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.
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
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.”
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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
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
“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
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.