Pressure mounts for Italy PM over dead 'hero'

Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, faces renewed tension after an investigation into the death of a secret service agent in Iraq proves inconclusive…

On the day Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was to address parliament on his new government programme in an effort to revive his increasingly disgruntled coalition, the ghost of his unpopular alliance with the US in the war on Iraq came back to haunt him.
Reports started circulating on 26 April that a joint US-Italian commission of inquiry looking into the tragic death of military secret service agent Nicola Calipari, had failed to reach an agreement.

Calipari was shot dead by US troops at a makeshift checkpoint near the Baghdad airport while escorting kidnapped journalist Giuliana Sgrena to safety after securing her release.

Sgrena and a second agent who was at the wheel of the car, have always insisted their Toyota Corolla was proceeding slowly, and US soldiers did not give any warning before firing several rounds of ammunition.

But the US military claim the car was speeding and the soldiers used hand signals and flashed white lights, giving warning shots before the attack took place.

Calipari’s death is a real thorn in Berlusconi’s side.

His unnecessary sacrifice was one too many even for those few Italians, fewer than one in four, who did not oppose Berlusconi’s decision to deploy troops to Iraq for reconstruction purposes after the fighting was over.

The news of the alleged US whitewash has dealt the media magnate yet another nasty blow at a time when he is struggling to win back the growing number of voters who are turning away from him.

Only a few weeks ago, his coalition suffered a heavy defeat in local elections, loosing in 11 of 13 regions.

While many think the recent vote reflects people’s concerns over the country’s sluggish economy and fast-rising costs of living, the controversy over the war is far from forgotten.

On 26 April Berlusconi announced that the inquiry into Calipari’s death was still continuing, contrary to what the media had just alleged.

"The government will only talk at the appropriate time, once the investigation is over," he said.

"The committee was formed to find out the truth, to give justice to the hero Calipari, to whom we bow. Our representatives are working well.”

But Italy’s public broadcaster, Rai 3, was quick to draw a parallel between the Calipari affair and another controversial incident involving the US military.

In 1998, a US jet sliced a wire of a cable car, killing 20 people in the Italian Alps.

The pilot was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter by a US military tribunal in 1999, despite claims by a number of locals that US jets were often flying too low, and even passing under cable cars in some sort of dangerous game.

Strengthening the alliance with US President George Bush has been a key element of Berlusconi’s foreign policy.

Along with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, he is Bush’s staunchest ally in Europe – and rarely misses an opportunity to underscore Italy’s loyalty to, and friendly relationship with, its transatlantic partner.

Berlusconi, like Blair in his current election campaign, is trying to focus on domestic issues.

He hopes the key points of his programme will strike a chord with the electorate: developing the country’s poorer South, granting incentives to families and trying to boost the country’s economy.

It remains to be seen whether Italians are ready to turn a page on a conflict that, judging by the unrelenting flow of bad news from Iraq, has not yet managed to bring peace and prosperity to the war-ravaged country.