Coalition will fast-track inquiry of Italian death

Wednesday, March 9, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The U.S. military decided Tuesday to conduct an accelerated inquiry to learn why American troops opened fire, killing an Italian intelligence agent and wounding an Italian journalist he helped rescue from insurgents in Iraq.

The decision to fast-track the investigation into the attack, which has strained relations with Italy, a key American ally, came as the military also opened an inquiry into the shooting death of a Bulgarian soldier. That death appeared to be another friendly fire incident on the same day.

Both probes were an indication of the pressure being brought on the Bush administration by the few American allies in Europe that have steadfastly supported his policies in Iraq.

Italy and its prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, sent 3,000 troops to Iraq, while Bulgaria has 460. Both countries have said they will not withdraw their troops, but domestic pressure to bring them home has been growing -- especially in Bulgaria where it has become an election issue.

In violence Tuesday, American troops fought insurgents in Ramadi, a city 70 miles west of Baghdad. At least two Iraqis were killed in the clashes, and at least six other Iraqis died in other violence around the country.

A large explosion also hit central Baghdad today, shaking buildings and covering the area in a large plume of black smoke. Volleys of automatic weapons fire could be heard before and after the blast, which came at dawn. It was not known what had caused the blast or what triggered the gunfire.

Interim national security adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie said ousted dictator Saddam Hussein could stand trial by year's end. "I will be surprised if I do not see Saddam in the box before the end of the year," he said. "I am very much hopeful that Saddam will be in the box around September and October, before the general referendum" on a constitution.

The March 1 killing of a judge and his lawyer son, both appointed to the tribunal to try the former Iraqi leader and his top henchmen, should not affect that trial or any other, experts have said.

The constitution is to be drafted by the National Assembly, which convenes March 16. Negotiations to form Iraq's first democratically elected government focused Tuesday on the makeup of the Cabinet, after Kurds said they were close to a deal with the Shiite clergy-backed United Iraqi Alliance.

The shooting Friday that killed intelligence officer Nicola Calipari and wounded Giuliana Sgrena, a 56-year-old journalist for the left-wing Il Manifesto newspaper, angered Italians and rekindled questions about the country's involvement in Iraq.

In Bulgaria, the death of Pvt. Gardi Gardev made the country's presence in Iraq an issue ahead of general elections in June. Opinion polls showed a growing majority of Bulgarians oppose the deployment. The opposition party has promised a withdrawal if it wins the election.

In Rome, Berlusconi's office said the premier had "expressed the satisfaction of the Italian government" at the accelerated U.S. military investigation. Friendly fire investigations typically take months.

President Bush called Berlusconi on Friday and promised a full investigation into the shooting, which took place after nightfall as the car carrying Sgrena, Calipari and two other agents approached Baghdad airport. Another agent also was wounded.

Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini told parliament Tuesday that U.S. troops killed Calipari by accident, but disputed Washington's version of events.

But Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini told his parliament Tuesday that the car was not speeding and was not ordered to stop by U.S. troops at a checkpoint.

The White House has described the shooting as a "horrific accident" and promised a full investigation.

At the Pentagon, Army Gen. George Casey said he had no indication the Italians had told U.S. forces in advance that their convoy was carrying Sgrena to the Baghdad airport.

"I personally do not have any indication of that, even on a preliminary basis" Casey told reporters. He stressed that another officer has been appointed to investigate the matter, and that he is not personally familiar with all the relevant details of what happened that night.

On Tuesday, the Multi-National Force-Iraq said a team led by Brig. Gen. Peter Vangjel will investigate the shooting.

"The follow-on investigation to the Multi-National Division-Baghdad commander's initial inquiry into the incident is expected to take approximately three to four weeks to complete," the statement said. "The command is working closely with the U.S. Embassy and Italian officials have been invited to participate."

Casey said the inquiry is likely to be finished in three to four weeks.

On Monday, Bulgaria also demanded a U.S. investigation after one of its 460 soldiers in Iraq was killed in what appeared to be a friendly fire incident. Bulgaria's defense minister said the death of Pvt. Gardi Gardev would not lead to a troop withdrawal. The nation must decide this month whether to keep troops in Iraq past July.

In a separate statement, the coalition said it regretted Gardev's death and said it was being investigated.

The announcements came after Tuesday clashes between U.S. troops and insurgents in Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad. At least two Iraqis were killed and two others wounded, said Dr. Salah al-Ani of Ramadi's main hospital.

The clashes lasted for more than an hour. City shops were closed and streets were deserted as U.S. troops took up sniper positions on rooftops. At least one body was in the street, witnesses said.

U.S. troops launched a clampdown in Ramadi and several other Euphrates cities on Feb. 20, imposing curfews and raiding houses in a bid to root out insurgents operating in the area.

In the capital, unidentified gunmen also killed the deputy head of Hay Alfurat Hospital in western Baghdad, officials said.

The Interior Ministry official said gunmen also attacked a convoy of trucks carrying food for the Trade Ministry in Salman Pak, southeast of the capital. Three civilians were killed in the assault and at least one truck was burned.

Elsewhere, U.S. troops overnight killed two men they identified as terrorists who launched an attack in Ad Duja, about 30 miles northwest of the capital. Six people were detained by U.S. forces.

Tuesday's violence came a day after insurgents killed 33 people and wounded dozens in a series of attacks.

The terror group Al-Qaida in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, claimed responsibility for much of Monday's bloodshed -- including violence that killed 15 people in and around Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.

Amid the violence, negotiations to form Iraq's first democratically elected government have persisted. Iraqi Kurds said they were close to a deal with the Shiite clergy-backed United Iraqi Alliance to secure many of their territorial demands and ensure the country's secular character after its National Assembly convenes March 16.

The dominant Shiite Muslim alliance, however, said although it agreed that Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani would become Iraq's president, it was still talking about other conditions set by the Kurds to gain their support in the 275-member legislative body.

The Shiite alliance controls 140 seats and needs the 75 seats won by the Kurds in the Jan. 30 elections to muster the necessary two-thirds majority to elect a president and later seat their choice for prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

An alliance official said interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, whose party won 40 seats, refused an offer for a Cabinet post. Allawi's office could not be reached for comment.

"Iraqis defied the terrorists and they went to the polling stations in order to see their elected representatives meet and debate the future of the country," interim Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh, a Kurd, said of the decision to convene the assembly.

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