Showdown at a Baghdad Checkpoint

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Matthew McDermott / Polaris

Specialist Mario Lozano, 37, of the 69th Infantry, accused of murder in the shooting death of Italian secret service agent Nicola Calipari.

Next week, Specialist Mario Lozano of the New York National Guard will be tried for murder in absentia in Italy. The charge: the killing of Nicola Calipari, an Italian intelligence officer, at a Baghdad checkpoint on March 4, 2005, where Lozano was stationed as a gunner. Calipari had been escorting Giuliana Sgrena, an Italian journalist just freed from kidnappers, taking her to the airport and onward to Italy.

Since the incident, the U.S. and Italy have come up with opposing conclusions: the Americans clearing Lozano of wrongdoing, the Italians finding fault with the way the checkpoint was set up, with the warnings their agents in the car received and disputing American accounts of the car's speed. Sgrena has since written a book about the incident entitled Friendly Fire and alleged that she and the Italians were specifically targeted and that the U.S. investigation was a cover-up, But the story has rarely been told from the perspective of Lozano, the grandson of an Italian immigrant. Now, however, he has decided to talk more openly as the appointed time for his trial approaches.

"We were expecting some congressman, Negroponte, I think," Lozano recalls, referring to then U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, John Negroponte. Lozano says it was raining that night and the wind was too strong for the helicopter to fly Negroponte to his destination, requiring the ambassador to travel by car to a dinner meeting at Camp Victory outside of Baghdad. Route Irish, regarded by many as the most dangerous road in Iraq, was the only way to the base, says Lozano, whose company was ordered to set up a temporary checkpoint to ensure a safe passage for Negroponte's convoy. After the ambassador's party had passed, Lozano and the other soldiers maintained their position with two Humvees, one blocking the road and the other a few meters behind, waiting for the order to go back to base.

It was at that point, Lozano says, that he saw the headlights of a Toyota Corolla coming through the mist. Lozano says he immediately turned on his extremely high wattage flashlight and aimed it at the driver signaling him to stop. He says a soldier in the other Humvee also flashed a green laser pointer at the driver. But, according to Lozano, the car did not reduce its speed. Lozano says his spotlight signal had proven effective in either stopping or turning around all other vehicles that night. When the vehicle passed the warning line and did not stop, Lozano says the soldiers at the checkpoint interpreted this as a hostile act by an unknown intruder. "Hey, this vehicle is coming too fast," Lozano recalls one of the soldiers saying.

Vehicles, says Lozano, are required to immediately reduce speed at 100 meters from the checkpoint. On that night, however, when the driver reached the 80-meter mark and maintained the same speed, Lozano says he knew the driver wasn't going to stop. "It actually looked like he was speeding up a little. We all thought the same thing. We were all on the same page as to what had to be done," says Lozano. "Everyone knows, including the Iraqis, that when they see that spotlight, they stop, especially on Route Irish. They slam on the brakes immediately and you can hear the tires screeching and everything." He says that Iraqi car drivers have become so reactive to the warning signs that they have collided into each other in the past when the car in front suddenly stops.

Lozano says he and his men followed the standard rules of engagement established by the military. He put down the flashlight, took hold of his mounted M-240 machine gun and commenced the warning shots. He says he fired first into the grassy area on the other side of the road, straight across the driver's field of vision, each bullet followed by a bright red tracer round so that they could be heard and also seen in the dark. When the car did not slow down, Lozano says he fired at the ground in front of it, then into the tires, then the engine block until the vehicle came to a halt ten meters away from where the Humvees were parked.

"We were thinking, 'this car is a bomb.'" Lozano says. Only two nights before, a couple of servicemen had been killed by an improvised explosive device on the same road. Lozano added, "If the car had blown up at that close range, it would have killed us all." The soldiers, he says, cautiously approached the vehicle, guns ready.

At that point, he says, Andrea Carpani, the driver of the car, jumped out with his hands raised high, "We're Italians! We're Italians!" he cried. The soldiers retracted their weapons and heard a woman's voice inside. It was Sgrena. When the medic opened the back door, Nicola Calipari was lying unconscious on the seat next to her. "For Calipari, it was too late," Lozano says, adding that attempts to resuscitate him failed.

Lozano says he went around to the other side of the car, opened the door and saw that Sgrena had been shot in the left shoulder. He says he picked her up and laid her down on the wet ground whereupon the medic tore her shirt open to find the wound and dress it. After a blanket was then wrapped around her, he says, "I picked her up and put her in the back of my Humvee to take her to the 'cash' [Combat Support Hospital]." Speeding down the road, radio calls were put out to indicate that Lozano was approaching the next checkpoint. Sgrena, he says, would have heard the voices from the backseat. "The call sign was 'Assassin 26.' Maybe she thought we were really assassins? She seemed pretty scared." By then Lozano said he realized that Sgrena had just been released after a month in captivity and that the intelligence officers, Carpani and Calipari, had just secured her liberation and were escorting her to the Baghdad airport where an Italian C-130 transport plane was waiting to take her back to Italy.

According to Lozano, Carpani the driver told one of the soldiers at the scene that, as they approached the checkpoint, he had rolled down the window and was frantically waving his cell phone in his hand as a signal that he was coming through. However, says Lozano, even if the soldiers had seen the waving arm and cell phone through the blinding headlights, they could not have known that the driver was friendly. Cell phones, he says, are often used as detonating devices for car bombs; the driver's signal would have been perceived as a threat. He says that cell phones were immediately confiscated from stopped cars for this reason. After she returned to Italy, Sgrena told the press that she was not allowed to use her cell phone, which she claims was evidence that the military tried to cover up the fact that they attempted to kill her.

When he learned the full extent of the incident, Lozano says he raced to call his daughters before they saw the evening news. "I wanted them to hear it from me first," says Lozano. "All I think about is my kids, you know?" he says. "They are number one. My soldiers are number one too. I had to protect them. I don't know what I would do if I let something bad happen to any of them." The U.S. is not extraditing Lozano to the trial in Italy but, unless he is acquitted, he will never be able to travel anywhere in the European Union nor to any country with an extradition treaty with Italy. The American military says Lozano is not to blame for the death of Calipari but it has no plans to send an American lawyer to defend him in Rome.