Questions in Giuliana Sgrena Shooting

My piece earlier this morning, “Distorted Coverage of Giuliana Sgrena Shooting,” arguing that the headlines of many major media outlets were misleading because they failed to mention that Sgrena’s car was speeding toward a military checkpoint, drew some negative comments. A few noted that the facts were still in dispute and that the headlines were, therefore, factual.

Here’s another example, from a New York Times story dated tomorrow. It’s headlined, “Italian Reporter Arrives in Rome Amid Questions (rss).” In one sense, the headline is correct. Sgrena is Italian, she’s a reporter, she arrived in Rome, and there were questions. Great headline!

Not so fast. Here’s the story:

Giuliana Sgrena arrived in Rome on Saturday, a day after American troops at a checkpoint in Baghdad fired on the car taking her to the airport following her release from kidnappers. Ms. Sgrena, a 56-year-old journalist for Il Manifesto, a leftist Rome daily, was assisted off the plane in a wheelchair at Rome’s Ciampino airport, where she was greeted by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and her relatives. An ambulance then took her to a military clinic for on operation on her collarbone, where she was hit by shrapnel during Friday night’s shooting, in which an Italian secret service agent, Nicola Calipari, was killed trying to protect her. According to the Italian news agency ANSA, Ms. Sgrena told a friend, “The most difficult moment was when I saw the person who had saved me die in my arms.”

The American military said the car carrying Ms. Sgrena and the Italian agents was speeding to the airport as it approached a checkpoint. Soldiers shot into the engine block after trying to warn the driver to stop by “by hand-and-arm signals, flashing white lights, and firing warning shots in front of the car,” a statement said.

But on Saturday, some members of the Italian opposition, which has fiercely criticized the presence of Italian troops in Iraq, expressed doubt about the American version. “I don’t believe a word the Americans are saying,” said Oliviero Diliberto, a Communist deputy in the lower house of Italy’s Parliament. “I think there is something really dirty about all this business. Next week we will once again propose a measure to pull the troops out of Iraq.”

The Times lede takes as a matter of fact that the shooting occured at a checkpoint. It cites no eyewitness testimony, let alone an account from Sgrena, that disputes that. The only “questions” are from “some members of the Italian opposition” who have an axe to grind. They simply “don’t believe” and “think there is something really dirty.” Based on what? Their reflexive hatred for the American government and their political position on the war.

I wasn’t an eyewitness to the events on the ground and, prior to reading that the incident occured at a checkpoint, I just presumed it was an accident of the type that takes place in a tense war zone on a regular basis. Perhaps information will come to light soon that casts doubt on the American military’s official statements. So far, however, we have no reason whatsoever to “question” it.

Update (1951): A new report from the London Independent, not necessarily the most reliable of sources, tells a different story (careful not to actually attribute it to Sgrena, although giving that impression):

Italian hostage tells of rescuer shielding her from bullets

Giuliana Sgrena, the Italian journalist freed on Friday after a month in captivity in Iraq, was recovering in a military hospital here after taking shrapnel in her shoulder when American troops fired 300 to 400 shots into her car as it approached Baghdad airport. She touched down in Rome yesterday morning and was carried from the aeroplane wrapped in a blanket and attached to a drip, looking haggard and exhausted.

The unprovoked attack killed Nicola Calipari, the Italian military intelligence agent who had negotiated the journalist’s release. He had thrown himself on top of Ms Sgrena to shield her and was killed by a bullet in the head. In a brief conversation with the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, President Bush said he was sorry about the incident and promised that it would be investigated.

The bizarre and bloody end to what should have been a day of joyful celebration occurred at around 9pm as the unmarked car with local plates carrying Ms Sgrena and her liberators approached Baghdad airport. A plane was waiting to take her home. But while the car was still some 600 metres from the terminal, American troops opened fire, unleashing a volley of 300 to 400 shots, killing Mr Calipari outright and wounding Ms Sgrena and the other two intelligence officers in the car, one of them seriously.

It must have been some car, indeed, to withstand 300-400 bullets and yet Sgrena walked away with nothing but a bit of shrapnel in her shoulder. The American account still strikes me as far more plausible.

Update (2114): An anonymous commenter pasted in a story from AGI, minus a link, saying that Sgrena’s partner, Pier Scolari, thinks the shooting was intentional. GoogleNews dates the story from 12 hours ago and provides the link. Most odd, indeed. I don’t know AGI’s reputation, much less Scolari’s, but certainly find their account ridiculously improbable.

Update (2232): A BBC account has Sgrena’s take on it. It’s less conspiratorial:

Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena has described how she came under a “hail of gunfire” moments after being released from her Iraqi abductors in Baghdad. Ms Sgrena, who was wounded in the incident, has been sent to a military hospital in Rome for an operation. She denied US military accounts that the car was speeding past a checkpoint when it was fired upon.
“There was suddenly this shooting, we were hit by a hail of gunfire, and I was speaking with Nicola, who was telling me about what had been happening in Italy in the meantime, when he leaned towards me, probably also to protect me,” Ms Sgrena told Rai radio. “I was especially shocked because we thought that by then the danger was past,” she said. “And then he collapsed and I realised that he was dead.”

She said the shooting continued “because the driver wasn’t even managing to explain that we were Italian”. “So, it was a really terrible thing.”

Asked if the car was going too fast when the US troops opened fire, she said: “We weren’t going particularly fast given that type of situation.”

Update (3-6 0836): See followup story, “Italy Rejects U.S. Version of Sgrena Shooting.”

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, Terrorism,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Chad Evans says:

    The U.S. military has indicated it took place at a checkpoint.

  2. bryan says:

    Well, if they shot into the engine block, the car should be evidence, right? There’s no statement from the driver or the journalist, and the US seemed awfully quick to provide a “fuller” explanation of events, which would seem to hint that it was a SNAFU, not a conspiracy.

    But she *does* work for Il Manifesto

  3. Me says:


    (AGI) – Rome, Italy, March 5 – An ambush is Pier Scolari’s verdict on the shootout which the journalist from the Manifesto paper underwent whilst being freed yesterday. Scolari is Giuliana Sgrena’s partner and was giving his theory on the shootout which cost the secret service agent, Nicola Calipari, his life in order to save Giuliana’s. In fact, according to Pier Scolari, Giuliana had come to know about something that maybe the Americans didn’t want divulged. “Please can the Italian government do something about this. Either it was an ambush, as I believe, because Giuliana had some information… or we are at the mercy of idiots, frightened boys who shoot at anyone they come across. All this has hit the headlines because it happened to Giuliana. But what about if it had happened to the Iraqis. Nobody would have known about it”. (AGI) –

  4. Kappiy says:

    Hopefully an independent investigation will ensue since there are numerous holes in everyone’s story.

    Bryan’s point about the evidence of the vehicle is essential. The AP is now reporting that the US military does not know what happened to the car–very interesting indeed, missing evidence.

  5. Jim says:

    Lets see there appears to be two major versions of what happened. Lets see what is more plausible:

    1) An Italian car was speeding towards a check-point and the US troops after being subjected to a series of VBIEDs tried to warn the car to slow down and when that failed fired into the vehicle.

    2) The CENTCOM was so afraid of this Italian journalist that they issued orders to all the logical checkpoints to shoot-up the car carrying her (assuming they have good intel on the make, color and model). When the car does show up, instead of killing everyone in it, the troops decide to go half-way leaving the target wounded but alive. Then in a sign of incredible disclipine, no one in the entire chain of command tells the press.

    Any other theories? (I know the one Air America chose)

  6. James Joyner says:

    Great Job of reporting James Joyner!

    Thanks ,James Joyner
    Peoria Illinois

  7. MelvinX says:

    Why on earth do we care about this Italian communist “journalist”? News alert: Communism is both ridiculous and a failure. She is an incredibly uneducated loon who unfortunately is responsible for getting one of her country’s best secret service agents killed. Afterall, if she hadn’t happened to get herself kidnapped in what appears to be a farcical and possibly staged abduction, the secret service agent would never have been in country in the first place.

    There are too many uneducated people permitted to speak in this world – I don’t care if I sound like a facist. 🙂

  8. JG says:

    From AFP:
    “Our vehicle was running at normal speed which could not be misunderstood,” she said

    “It wasn’t a checkpoint but a patrol which immediately opened fire after they trained their light on us,” Sgrena said.

    Mr Joyner failed to give the complete quote, at least the one from AFP:
    “They continued shooting and the driver couldn’t even explain that we were Italians. It was really horrible,” she added.

    “The Americans and Italians knew about (her) car coming,” Pier Scolari said on leaving Celio hospital.
    “They were 700 meters (yards) from the airport, which means that they had passed all checkpoints.”
    Friday’s shooting was heard by Berlusconi’s aides who were on the phone with one of the intelligence officers, said Scolari. “Then the US military silenced the cellphones,” he charged.