’t be faulted for paying ransoms under these conditions, the risks of these operations are especially great, because they are often done without coordination with anyone else,” he said.

Army Gen. George Casey, commander of the multinational forces in Iraq, said at a Pentagon press conference yesterday that he has seen no evidence that Italy, as it asserted, had notified the United States of the rescue and airport convoy.

“I have no preliminary indication that that’s true,” said Gen. Casey, adding that he made inquiries before the investigation was turned over to an Army general.

“I don’t have any information about the Italians coming in here to do something with respect to the hostage, and I have no concrete information about whether there was a ransom paid or not.”

But Mr. Fini, who avoided comment on whether the agent paid a ransom, said Mr. Calipari had made “all the necessary contacts” with U.S. and Italian officials.

A video purportedly made by the kidnappers was distributed in Baghdad yesterday. In the video, the terrorists denied they had received a ransom.

The incident has put Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi under increasing public pressure to end or scale down Italy’s unpopular deployment of 3,000 troops in Iraq.

Nicholas Kralev and Rowan Scarborough in Washington contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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