It is rare for the Bush White House to offer a correct assessment of anything that has happened in Iraq. But White House communications director Dan Bartlett could not have been more right when he acknowledged that the wounding of Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena - and the killing of an Italian secret service agent who shielded her from a spray of bullets fired by U.S. troops - was "horrific."
There have been so many unnecessary deaths, so many instances of brutality and so many ugly developments in Iraq that it would be ridiculous to try to identify the most horrific among them. But the wounding of Sgrena, a respected left-wing journalist, and the killing of agent Nicola Calipari certainly will rank high on the list. And it could have dramatic repercussions for President Bush's misadventure in that battered land.
The United States is claiming that the attack on the car that was carrying Sgrena to the airport after she was released from more than a month of captivity by Iraqi insurgents took place only after Sgrena's driver failed to heed signals to stop at a checkpoint. Sgrena disputes that scenario, however, telling an Italian television interviewer that "there was no bright light, no signal."
Sgrena said the car was traveling at normal speed and that the first indication she had of trouble came when the U.S. troops started firing on the vehicle. "At that point a rain of fire and bullets came at us, forever silencing the happy voices from a few minutes earlier," Sgrena wrote in an article published Sunday in her newspaper, Il Manifesto.
Sgrena wrote that she lived because "Nicola Calipari dove on top of me to protect me and immediately, and I mean immediately, I felt his last breath as he died on me."
The editor of Il Manifesto said Italian officials told him that between 300 and 400 rounds were fired into the car. Along with Sgrena, two Italian intelligence agents were wounded in the shooting.
Bartlett describes this as an "accident." Many Italians, including Sgrena, are not so sure. "The fact that the Americans don't want negotiations to free the hostages is known," she told a television interviewer. "The fact that they do everything to prevent the adoption of this practice to save the lives of people held hostage, everybody knows that. So I don't see why I should rule out that I could have been the target."
This is an exceptionally serious charge, which no one should accept at face value. This is not a place for speculation; this is a place for aggressive investigation. The problem is that, with the administration's track record, the results of any U.S.-led investigation that clears the United States of wrongdoing will be greeted with skepticism. The Bush administration, which desperately wants to maintain Italian political and military support for the occupation of Iraq, has a serious credibility problem.
The international journalists organization Reporters Without Borders has called for a United Nations investigation of the incident. Citing problems with past investigations managed by the U.S. military, Reporters Without Borders secretary general Robert Menard said, "It is clear that this enquiry cannot be conducted just by the U.S. Army."
Whether the U.N. is the proper investigatory agency can be debated. But there can be no question about the need for an independent inquiry. If this was the accident that the White House claims, that needs to be established beyond a shadow of a doubt. If it was something other than an accident, then the truth must be revealed - not merely to aid the decisions of Italian leaders but to provide honest American officials with the information they need to address a state of affairs that could give new meaning to the term "horrific."
© 2005 Capital Times