Sunday, May 1, 2005

Iraq War: How to anger friends and lose allies

Soon it will just be Bush and Tony Blair.  And if Blair loses his election this coming Thursday, well, there's always the draft.

Now the Pentagon has come up with its latest whitewash report, at least according to the leaks to the press from the Army, this one on the killing of the Italian intelligence officer Nicola Calipari, who was bringing hostage when their car was riddled with bullets by an American unit.  The Italians parties pretty much across the board are upset by it.  And it hits Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government at a delicate moment politically: 'A slap in the face' as US clears troops who killed hostage hero by Richard Owen Times of London 04/27/05.  The Pentagon has released a report exonerating the Americans involved in the incident from any wrongdoing whatsoever.  The Italians are not happy about it:

The US Ambassador to Rome was summoned for urgent talks with Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, while opponents of the war in Iraq condemned the draft US report as a “slap in the face” for Italy.

I've posted on this case a number of times.  I certainly don't want to see American soldiers unfairly treated just for diplomatic niceties.  But from everything I've read about the shooting, this was a bad kill in every way.  At the minimum, it sounds like someone was extremely careless.

In a sign of how deep Italian anger was running over the exoneration by Washington of its troops, Italy was reported to be drawing up a “counter report” pinning the blame on the US. ...

Signor Calipari was fêted as a national hero after he died in a hail of bullets on March 4 at a US checkpoint on the road to Baghdad Airport, where an aircraft was waiting to carry the hostage to freedom. He shielded her from the bullets with his body. A US Army official told journalists that preliminary results of a joint US-Italian investigation indicated that the soldiers had followed their rules of engagement and should face no censure.  (my emphasis)

The freed journalist, Giuliana Sgrena, commented that "if you fire on a passing car which you were warned about, and follow the rules of engagement, you have to ask what those rules really were.”  Indeed.

Italy has set up its own judicial inquiry, but the US has refused to name the US soldiers involved or allowed them to give evidence. The centre-left Opposition said that America’s arrogant conclusions amounted to a rupture in relations with Italy, and demanded a statement in Parliament. Anti-war sentiment is strong in Italy, and Signor Berlusconi’s deployment of 3,000 Italian troops is one reason for his unpopularity. He was forced to dissolve his previous administration a week ago after a poor results in regional elections. Earlier this month he sought to appease public opinion by announcing that Italian troops would be withdrawn in September. He later retracted this, saying that they would stay until the end of the year. (my emphasis)

Matt at Today in Iraq recently wrotes (scroll down to "Checkpoint Hell" from 04/27/05):

The Sgrena case - or hit, as many Italians put it - has convulsed a country overwhelmingly against the war on Iraq, not only because of the tragic death of Calipari but because it has revealed in graphic detail to Italians and Europeans the grim reality faced by ordinary Iraqis, Sunni or Shi'ite. Iraqi civilians are now kidnapped by the hundreds. Iraqi civilians are routinely shot at by young, nervous American soldiers at checkpoints - as any correspondent who has covered Iraq knows so well. Iraqi civilian deaths are not even acknowledged by the Pentagon (remember Myers: "We don't do body counts").

Anybody who has covered the Iraq war has known - or has seen - checkpoint hell, where nervous American soldiers fire on anything that moves. The Toyota Corolla with Calipari and Sgrena was hit by only between eight and 10 rounds. Both Calipari and Sgrena were sitting in the back seat. Calipari was hit by a direct shot in the temple.

I still have reservations about the officialclaim that only a few shots hit the car.  The US refused to let Italian officials examine the car until a few days ago.  Why?

What surprises me even more is that the whitewash report goes right back to the standard-issue excuse that they first used, even though it looked dubious on the face of it many times and has been disputed by Sgrena and by Italian officials.  Ina story from the Chronicle News Service, "U.S. report absolves GIs in attack on journalist's car," which appears in the print edition but apparently not online, it says:

The car carrying an Italian journalist that was struck with a deadly hail of gunfire as it sped toward Baghdad International Airport on March 4 ignored warnings from American soldiers who used a spotlight, a green laser pointer and warning shots to try to stop it as it approached a checkpoint, the U.S. military said in a report released Saturday evening.

Both Sgrena and the driver continue to dispute that claim (Italy Report on Killing Goes Public Monday by Frances D'Emilio (AP) 05/01/05):

The two Italian survivors of the shooting — Sgrena and another agent, who was driving — insisted the car was traveling at about 25-30 mph on a rain-slicked road and that soldiers at the temporary checkpoint flashed a beam of light at them in apparent warning just before the shooting began.

It sounds like from the Italian driver and passengers accounts that the troops at the "checkpoint" were acting on the advice supposedly given by Pancho Villa on handling some prisoners-of-war:  "Shoot them for the time being."

The Italian report is scheduled to be released at noon Italian time (1:00 am EDT in the US).  It will apperently include some results from the Italians' forensic examination of the car.

Rome prosecutors are doing their own probe and have said they wanted to obtain a list of the soldiers at the checkpoint, and the release of the Americans' names could assist them if they try to prosecute the soldiers. [Some versions of the story on the Internet allowed blacked-out portions to be read, including names of soldiers involved.]

Some of the blacked-out material in the American report that could be read on Internet versions also discussed the soldiers' training in handling checkpoints. ...

The Italian prosecutors handling the separate investigation are awaiting the completion of tests on the car in which Calipari was riding to learn more about the vehicle's speed and the distance and direction from which the gunfire came. U.S. authorities allowed the bullet-riddled car to be flown to Rome a few days ago.

Now, it may not seem at first glance like it's particularly consequential what Italy thinks about American foreign policy.  But look at the three key supporters of the very unpopular Iraq War in Europe.  Spain's conservative government was voted out of office a year ago.  Italy's government is now shaky and probably will have to have new elections soon.  (Technically, I believe the government fell last week but then was reappointed with most of the same ministers.)  And Tony Blair faces a tough re-election fight right now.

And everyone else, especially other European Union members, have seen with what little regard the Bush administration treated the European governments most friendly to its foreign policy.  And how they have been seemingly oblivious to the political consequences of something like the Nicola Calipari cover-up.  And the EU governments aren't the only ones who are watching.

They've all got to be asking, how much benefit is it to us to support unpopular United States policies?  Rummy can sneer at "Old Europe" from now to Doomsday.  But it just makes no sense to create such a sense of distrust among the democratic governments that make up the EU.  We do need their active cooperation on a whole range of things.

This is what you get when you try to run a foreign policy based on arrogance, testosterone and bad intelligence.

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