ROME -- A former hostage saved by an Italian agent killed when U.S. troops in Iraq opened fire on their car branded a report clearing the soldiers of blame a "slap in the face for the Italian government" Tuesday.
Journalist Giuliana Sgrena was wounded in the incident at a checkpoint on the way to Baghdad airport late on March 4, soon after military intelligence officer Nicola Calipari had masterminded her release from insurgent kidnappers.
A U.S. Army official, briefing reporters in Washington on the preliminary results of the investigation, said Monday that the soldiers had followed their rules of engagement and should therefore face no charges of dereliction of duty.
The probe was conducted jointly with the Italians but the Army official said Italy, a close ally in Iraq, had balked at endorsing the report. Rome disagreed with its findings on the car's speed and whether the Italians kept U.S. troops informed.
The Italian government, for whom the report comes at an awkward time, made no comment on the remarks from Washington.
Sgrena, a veteran war correspondent for the communist newspaper Il Manifesto, said the findings were even more disappointing than she had expected, given the Americans had initially called the shooting an accident.
"Now they're not even talking about an accident, at least according to the reports, but it seems they want to lay all the blame on the Italians," Sgrena told TG3 television.
"This represents a slap in the face for the Italian government."
A U.S. embassy spokesman in Rome said ambassador Mel Sembler was expected to meet Gianni Letta, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's chief aide, Tuesday to discuss next steps.
The findings come at a difficult time for Berlusconi, whose dispatch of 3,000 troops to Iraq remains deeply unpopular.
He has just had to reshuffle his government following a coalition mutiny after a heavy regional election defeat and has said he will start bringing the troops home in September.
AT ODDS ON SPEED
Italian newspapers said the leaking of the report appeared designed to limit Italy's options, with Berlusconi now facing a tough choice of whether to disagree openly with Washington or try to sweep the findings under the carpet.
The Italian Foreign Ministry declined comment, saying the report was still not official.
Calipari, feted in Italy as a national hero, was fatally wounded when he threw his body over Sgrena to protect her from heavy gunfire as their car approached a checkpoint near the airport, where a plane was waiting to fly them back to Italy.
A front-page cartoon in Il Manifesto Tuesday showed bullets smashing his tombstone and the words "Friendly Fire 2."
Corriere della Sera quoted the unnamed Italian agent who was driving and who was also wounded as saying the car was moving at 40 to 50 km/h (25-30 mph) and was shot at without warning, while the report had it traveling at 80 km/h (50 mph).
After the incident, the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division in Baghdad released a statement saying soldiers tried to warn the vehicle to stop by using hand and arm signals, flashing lights and warning shots. Sgrena has said she heard and saw no warning.
Sembler has called Calipari's killing "a terrible tragedy."
© Reuters 2005