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Italy, U.S. disagree on agent's Iraq death
Updated: 2005-04-30 08:27

Italy and the United States said Friday they had failed to agree on whether U.S. soldiers were at fault in the death of an Italian intelligence agent in Iraq an acknowledgment that will further irritate relations and increase pressure on Italy to withdraw its forces from Iraq.

In a statement, the two countries said their joint investigation into the March 4 death of agent Nicola Calipari had concluded and that they couldn't arrive at any "shared final conclusions."

The statement said the case had now be referred to respective national authorities; Italy has launched a criminal inquiry into Calipari's death.

Italian militarymen carry the coffin of Italian secret service agent Nicola Calipari during a funeral ceremony in Rome, 07 March 2005. In a stern warning to Washington, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi vowed that Italy would 'never endorse' a report on the shooting by US soldiers of an Italian intelligence agent that is unconvincing.(AFP/File
Italian militarymen carry the coffin of Italian secret service agent Nicola Calipari during a funeral ceremony in Rome, 07 March 2005.[AFP/File]
Calipari was killed soon after he had secured the release of Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena from Iraqi militants who had held her hostage for a month. U.S. soldiers fired on the Italians' vehicle as it approached a U.S. checkpoint near Baghdad's airport. Sgrena and another Italian agent were wounded.

U.S. and Italian experts had worked for over a month on a joint investigation into the killing, which sparked outrage in Italy and put increasing pressure on Premier Silvio Berlusconi to withdraw Italy's estimated 3,000-strong contingent from the country.

But from the start, testimony from the two survivors clashed with the U.S. military's account.

The Americans maintain that soldiers fired warning shots in the air, then shot at the engine block because the car was speeding. The survivors insist they saw the beam of a warning light virtually at the same time gunfire broke out. The surviving intelligence agent has also testified he was driving slowly.

The soldiers had been on high alert at the time because the U.S. ambassador, John Negroponte, had been due to pass by the checkpoint.

"The investigators did not arrive at shared final conclusions even though, after examining jointly the evidence, they did agree on facts, findings and recommendations on numerous issues," the statement said.

The admission that the two countries couldn't agree on who was to blame was significant since Italy is Washington's closest European ally after Britain. Berlusconi had weathered fierce opposition at home for having sent troops to Iraq after the war and had put his government's credibility on the line in promising Italians full light would be shed on the incident.

By late Friday, he was already coming under fire from the leftist opposition for having failed to persuade the Americans to accept the Italian view of the incident.

Greens lawmaker Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio demanded Berlusconi prepare a withdrawal plan for Italian forces "seeing as we can't even count on those who should be our allies."

Berlusconi has offered to appear before Parliament to discuss the issue. He has already said he hoped Italian forces could begin returning by September although he has said the decision would depend on the security situation and would be made in agreement with the United States and other allies.

An Italian pullout would be another blow to Washington after several American allies including Ukraine, the Netherlands and Spain began pulling their troops out of Iraq and Poland announced earlier this month it would withdraw its 1,700 soldiers at the end of the year unless the U.N. Security Council renewed the U.N. mandate.

Both Rome and Washington tried to put a positive spin on their failure to agree on the incident, saying relations remained close.

"Italy and United States are strong allies and enjoy a close and vibrant friendship, based on shared values and ideals," the statement said.

But Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini didn't try to hide his bitterness in saying there was no way the Italians could have approved of the American version of events.

"Out of a dutiful homage to Calipari, and out of an indispensable national dignity that a government must have, the Italian government could not have been asked to sign off on reconstruction of the facts that as far as we know does not correspond to what happened that night," he told reporters.

But in Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli suggested Washington wanted to move beyond the dispute.

"The mark of a strong relationship is to be able to work together to find the areas of agreement, to accept the areas of disagreement, to put them all in the proper perspective and then to move on," he said.

He also said the Americans would release a "unilateral" report based on the joint investigation soon, suggesting that each side would release their own version of events.

Fini said the final report would be released "within a few days," and that it would make clear "why the Italian government could not sign off a reconstruction of events that in our opinion does not capture 100 percent what happened."

Calipari, hailed at home as a hero, died while trying to shield Sgrena from the gunfire. In the statement, the two countries called Calipari an "extraordinary man" who gave his life for Italy and was "a valued friend of the United States."

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