Tue, 08 Mar 2005

From: Reuters

Italy honors agent, awaits U.S. move

Crispian Balmer, Reuters/Rome

Italy paid homage on Monday to an intelligence officer killed in Iraq by U.S. forces, giving him a full state funeral that was tinged with anger over how he died protecting a freed Italian hostage.

Among the mourners was Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who sent Nicola Calipari on his fatal mission to Baghdad and is struggling to reconcile his fervent pro-U.S. policies with demands for the truth from Washington over the shooting.

Hundreds of Italians lined the streets as Calipari's body was driven to an imposing basilica for the funeral service.

Uniformed soldiers provided a guard of honor, and crowds broke into applause as the coffin, draped in the Italian flag, was carried aloft into the church.

Calipari died from a bullet to the head as he threw himself over journalist Giuliana Sgrena when U.S. forces opened fire on their vehicle just outside Baghdad airport on Friday.

Sgrena, who had been freed minutes earlier by her Iraqi captors after a month in captivity, is recovering in a Rome hospital from a bullet wound to the shoulder.

She has denied U.S. assertions that soldiers fired on the Italians after they failed to heed signals to slow down, and has suggested that she was targeted by the American military because they oppose the payment of ransom to free hostages.

The Italian government has made clear that it will continue to support U.S. President George W. Bush despite the killing and will not withdraw its troops from Iraq. But at the same time it is demanding those responsible for the shooting be punished.

"The alliance with the United States is not up for debate, likewise our military commitment to Iraq," Berlusconi was quoted as saying by Italian newspapers on Monday.

Nonetheless, there was anger across the country, with both government and opposition politicians rejecting the official U.S. explanation.

Calipari worked out of Berlusconi's office and was a highly experienced hostage negotiator who had secured the release of two Italian aid workers taken captive in Iraq last year.

But his killing has cast a spotlight on widespread speculation that Italy is paying off hostage-takers.

Although the government denies paying ransoms, officials say off the record that money was paid to win Sgrena's freedom, with sums of US$6 million to $8 million being mentioned in the press.

The United States and Britain, which have the biggest military contingents in Iraq, condemn such payments, arguing that they fuel the hostage trade.

Bush has promised Berlusconi, one of his closest allies in Europe, a full investigation into Calipari's death. The Italian prime minister is hoping for answers before he addresses parliament on Wednesday over the shooting.