Saturday, October 26, 2013

Flashback: A Mysterious Death on Route Irish, Baghdad, 2005

Since the Newsweek archives are still inaccessible or lost, I will continue to post some of the pieces I have on my hard drive, just for the record. These two deal with a tragic event -- actually, several tragic events -- on the airport road in Baghdad in 2005.

Reality Checkpoints
Why did U.S. Soldiers shoot at the car carrying Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena? Here’s the most likely scenario.

By Christopher Dickey
11 March 2005, Newsweek Online

            “I was terrified by checkpoints,” remembers Giandomenico Picco, who was the United Nations’ key hostage negotiator in Lebanon when so many Americans, Britons and Frenchmen were abducted there in the 1980s by factions of Hizbullah. In order to talk to the hostage takers, Picco would allow himself to be blindfolded and driven through back streets, following circuitous routes over uncertain political terrain in a land divided among feuding militias and occupied here and there by soldiers sent from Damascus. “There were Syrian checkpoints, there were god-knows-who checkpoints,” says Picco, pausing at the recollection. “Yes, I was afraid. Things can go wrong. Things do go wrong.”
            That’s what happened with Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena at an American checkpoint in Iraq last Friday night. She had been held for a month by a little known group of insurgents. She had pleaded pitifully for her life on videotape. After delicate negotiations and, according to the Italian press, a payment of several million dollars, the kidnappers finally released her. But on the road to Baghdad airport, U.S. troops opened fire on her car. Sgrena was wounded and the Italian intelligence officer who had negotiated her freedom, Nicola Calipari, was killed. Yes, things could go wrong, and they did.
            A lot of passionate and ill-founded accusations have been made since then, including some by Sgrena. Is it possible the Americans meant to shoot at her? Could they have wanted to teach a lesson to the Italians for paying ransom? If you’re conspiracy minded, you could dine out on that tale for a long time. But here’s the most likely scenario, based on what we know so far:
            Baghdad airport is right on the edge of town. The road there is short (roughly the same as from the White House to Reagan National). But it’s just about the most dangerous highway in the country. The American troops who patrol it come under fire all the time, and anyone who drives it risks attack by snipers, roadside explosives, and occasional suicide bombers. Last Friday night, the American soldiers on patrol had reason to be even more alert than usual. Somebody special was going to be using the road: U.S. ambassador and intelligence-czar-designate John D. Negroponte. That’s why the American soldiers on the road threw up a checkpoint where the highway is usually open, an embassy official in Baghdad tells me. They were ready to stop any suicide driver who might target the ambassador’s convoy.
            Calipari, Sgrena, and another Italian agent who was driving the little Toyota, knew nothing about Negroponte’s travel plans. But they had spent enough time in Iraq to know they were only a few hundred yards from the concrete barriers at Checkpoint 1, normally the first place you stop. After you’ve come through the hairiest stretch of that airport highway, Checkpoint 1 feels like home free, the first moment of real safety. They might even have accelerated to get there a little more quickly.
            Although Calipari had made calls to Italian officials to let them know he was on his way with Sgrena, it’s doubtful word had reached the roving American patrol that had staked out the airport highway on a stretch that’s usually unguarded. So, as the soldiers saw the Toyota coming at them, how much of a warning did they give?  How fast was the car traveling? Did the Americans there make hand signals, flash lights, and fire warning shots in a reasonable sequence before they opened up on the car – or did everything happen pretty much at once? Investigators will be looking into those questions for months to come. But on that road at 8:30 at night, when you have an unexpected car and an unexpected checkpoint, it’s a good bet somebody’s going to die. Things can go wrong, and will.
            Picco and I were talking this morning in the corridors of a summit conference on “Democracy, Terrorism and Security” convened in Madrid to mark the first anniversary of the terrible train bombings that took 191 lives last year. There are a lot of smart people here with good ideas about how to address  terrorist threats, both global and local. But Picco’s experience is especially valuable right now, because his particular contacts were with Hizbullah at the height of its terrorist rampage.
            Yesterday this “Party of God” showed its full strength as a political organization in the streets of Beirut. It turned out hundreds of thousands of supporters – by some estimates a million. The entire population of Lebanon is only about 4 milllion. Defying President Bush, who’s insisting that Syria beat a long overdue retreat from Lebanon, one message of the multitude was adamantly pro-Damascus, but that was not all. Hizbullah is still looking to define itself as the premier political party in the country.
            The speech by leader Hassan Nasrallah was not terroristic, it was essentially nationalistic, although there are a lot of gray areas between this group’s violent means and its political goals. “I was reminded of the language that the rank and file and Nasrallah himself would use when I met with them over the years,” said Picco, “this emphasis on their Lebanese character was always present. When I say rank and file, I mean even my ‘handlers’ in the car when I was blindfolded.”
            Hizbullah has come a long way since then, and in this new era of democratic euphoria sweeping the Middle East, yesterday’s demos pose a special problem for American policy. Hizbullah may be a terrorist group. It may be the last gun-toting militia in Lebanon, targeted for disarmament by the same U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 that demands Syrian withdrawal. But it’s now obvious that Hizbullah actually has achieved its goal to become Lebanon’s biggest and best organized political party. If there are free and fair elections in May, which is what Washington says it wants, what happens if Hizbullah wins?
            It’s tempting to see Lebanon’s polls as a checkpoint on the big political map. You’re expecting to see one thing, then you see another. Things can go wrong. Things do go wrong.

Body Counts
The Pentagon secretly keeps track of many grim statistic in Iraq, and the numbers are not encouraging.           

By Christopher Dickey
12 May 2005, Newsweek Online

The morning news from Iraq today brought fresh chronicles of slaughter. Yes, even more than usual. American troops are waging an offensive they call Operation Matador in a remote stretch of desert near the Syrian border, while suicide bombs are going off in Iraq’s towns and cities, including the capital. Who’s winning? Who’s losing? Who knows?
The military and political future of Iraq remains so uncertain that the Pentagon in recent months has gone back to the Vietnam-era practice of citing body counts as measures of success.  We’re told, for instance, that “as many as 100” insurgent fighters have been killed by the Matador forces. But of course that’s just a guesstimate, while the toll on the Americans and their Iraqi allies is all too concrete. Today alone, the insurgents managed to kill more than 60 would-be Iraqi military recruits and civilian bystanders in urban Iraq. The Americans are drawing lines in the sand, it would seem, while Tikrit and Baghdad are bathed in blood. Meanwhile, the total number of American dead in this war is now more than 1,600. And the Iraqi civilians killed by U.S. troops? Well, we’ll get back to that.
If there’s good news, it’s that while the Pentagon may obscure this grim reality in public presentations, it doesn’t seem to be kidding itself, as it did in Vietnam.  An accidentally declassified Pentagon report about a killing on the road to Baghdad Airport at the beginning of March shows quite clearly how much worse the overall situation is than the Bush administration would like us, or even its allies in the Coalition Forces, to believe.
“The U.S. considers all of Iraq a combat zone,” says the report, which was wrapped up at the end of April, three months after the elections that were supposed to have turned the tide in this conflict. “From July 2004 to late March 2005,” says the document, “there were 15,527 attacks against Coalition Forces throughout Iraq.” Then comes one of several paragraphs marked S//NF (secret, not for foreign distribution): “From 1 November 2004 to 12 March 2005 there were 3306 attacks in the Baghdad area. Of these, 2400 were directed against Coalition Forces.” In a span of four and a half months, which included the election turning point, that’s not only a hell of a lot of hits in the capital city, it’s just pure hell.
The report in question was prepared at the direction of the Multi-National Corps commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, to answer questions about a now-infamous incident on the night of March 4. Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena had just been released by the hostage-takers who’d held her for a month, and she was on her way to Baghdad airport with Nicola Calipari, a  major-general in the Italian intelligence service who had negotiated her freedom. At a U.S. roadblock on an access ramp leading to the airport highway, U.S. troops opened fire, wounding Sgrena and killing Calipari.
The sequence of events outlined in the report, which recommends “no disciplinary action be taken against any soldier involved in the incident,” was generally the way you might have figured at the time. “On that road at 8:30 at night,” as I wrote then, “when you have an unexpected car and an unexpected checkpoint, it’s a good bet somebody’s going to die.” The situation was made all the worse because the guys at the roadblock had only expected to be there about 15 or 20 minutes. Their mission was to close the road so John D. Negroponte, then the ambassador and now the U.S. intelligence supremo, could be driven more safely to an appointment near the airport. But the weather was so miserable, his staff couldn’t decide whether he’d be able to return to Baghdad in a chopper or go back in a car. While they dithered, tension mounted out on the rain-swept highway. The troops had been in position an hour when the Italians’ car came sweeping around the on-ramp.
Sgrena, and many others who are automatically suspicious of U.S. actions and motivations, continues to believe there may have been some sort of conspiracy or cover-up involved. Meanwhile the Italian government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi certainly doesn’t want to have to admit that the shroud of secrecy surrounding the hostage negotiations – perhaps because a ransom was involved – put Calipari and Sgrena at such risk. According to the American report, an Army captain assigned as an aide-de-camp to the ranking Italian general in Iraq was the only American official who had any idea what Calipari was up to as he went off to meet with the kidnappers and free Sgrena. “It is best if no one knows,” the Italian general told the American captain. Certainly no one at the roadblock knew, the report says, and the rest is history.
After long delays, the American report was posted on the Web at the end of April with classified sections blacked out. But those sections could be restored, as it happened, with just a couple of mouse clicks that revealed all the S//NF material, including the names of every soldier at the checkpoint and the second Italian secret agent driving the car.
Under the heading “Atmospherics,” the author lays out the reasons the soldiers at the checkpoint were getting so jumpy – even though they acted according to the rules of engagement and within regulations. Everyone knows the 12-kilometer road from downtown Baghdad to the airport is dangerous. Here’s how dangerous: “(S//NF) Between 1 November 2004 and 12 March 2005, there were 135 attacks or hostile incidents that occurred along Route Irish,” as the military calls the airport highway. That’s about one attack per day during those months, by the Pentagon’s calculations, or, looking at it another way, 11.25 attacks per mile. There were nine “complex attacks” combining, say, the explosion of a roadside bomb along with small arms fire and mortars; there were 19 explosive devices found, three hand grenades, seven “indirect fire attacks” 19 roadside explosions, 14 rocket propelled grenades, 15 car bombs, and four other kinds of attacks. Investigators into the March 4 shooting had a grenade thrown at them when they tried to visit the scene. (Sgrena has suggested in some interviews that she was on a special road for VIPs when she was shot. In fact there’s only one highway to the airport, and this, sad to say, is it.)
Suicide bombs are the biggest threat. “The enemy is very skillful at inconspicuously packing large amounts of explosives into a vehicle,” says the report. “When moving, these [car bombs] are practically impossible to identify until it is too late.” The number of suicide attacks has been increasing steadily, including some using “multiple vehicles.” “Suicide [car bombs] are typically used against convoys, Coalition Force patrols, or Coalition checkpoints where they can achieve maximum damage,” says the report. “Such vehicles will rapidly approach the vehicle from the rear and attempt to get in between convoy vehicles before detonating.” The week of the March 4 shooting, 17 suicide bombs had gone off in Iraq, averaging 23 people killed per detonation. That average will be higher now.
As I write this, I can’t help but think about my friend Marla Ruzicka , who was killed on the airport road on April 16 while trying to pass a convoy, reportedly at just the moment when a suicide bomber struck. Because Marla’s passion was for helping people who’d suffered from the war, and because she had to deal with the military frequently to do that, she was sure that the same officials who kept such detailed numbers about everything else in the Iraq conflict had to be keeping a record somewhere of the civilians they killed and wounded. They always maintained they did not. But just before she died, Marla wrote a report with a partial number she said she’d received from U.S. military sources: 29 civilians killed by small-arms fire in Baghdad alone during firefights between U.S. troops and insurgents over the course of five weeks before April 5. Estimates of the total number of Iraqi civilian casualties in this war, calculated by reporters and human rights groups, have ranged from about 10,000 to the much-less-plausible 100,000. Does the Pentagon know? If so, it should tell.
In the meantime, without a doubt, the body counts will continue.

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