Still Seeking Answers in U.S. Checkpoint Shooting

UNITED NATIONS – If one were to ask Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena why she chose to report from Afghanistan, Algeria, Somalia and Iraq prior to February 2005, despite the many perils that face reporters in war zones and areas of conflict, her response would probably be similar to the one she gave to journalist Amy Goodman of the radio news show Democracy Now!.

"I can’t go only where the places are not dangerous," Sgrena said simply of the threats to her personal safety as a non-embedded, independent reporter in Iraq.

On a wintry Friday afternoon in February 2005, Sgrena, a driver and a translator were returning from the Mustafa Mosque complex in north Baghdad where she had been meeting with evacuees of Fallujah to hear accounts of the aftermath of repeated U.S.-led counterinsurgency attacks on their city.

No sooner had they exited the gates of the mosque than, suddenly, several cars blocked the path of the car in which Sgrena was being driven, forcing it to come to a stop. Gun-wielding men with "hate in their eyes" snatched her from the car, and her driver scampered away under a barrage of bullets.

Sgrena said that she had always opposed the U.S.-led invasion and that her work reflected her stance, so she was initially confounded by her abduction.

"I felt like I was hostage to my own convictions," Sgrena said Wednesday in an address to the United Nations Correspondents Association of her four-week-long abduction. "I’m a journalist, I’m a pacifist, and I was always against this war and the war in Afghanistan."

"Why seize a journalist who had always fought against the war?" she says in Friendly Fire, her new book that recounts the details of her ordeal, from her initial abduction in February to her subsequent release.

The joy of freedom, however, was short-lived. Upon the successful negotiation of her release, Sgrena and two Italian intelligence officers, Nicola Calipari and Andrea Carpani, drove along the dark, wet road to Baghdad International Airport. Carpani drove the car, and Calipari sat in the back seat with Sgrena. Carpani was on the phone updating Luciana Castellina, one of the founders of Il Manifesto, the newspaper for which Sgrena worked, of their position and the overall situation. Castellina was at the airport awaiting their arrival.

There are conflicting reports about the subsequent sequence of events.

According to the Army Regulation 15-6 investigation (AR 15-6) of what ensued, a U.S. army soldier, Specialist Mario Lozano, noticed the car as it approached the "traffic control point" that the U.S. military had set up along the route. The car, according to the AR 15-6 report, was traveling at a speed of about 50 mph and was approximately 140 meters from Spc. Lozano’s guard position when he noticed it.

Spc. Lozano shined his spotlight onto the car, signaling for the driver to reduce his speed as the car neared the "Alert Line" and soldiers’ position. Another soldier focused a green laser pointer onto the car’s windshield, but the car continued toward them without slowing down.

"Specialist Lozano continued to shine the spotlight, and shouted at the vehicle to stop, a fruitless effort, but an instantaneous reaction based on his training," according to the AR 15-6 report.

"The car continued to approach at a high rate of speed, coming closer to the soldiers than any other vehicle that evening. When the car got to the Warning Line, Specialist Lozano, while still holding the spotlight in his left hand, used his right hand to quickly fire a two to four round burst into a grassy area to the oncoming vehicle’s right as a warning shot," the report continued.

When the car maintained its speed, according to the report, Spc. Lozano dropped his spotlight, and, using both hands, fired "another burst, walking the rounds from the ground on the passenger’s side of the vehicle and towards the cars engine to disable it.." The whole incident occurred within a seven-second timeframe, according to the report.

It concluded that Lozano "had complied with the Rules of Engagement" and "did not intend to harm anyone in the vehicle." In addition, the AR 15-6 report recommended "that no disciplinary action be taken against any soldier involved in the incident."

Sgrena disputes this account by the U.S. military. "The driver yelled ‘they’re attacking us, they’re attacking us!’" said Sgrena. She said everyone in the car initially believed that it was her captors who had followed and attacked them.

"I don’t think that it was an accident," she said. "There are different elements that say it’s not just an accident."

One such element, according to Sgrena, was that the rain, darkness and water-strewn roads forced Carpani to drive at a slower speed, about 20-25 mph, much slower than the 50 mph mentioned in the AR 15-6 report. Furthermore, there was no shot warning the driver to stop, she said.

"The car was illuminated with a warning beacon simultaneously as the shots were fired, not before, and it was hit from the right and at the height of the passengers, not in the motor – which was hit only once – or in the tires, as might be expected if soldiers are shooting to stop the vehicle," according to her book.

At the first sound of gunshots, Calipari covered Sgrena with his body in an effort to shield her from the bullets. When the ordeal ended, Calipari was dead, and Sgrena, bloody and dazed, had been shot in her left shoulder.

"We have repeatedly expressed concerns about U.S. procedures at military checkpoints," Joel Campagna, Middle East and North Africa senior program coordinator at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told IPS. "Sgrena’s case has highlighted U.S. military failure to develop and put in place adequate safety procedures at checkpoints."

Moreover, Sgrena said, Italian officials had been notified of her release, and had passed on that information to U.S. officials.

According to the AR 15-6 report, however, "It can be positively stated that the U.S. military was totally unaware of the recovery and transport of Ms. Sgrena on 4 March 2005 until after the shooting incident had occurred."

Last week, Italian prosecutors sought the indictment of Lozano on charges of murder and attempted murder. Italian authorities have already appointed a lawyer to defend the former soldier, who is likely to be tried in absentia. They have complained that a full inquiry into the case was made impossible by the fact that the vehicle was removed and army logs destroyed shortly after the incident.

Some of Sgrena’s reports from Iraq have indeed been controversial, which she believes made her a prime target of "friendly fire." She accused U.S. forces of using the incendiary agent napalm – widely deployed during the Vietnam War – against rebel strongholds in the city of Fallujah, and she has accused some service members of raping Iraqi women.

"It’s important to be an independent journalist or else you’ll end up in a propaganda war," she said.

The executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, Sarah Leah Whitson, agreed. "It’s a fact that if you are traveling 24 hours a day with the military, your perspective will be different," she told IPS.

"The U.S. has done a very weak job of investigating the misconduct of U.S. soldiers," Whitson added.

Sgrena said that while she has not fully recovered, emotionally or physically, from the experience, it has not weakened her resolve – but she will not return to Iraq.

Read more by Fritzroy Sterling