- The Washington Times - Monday, March 7, 2005

ROME - Thousands of mourners paid homage yesterday to an Italian intelligence officer fatally shot by American troops while escorting a female hostage to freedom from kidnappers in Iraq.

About 8,000 people attended the emotional state funeral for Nicola Calipari at the basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and Martyrs, spilling out of the church into the vast piazza outside.

An honor guard slowly carried the casket, draped with an Italian tricolor flag, into the church, where the crowd stood to applaud the agent of the SISMI military intelligence service. He died while shielding reporter Giuliana Sgrena from U.S. gunfire outside Baghdad airport on Friday night.

The death of the agent has riveted public opinion in Italy, which was strongly against the country’s participation in the Iraq war even before Friday’s tragedy. An estimated 100,000 people turned out to file past Mr. Calipari’s coffin as it lay in state at Rome’s Vittoriano monument before the funeral.

Miss Sgrena, 57, a reporter for the communist daily Il Manifesto, who is recovering in a Rome hospital from a shrapnel wound in the shoulder, has set off a furor by suggesting that American troops may have deliberately fired on the car.

She offered no evidence, but was quoted by the Corriere della Sera newspaper yesterday saying, “I believe, but it is only a hypothesis, that the happy ending to the negotiations must have been irksome” to the Bush administration.

“The Americans are against this type of operation,” she said of the ransom paid for her release, which is rumored to have totaled as much as $5 million. “For them, war is war; human life does not count for much.”

The U.S. ambassador in Rome, Mel Sembler, had a 45-minute meeting last night with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, in which he reiterated Washington’s position that the shooting was accidental, diplomatic sources said. Both men earlier had attended the funeral service for Mr. Calipari.

Earlier White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, “I think it is absurd to make any such suggestion that our men and women in uniform deliberately targeted innocent civilians.”

Mr. Calipari, a longtime policeman who joined the Italian intelligence service just two years ago, headed a team that arranged for the release of Miss Sgrena on Friday from Iraqi captors, who kidnapped her early last month.

He and at least one other agent were escorting the journalist to the Baghdad airport to be flown home when they came under fire from American forces on the notoriously dangerous airport road.

U.S. officials say the soldiers at the checkpoint repeatedly flashed warning signals as the Italians approached at high speed, but that the car failed to slow down. The soldiers then fired into the engine block to stop the car, the Americans said.

Miss Sgrena has disputed that account, maintaining that their car was traveling at only 30 to 40 miles per hour when the gunfire broke out.

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