Baghdad shooting highlights checkpoint shortcomings

New York, May 2, 2005—A March 4 shooting in Baghdad in which U.S. forces killed Italian intelligence agent Nicola Calipari and wounded Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena and agent Andrea Carpani might have been avoided if the military had used basic warning measures such as signs and speed bumps to alert civilians to the presence of a roadblock, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

CPJ said the shooting highlights the unnecessary dangers that U.S. roadblocks and checkpoints pose to civilians in Iraq, and it called on the military to address the problem immediately.

A U.S. military investigation released Saturday cleared U.S. troops of wrongdoing in the shooting, although Sgrena, Carpani, and the Italian government have challenged several aspects of the U.S. account. The Italian government released its own report late Monday, saying that stress, inexperience, and fatigue among U.S. soldiers played a role in the shooting, according to international news reports.

“Whatever version of events is correct, it seems clear that the Italians were not aware they were approaching a roadblock where they might encounter lethal force,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “We believe civilian lives—including those of journalists—are put at risk unnecessarily by the failure of U.S. troops to take better precautions at checkpoints.”

CPJ research shows that U.S. forces’ fire in Iraq has taken the lives of at least nine journalists and two media workers since March 2003. Many civilians have died at U.S. checkpoints in Iraq, including at least four members of the media.

Journalists have told CPJ that the protocol in approaching U.S. checkpoints remains unclear nearly two years after hostilities began. Several have described coming under fire unexpectedly when approaching checkpoints or when operating in their vicinity. Civilian deaths have raised questions about whether U.S. troops are taking appropriate measures at checkpoints to avoid harming civilians.

Although the U.S. investigation did not fault the Army unit that opened fire on the Italians, it did acknowledge that current methods used to alert drivers to U.S. military checkpoints, such as the use of spotlights and lasers, “may not be the best system from a civilian point of view.” It recommends steps for improvement such as a review of checkpoint and roadblock procedures; the use of more effective warning signs; the use of speed bumps and other roadway alerts; and the launch of a public awareness campaign to alert drivers how to respond at checkpoints.

CPJ applauds these recommendations and calls for their immediate implementation. But CPJ noted that the military’s record is questionable in following up on such recommendations. There is little evidence, CPJ said, that the U.S. military implemented safety recommendations regarding the presence of journalists in conflict areas that were outlined in its 2003 investigation into the shooting death of Reuters cameraman Mazen Dana.

Further, CPJ is concerned by conflicting accounts of what took place on March 4. Sgrena, Carpani, and the Italian government have challenged important aspects of the U.S. report.

The U.S. report, released Saturday night, concluded that U.S. soldiers at a roadblock near Baghdad International Airport operated within the rules of engagement. The report recommended no disciplinary action be taken.

Soldiers of the 1-69 Infantry had set up a roadblock in preparation for then-U.S. ambassador John Negroponte, who was to travel to the nearby U.S. Camp Victory. A soldier from the unit opened fire on the Italians’ car after it failed to heed several warnings, including the use of a white light, a green laser, and warning shots, the report said. U.S. soldiers estimated the car was travelling around 50 mph—the highest speed of any car observed approaching the roadblock that evening, it said.

The U.S. report said that the Italian agent driving the car was “was dealing with multiple distractions, including talking on the phone while driving, the conversation in the back seat, trying to listen for threats, driving on a wet road, focusing on tasks to be accomplished, the need to get to the airport, and the excited and tense atmosphere in the car.”

The U.S. report also found that Italian officials did not alert U.S. troops that the car would be approaching the airport. Italian agents had secured the release of Sgrena, who had been held captive for a month by Iraqi insurgents, only about 20 minutes before the shooting. With prior coordination, the U.S. report said, the shooting could have been avoided.

In its own report issued late Monday, the Italian government said U.S. authorities were “indisputably” aware of the presence of the two Italian agents in Baghdad even if “it is likely that they were not aware of the details of their mission,” Reuters reported.

The Italian report also said there were no signs that warned motorists that a military roadblock was on the road to the Baghdad airport.

Italian investigators faulted U.S. officials for not preserving the scene of the shooting, making it “impossible to technically reconstruct the event, to determine the exact position of the vehicles and measure the distances, and to obtain precise data defining the precise trajectory of the bullets, the speed of the car and the stopping distance,” The Associated Press reported.

Sgrena and Carpani maintain their car was travelling more slowly than the speed cited in the U.S. report, and said that they did not see a warning light until the car came under fire. Sgrena has also said that bullets entered the car from the side or back. The position of the car at the time of the shooting—and whether it may have been struck while turning or on a curve—is not clear.