The Game of Role-Playing and the Ambush of Giuliana Sgrena

Rome, Italy.

Sunday I went to the cinema and saw “Life is a Miracle” the latest film from Monte Negran film maker Emir Kusturica. One of the most poignant scenes was when Luca, the protagonist, threw his television out the window. He was angered by a western journalist’s zealous references to the advancing war with continuous emotional references to the death and destruction hanging over Yugoslavia in 1992. Luca did not want to see the exaggerated images portrayed by this CNN-like media commentator, through the anesthetized lens of the television camera. He was interested in preserving his own day to day experience of this absurd war, indirectly confirming what his wife said in a previous scene citing Shakespeare: “the world is a stage.”

These days I have the sensation that the public here in Italy has felt the urge to divert its attention from the reality of the circumstances surrounding the liberation of Giuliana Sgrena and the tragic story ending with the death of Nicola Calipari. Was it an ambush or a tragic misfortune? Was it a punishment for the Italian initiative to negotiate with terrorists or another example of young soldiers with little experience using excessive force? It is not easy to respond to these questions and they are of such significance that they cannot be left in the hands of politically motivated individuals in the Italian government or in the hands of the enormous United States machine. The way in which Italy recognizes its fallen victims and the way that America asks forgiveness and states that it will shed light on what has happened, with its suspicious schizophrenic behaviour, seems to me the same old game, what Luigi Pirandello called “il gioco delle parti,” where every actor plays his designated part, the high price to pay on the alter of “democracy” in the Middle East”.

It is important to retrace what happened leading up to the liberation of Giuliana Sgrena, to realize the incongruence present within the Italian and American versions of what happened. First, it has been said that there was not a full exchange of information between the Italian and American authorities, that is to say that because of the United State’s opposition to negotiating with perceived terrorist organizations they were not fully aware of the details of the Italian agents’ presence. Hear no evil see no evil. The idea that the Americans were not aware of the Italians’ dirty work is hard to believe as there is concrete evidence that there was constant contact between the Italian intelligence and US intelligence and military.

On the 8th of March, Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gianfranco Fini, speaking from the floor of the Italian Parliament acknowledged that there were many differences between the versions of the American authorities and the Italian intelligence services. But he quickly stated that these differences did not provide significant evidence of an ambush. He defined this hypothesis as “nonsense”.

The minister described the different versions: it is not true that the Americans were unaware of the operation and movements of Calipari and his team. When he arrived in Baghdad, Calipari was given passes allowing freedom of movement and was in contact with high ranking US military officials. According to Fini, “the Italian agents had notified the US military that a car with our agents on board was en route, but they did not say that Giuliana Sgrena was on board”. While it seems that Fini’s declaration demonstrates the Italian authorities’ willingness to investigate the truth, the whole truth, in fact they have a subtler goal of defending the Americans’ actions.

If the Americans did not know that Sgrena was in the car, what would have been their motivation for an ambush? I will be pretend to be a high ranking American military official or a CIA agent. If I knew that there was an Italian intelligence agent with authorization to move freely in Iraq I would ask myself why. My response would be that they were probably there to investigate, make contacts and negotiate the release of a hostage. As a military official or spy I would certainly be aware of two fundamental facts: 1) that Italian government had only a few days before refused an American proposal for a rescue operation using the Delta Force, who had discovered the probable location where Sgrena was being held and 2) that only a few days before, Simona Torretta had admitted that Nicola Calipari had played the most important part in the liberation of the two Simonas. Her admission was confirmed by Maurizio Scelli, the director of the Italian Red Cross who, in the official Italian government’s version, was the only responsible party for the liberation of Simona Pari and Simona Torretta. Furthermore, if I was a US military official or secret agent I would be well aware that Italy always pays and negotiates for the liberation of its hostages. Even if I was not so bright, in light of these facts I would have a strong suspicion that Nicola Calipari and his team were not in Baghdad for a vague diplomatic mission, but only to secure the release of Giuliana Sgrena. Certainly this is not enough for a definite hypothesis of a plot, but it is enough to dismantle the declarations of the Italian and US governments.

The American authorities make another questionable claim: they said that the car approached the check point at a high speed. Apart from the fact that they had already passed two check points, it seems ridiculous that two men with the experience of Calipari and the official driving the car would accelerate at the last check point, which is more dangerous than the others. Is it possible to think that two men of such expertise would not have known that this street was on maximum alert? Why would the driver have sped? Furthermore, they came upon this checkpoint immediately after a very sharp 90 degree curve, making this version even more unrealistic.

Fini said that “the official driving the Toyota has stated that Calipari had called from the car to notify the functionary of Sismi who was awaiting, with the American official, at the airport for their arrival. It is not clear if he spoke directly with the US official but surely the American officials had been advised and Calipari received the ok. Furthermore, the functionary of Sismi, who knew this street very well, assured that the car was not advancing at a speed of more than 40 kilometers per hour. He added that no one had signalled them to stop. There was a light flashed and at the same time the shooting began”. Fini’s explanation sharply contradicts the American version of the soldiers using hand signals, lights, and waving their arms to stop the car. Also, according to the American version, shots were fired at the engine bloc in order to stop the car. According to the testimony of the Italian official and the recount from Sgrena, none of these things happened. From the first photos of the car to emerge in Italy there is no evidence of bullet holes in the front of the vehicle where the engine bloc would be housed. Is it possible that these shots did not leave a trace? Finally, the first document released from the Pentagon claims that the interior lights of the auto were turned off, but according to the Italian testimony all the interior lights were on.
Of course, all of this can in no way constitute sufficient proof of a plot! The American’s reconstruction of events could simply be away to justify a serious error by their military command. And the disturbing comment made, according to Giuliana Sgrena, by one of her captors just prior to her release: “The Americans are the ones who don’t want you going home,” is no proof either. Moreover, Sgrena made it clear that her words were not meant to be a j’accuse directed towards the USA, but that she just wanted to point out that the incident had the ‘hallmark’ of an ambush. We discover also that two cell phones belonging to Calipari have disappeared. No, sorry, still not acceptable as proof there was any plot.

Why on earth would the United Stated want the death of a leftist Italian journalist, or of a secret service agent of a coalition partner? It is hard to believe that this death is the result of a punishment meted out for the Italian government’s failure to follow the Americans hard line opposition to negotiating. Could it be that the United States doesn’t want people sticking their noses in its dirty laundry? This too seems just too far fetched.

However, there are two immediate results of this tragedy:

1)There will be no more ‘sniffing hounds’ going around Iraq asking too many questions and

2) The Italian government will change its approach and fall in line with the Americans’ tough stance.

On the 9th of March, Berlusconi affirmed, from the floor of the senate, that apart from the military contingent, “the government will not guarantee the safety of any individual that goes to Iraq, even if they have a noble intent.” This now means that the Italian government will no longer spend one cent or lift one finger to free future hostages. Suddenly there was a multiplicity of editorials about the grave error of negotiating with terrorists, putting other human lives in danger through the financing of terrorist organizations, etc.. No more journalists will venture out from their happy hotel islands, no more negotiations with “terrorists”: the United States ­ plot or not ­ has won again, as always.

All the speculation about the time, the place and the price of the ransom ­ in all probability 8 million dollars paid in Abu Dhabi ­ all the declarations of intent from the Government and the Opposition (because in the old game everyone has their role to play), all the investigative commissions ­ independent, national, international, none of this will change the reality. In two or three months a very precise report will be released as was promised on the 9th of March in a letter from Bush to President of the Republic, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi. A handful of hot-headed soldiers will be punished, and possibly, some agents from Sismi will be held culpable as well. In the meantime a new terrorist attack will divert public opinion to the evil somewhere else being perpetrated by someone else. In the words of T.S. Eliot, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”

During this period the Italian Left, out of its own self interest, has stood side by side with the government. In a few weeks, local and regional elections will be held as a preview to the general elections of 2006. Both the Unione (Center-left) and the Casa delle Libertà (Center-right), see it to their advantage to defend the Italian intelligence to the end, while keeping a good rapport with their allies overseas. In the eyes of the public, the Italian agents are the new champions of liberty and patriotic heroes. Several nights ago, on the nightly T.V. talk show “Porta a Porta,” Fausto Bertinotti, the secretary of the Communist Party “Rifondazione,” proclaimed his “profound emotion,” at the funeral of Calipari. He went on to say that this tragic event had given a renewed value to Sismi, the Italian equivalent of the CIA, too often linked to dirty secrets. While this “eulogy of the spy” is accompanied on the Center-left with a new request for the immediate withdrawl of Italian soldiers from Iraq, on the Center-right it is translated into a renewed commitment to the “Mission for Peace.” The fact is, that apart from some weak declarations from the more radical fringes of the Left, the face of Italian politics seems more united than ever before. All possibilities of premeditation in the Sgrena ­ Calipari affair have been absolutely excluded. The verdict is already in and there is no need to wait for the results of the investigation. Even Fausto Bertinotti has dismissed the most disquieting hypotheses from his mind and the minds of his voters.

In the American press the dominant opinion is the same as that of the Bush government. The March 9th editorial from the New York Times, which has been perceived by many Italians as a strong attack against the United States’ role in Iraq, is just another variation of ‘Il Gioco delle Parti.’ Criticizing the government for the rules of engagement at check points is another way of confirming the “tragic incident” hypothesis. When so many are at fault there is no one to take the blame.

Former president, Francesco Cossiga, said that “when there is a war, the liberation of hostages is secondary.” It is wrong to believe, or lead someone to believe, that ours is a mission of peace. He went on: “when you send tanks, intelligence, special forces, Apache helicopters it is for a mission of war. We must make a decision: to go to war or to remain at home.” This an attempt to divert attention from the reality which I referred to in the beginning, an attempt that involves both public opinion and the world of politics: to pretend that all is more or less ok in Iraq, and to relinquish all responsibility to the United States. This is the Italy of 19 dead in Nassiriya, of the two Simonas, of Enzo Baldoni, of Giuliana Sgrena, and of Nicola Calipari, the Italy of heroes and missionaries, but the Italy that is in Iraq, the Iraq that is a theatre of war. It is of little value to decide now whether to pull out our troops or, on the contrary, to renew our “Mission for Peace.” Bringing back our troops because of the death of one, Nicola Calipari, does not make much sense. The fact remains, that to this war Italy said yes.

VALENTINA NICOLI is a native of Lecce in the Salerno region of Italy, living and working in Rome. She can be reached at: