Lifting the Veil on the Sgrena / Calipari Incident

Rome, Italy.

Over the past several days I have tried to digest the media spectacle surrounding the assassination of Italian secret intelligence agent Nicola Calipari. He was killed under a barrage of American bullets, shortly after the negotiated release of Giuliana Sgrena, the journalist from the Communist Italian daily, Il Manifesto, held captive for the previous month in Iraq. I am left feeling bloated with questions I am confident will never be answered by the criminal governments of both nations, Italy and the United States, where I am entitled, by birth, to citizenship. An illegal war, fought under false premises, where countless civilians have been massacred and journalists threatened, targeted and even killed, either intentionally by American forces, or out of what Reporters Without Borders calls “criminal negligence” on the part of the American command, leaves much room for a cynical eye toward the recent acts played out on the Petrolarch’s imperial stage.

Who were Giuliana Sgrena’s captors? Why would they say that they did not want witnesses of the blood bath in Fallujah? How is it that these captors would have the same threatening attitude toward journalists as the occupying forces? What were the circumstances of her release? Why was her trip home abruptly halted by American gunfire? If the attack was deliberate, why was her life spared?

Could it be that it was the murdered secret service agent, Nicola Calipari, that was wanted dead? And, if so, by whom? Might it be just more trigger happy, gung-ho American soldiers shooting to kill as opposed to hinder, out of bloodlust, inexperience and fear? Was it a failure in communication between the Italian and American authorities? Or as the leader of the Italian Green Party, Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, put it, is it “just another victim of an absurd war”? Ultimately, these questions will be answered by half-truths and misinformation, but I would like to provide a framework as to why they are important in the these pages, which I am happy share with my eloquent friend and colleague Valentina Nicoli.

Major questions remain about the circumstances surrounding Giuliana Sgrena’s capture and captivity. Who was this group of hostage takers called former Saddam loyalists and criminals by the Italian media? They were the first to release the news of their abduction and subsequent video of Sgrena’s plea for help to the international press agents from the Associated Press as opposed to Al Jazeerah and the usual channels such news releases and videos had gone through previously. It is clear that the Italian and United States governments did not want, in Iraq, a Communist journalist, opposed to the war, and working to expose such atrocities as the decimation of Fallujah to the Italian public and the world. The Italian government had tried to block Sgrena’s attempts to enter Iraq and had dissuaded all Italians from going to the war zone after the execution of Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni and the hostage ordeal of the two Simonas, Torretta and Pari, who were also opposed to the war. But why would a legitimate part of the Iraqi resistance not want witness to the atrocities of the occupation by a sympathetic journalist? I have often met Muslims and Arabs here in Rome who, after discovering that I am American, quickly point to Fallujah as the primary example of American war atrocities. Fallujah is a story I know well from international media accounts by primarily non-embedded journalists.

In Sgrena’s personal account, “My Truth,” published in Il Manifesto on the 6th of March she describes the animosity of her captors toward her work:

‘We don’t want any outsiders here anymore,’ my kidnappers would tell me. But I wanted to tell about the bloodbath in Fallujah from the words of the refugees. And the morning of my capture the refugees or some of there leaders would not listen to me. I had in front of me the accurate confirmation of the analysis of what the Iraqi society had become as a result of the war and they would throw their truth in my face: ‘We don’t want any outsiders here, why didn’t you stay in your home? What can this interview do for us?’

Sgrena’s account of her captors’ behaviour describes an odd group. She talks of her confrontational attitude toward them during the early days of her captivity. She would ask “But why did you kidnap me, I am against the war?” To which her captors would respond, “Yes, because you go out and speak to the people. We would never kidnap a journalist that remains closed in a hotel and because you say you’re against the war, you could be a spy.” Sgrena describes her captors as seeming “quite a religious group, in continuous prayer over the Koran.” But she then tells of the captor that seemed most religious congratulating her on the day of her release by shaking her hand, “a behaviour quite unusual for an Islamic fundamentalist.” She goes onto detail how one of her captors came to her surprised and excited on the day of her release because the T.V. was showing European cities with large photos of Sgrena and also of Totti (the captain of the Rome soccer team). “He declared he was a fan of the Rome soccer team and was shocked that his favourite player went to play with “Liberate Giuliana” on his T-shirt. Funny that after holding a Roman hostage for over a month, he never mentioned he was a fan prior to the day of her release.

Giuliana Sgrena has said that she will not go back to Iraq. She, like many others have been dissuaded by the threat of kidnapping and by the American and coalition occupying forces and governments. Maybe it is out of frustration that her captors asked “What will this interview do for us?” because interviews and reports such as these have done nothing thus far to ease the suffering of the Iraqi people. The Petrolarchs continue their death march forward unencumbered by reports of torture, bloodbaths, the destruction of an entire city and countless deaths of civilians. Now with the Fallujah model set to be used to destroy other cities where the insurgency is strong, reports of the atrocities will be more difficult, if not impossible, to come by. So, while we will never know who Sgrena’s captors were, they are helping to implement one of the Americans’ goals from the beginning of the war, which was to have only embedded journalists reporting the onslaught.
According to Sgrena’s account her captors told her that there would be Americans that didn’t want her to escape the country. Although it’s true that if the Americans wanted her dead they would have killed her, there is still strong reason for any non-embedded journalist to believe that they could be a target of the American military. Former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer stressed on 28 February 2003 the Pentagon’s advice to the media to pull their journalists out of Baghdad before the war began. Asked whether this was a veiled threat to “non-imbedded” reporters, he said: “If the military says something, I strongly urge all journalists to heed it. It is in your own interests, and your family’s interests. And I mean that.” This quote seems to remove the veil, and should be viewed as a direct threat toward all journalists not authorized by the United States military command.

“Two Murders and a Lie,” the investigation by Jean-Paul Mari of Reporters Without Borders, examines how this threat was first put into practice in Iraq on 8 April 2003 with the intentional targeting of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad by an American tank resulting in the murder of two international reporters, Taras Protsyuk of Poland/Ukraine and José Couso of Spain. At the time of this attack “Washington, the Pentagon, the US Central Command, (Centcom) in Doha (Kuwait), as well as London, the military hierarchy and anyone following the war out of professional duty knew that the Palestine Hotel had become a media centre, like the Commodore Hotel in Beirut or Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn, adorned with satellite dishes and electronics installed by the world’s major TV networks, written press and news and photo agencies.” (Reporters Without Borders, 15 January 2004) “Two Murders and a Lie” further documents that the U.S. military command was given the exact GPS location of the hotel, and that as early as the day before the attack, the military command in Doha assured the AP that the Hotel would not be attacked.

The report concludes that US officials at first lied about what happened and then, in an official statement four months later, exonerated the US Army from any mistake or error of judgement. Reporters Without Borders has called for the reopening of the enquiry into who was really responsible for the US Army’s “criminal negligence” in shooting at the Palestine Hotel.

It is inconceivable that the massive presence of journalists at the hotel for three weeks prior to the shelling, which was known by any T.V. viewer and by the Pentagon itself, could have passed unnoticed. Yet this presence was never mentioned to the troops in the field or marked on the maps used by artillery support soldiers. The question is whether this information was withheld deliberately, out of contempt or through negligence. (Reporters Without Borders, 15 January 2004)

Reporters Without Borders and the Iraqi Journalists Union have condemned the attack on the car carrying Giuliana Sgrena and Nicola Calipari. Reporters Without Borders, having plenty of experience with American deception and arrogance concerning their rules of engagement, has called for the United Nations to conduct an independent investigation into the tragedy.

It is a well known fact that the United States does not condone and claims, not to engage in negotiations with any group they choose to brandish as “terrorists.” It is for this reason that Giuliana Sgrena has not ruled out, as no one should, the possibility that the Italians were intentionally ambushed by the Americans. During Condaleeza Rice’s recent visit to Rome, she and Gianfranco Fini announced that they were doing all that was possible to secure Sgrena’s release, apart from negotiating with terrorists. However, the Italian government, as a reflection of a society that generally holds human life as more sacred than that of its bloodthirsty American “friend”, actively engages in negotiations and exchanges with hostage takers to secure their nationals release.

While the incongruence between the Italian and American versions of Nicola Calipari’s murder, as outlined by my colleague, is striking in and of itself, the imperial arrogance and past actions of the American forces leave it well with in the realm of possibility that Nicola Calipari was intentionally targeted for assassination. Nicola Calipari had a stellar career as a secret intelligence agent working for Sismi, the Italian equivalent of the CIA, and was considered the most skilled Italian negotiater in the Middle East. The Italians are considered to have, quite possibly, the most skilled negotiating team in the region and the world. After refusing, as Miss Nicoli has detailed, a rescue attempt by U.S. special forces, calling this “too dangerous”, the Italians, led by Mr. Calipari, chose to go the negotiation and ransom route. The Italian’s strategy, due to the skilled work of Calipari, came to what seemed a successful conclusion with the negotiated release of Giuliana Sgrena.

Giuliana Sgrena wasn’t the first Italian hostage to be liberated by the praised work of Nicola Calipari. As described by my colleague, he had also negotiated the freedom of Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, who, after their return to Italy, denounced the U.S. military as a brutal occupying force, called for the return of the 3,000 Italian troops stationed in Nassariya in southern Iraq, and heaped praise and words of support upon the Iraqi resistance fighters. It seems the last thing the Americans would want is an Italian negotiator working, against their wishes, to release journalists and human rights workers effectively exposing the atrocities of their illegal war. More insidiously, it seems that the Americans might view these actions by a junior partner in the Terror War as a punishable affront, using the murder of Calipari as a lesson to those wishing to play a small role on America’s imperial stage.

While the car carrying Nicola Calipari was, according to the most recent reports, hit by between 8 and 10 rounds, he was killed by a direct shot in the temple. He was not the driver of the car, or sitting anywhere near the engine bloc, but was in fact sitting in the back seat next to Giuliana Sgrena. This might suggest a deliberate assassination. There have been numerous reports of trigger-happy American soldiers massacring countless Iraqi civilians with their brutal check point rules of engagement. They have the attitude that this is their world and nobody has the right to disturb their unwanted presence on Iraqi soil. This time it was coalition partners that were refusing to play by the Empire’s rules and it seems that there is something more sinister to blame for this “tragic incident.”

MICHAEL LEONARDI is a U.S. national from Toledo, Ohio with dual Italian/American citizenship living and working in Rome. He can be reached at:

Michael Leonardi lives in Italy and can be reached at