Monday, March 7, 2005

ROME — Italian agents likely withheld information from U.S. counterparts about a cash-for-freedom deal with gunmen holding an Italian hostage for fear that Americans might block the trade, Italian news reports said yesterday.

The decision by operatives of Italy’s SISMI military intelligence service to keep the CIA in the dark about the deal for the release of reporter Giuliana Sgrena, might have “short-circuited” communications with U.S. forces controlling the road from Baghdad to the city’s airport, the newspaper La Stampa said.

That would help explain why American troops opened fire on a car whisking the released hostage to a waiting airplane, wounding Miss Sgrena and killing the Italian intelligence operative who had just negotiated her release.

Thousands of Italians yesterday congregated on the Altar to the Fatherland in Rome’s vast Piazza Venezia to view the coffin of Nicola Calipari, the 52-year-old head of SISMI’s international operations department.

Miss Sgrena, a reporter for the Communist daily Il Manifesto, charged yesterday that U.S. forces might have deliberately targeted her because Washington opposes Italy’s policy of dealing with kidnappers.

“The United States doesn’t approve of this [ransom] policy and so they try to stop it in any way possible,” the veteran war reporter, 57, told Sky Italia TV.

Miss Sgrena, whose newspaper ardently opposes Italy’s deployment of 3,000 troops in Iraq as part of the U.S.-led coalition, offered no direct evidence to support the charge and toned down the suggestion in a later interview with Reuters.

“If this happened because of a lack of information or deliberately, I don’t know, but even if it was due to a lack of information, it is unacceptable,” she said from her hospital room.

There were conflicting reports on the extent to which Italian authorities had informed their American counterparts about the operation, in which a reported $6 million was paid for the journalist’s release.

Mr. Calipari and another senior SISMI operative concluded the deal for her release on Friday in Abu Dhabi and then flew to Baghdad aboard a secret service Falcon executive jet to collect her, La Stampa said.

At the airport, they met an Italian military liaison office,r and U.S. military authorities issued them passes allowing them to travel around Baghdad carrying weapons, the newspaper said citing SISMI sources.

The sources said the Italians explained “the terms of the mission” and “the exact nature of the operation” to U.S. officials at the airport. Sources also said an American officer was instructed to wait at the airport for Mr. Calipari and the freed hostage.

But La Stampa also quoted diplomatic sources saying vital information was withheld from the Americans.

“Italian intelligence decided to free Sgrena paying a sum to the kidnappers without informing American colleagues in Iraq who, if they had known about this, would have had to oppose it, to have impeded the operation,” sources said.

“If this was the case, it could explain why American intelligence had not informed the American military commands about the operation and thus the patrol did not expect the car with the Italians.”

Whatever the truth, the affair aroused public opinion and put pressure on Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to take a tough line with President Bush.

Mr. Berlusconi won plaudits last year when Mr. Calipari obtained the release of two young volunteers kidnapped in Iraq known as the two Simonas, also through payment of a multimillion dollar ransom.

That money reputedly came not from the state, but from the personal fortune of Mr. Berlusconi, a media magnate who is Italy’s richest man.

But the death of Mr. Calipari, while using his body to shield Miss Sgrena from U.S. fire, has sparked deep anger and could cost the prime minister in regional elections at the end of this month.

In the past, the Italian left detested the security services, notorious for skulduggery and links to the neo-fascist right, but since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the left has idolized men like Mr. Calipari, who spent most of his career as a police officer in his native Calabria fighting organized crime. He transferred to the military intelligence service just two years ago.

Several government ministers joined the driver of the car yesterday in rejecting the U.S. explanation that the Americans opened fire only after the driver ignored signals to slow down as he approached a checkpoint.

Mr. Bush has promised a full probe into why troops shot at the Italian car nearing Baghdad airport Friday evening.

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