Is the “Coalition of the Willing” unraveling in Iraq? The recent shooting by U.S. troops of kidnapped Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena and her rescuer Nicola Calipari is raising suspicion that the coalition’s operations in Iraq are slipping into disarray. Moreover, the incident has driven deeper the wedge between Washington and its reluctant European allies.
A hail of gunfire from a U.S. military checkpoint hit Sgrena’s convoy as it approached Baghdad International Airport, killing Calipari, the Italian intelligence operative who had secured Sgrena’s release from her insurgent captors and who had rescued other Italian hostages before. Two of Calipari’s colleagues and Sgrena herself were wounded.
Besides the senseless loss of life, the incident is producing a diplomatic rift between the U.S. and Italy. The Berlusconi government has been a staunch U.S. ally in Iraq despite the unpopularity of the war among Italians. The shooting has deepened anti-American sentiments and, with a new election coming up, protests calling for the withdrawal of Italian troops have put Berlusconi on the defensive.
Suspicion of the truthfulness of the U.S. account of the incident is widespread. Italian media wonder how a sensitive operation, such the liberation of a kidnapped Western journalist, could have been possible without the knowledge of U.S. authorities in Iraq. On at the least two other occasions in the past—the freeing of Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, two Italian NGO workers kidnapped in September 2004 and that of four Italian security operatives—U.S. and Italian authorities worked in close coordination, with U.S. Marines playing a pivotal role in the freeing of the two women.
Are Washington and Rome still talking to each other in Baghdad, some Italian analysts wonder, or is the Iraq operation turning into a Somalia redux? Many foreign correspondents present on the ground in Somalia in 1993 believe the American go-it-alone posture was a major factor that fatally undermined a key operation on Oct. 3, 1993, when the “Blackhawk Down” ambush killed 18 U.S. Army rangers and wounded 84 others. Observers blamed the debacle on the U.S. decision to stage the assault against a warlord’s hideout without informing coalition partners or sharing intelligence, or taking into account the intelligence provided by other contingents.
Italian journalist Giovanni Porzio, who was in Somalia for one of Italy’s leading periodicals, recalls that the U.S. forces rarely “touched ground” and worse, barely crossed paths with other international contingents. The lack of coordination and communication, plus the U.S. decision to act on its own, condemned the Blackhawk operation to failure.
The facts of the March 4 Calipari-Sgrena shooting in Baghdad seem to show at the very least a redux of the Somali incident.
“There’s no coordination in Iraq between the various national contingents,” says Gianni Perrelli, L’espresso special envoy to Iraq. “Except for the British, who are able to really control their territory, the other national contingents live confined to their barracks.” Perrelli says he has “sensed that there’s no longer an established channel of communication between the coalition countries and the U.S. occupation army.”
But some, including Sgrena, are theorizing that the attack on her convoy may have been deliberate, part of a larger strategy directed at preventing foreign countries from negotiating with insurgents to free their kidnapped nationals.
Sgrena says the Italians had informed their American counterparts that the operation was under way and that the convoy had already passed all the American checkpoints when it came under fire, without any warning. She says the convoy was proceeding at a regular speed, not at high speed as the United States claims.
“In light of all the discrepancies I cannot exclude the possibility that I may have been targeted,” Sgrena told Italian wire agencies in the hours following her return to Italy.
“It is not a mystery that the Americans do not like people to negotiate with insurgents, and that they do whatever they can to discourage it,” Sgrena said. “Also, my captors had warned us to be wary of the Americans. ‘Be careful,’ they said, ‘the Americans want you dead.’ In light of what has happened it is difficult to not believe that this may have been their goal.”
The White House quickly dismissed Sgrena’s speculation as “absurd.”
Sgrena’s ordeal, however, has given new meaning to a controversial episode at the last World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. During one of the sessions, Eason Jordan, chief of international news for CNN, said he believed that the Defense Department was deliberately targeting journalists in Iraq, and that he knew of at the least 12 journalists who had been targeted and later killed by the U.S. military there. Jordan had to retract his statement and later resigned from CNN.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based advocacy group, has placed Iraq on top of its list of the most dangerous places for journalists. So far, said a committee report, 37 journalists and 18 media personnel have been killed in Iraq, the greatest number of any single conflict since the Vietnam War. Typically, the committee notes, journalists’ deaths in wartime are targeted killings. “The deliberate use of overwhelming force in the Al Jazeera case,” says committee spokesperson Joel Campania, referring to the bombing attack on the Arab television station’s headquarters in Baghdad that killed one journalist, “was never explained by U.S. forces.”
As truth and journalism in Iraq become frequent victims of war and military rhetoric, the Bush administration is finding it more difficult to convince Europeans that the U.S. occupation of Iraq is all about “spreading democracy” and not a neoconservative imperial pipedream.
Paolo Pontoniere is the San Francisco-based correspondent of Focus, Italy’s leading monthly magazine. U