12 March, 2005
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi delivered a brief speech to the Italian Senate on the kidnapping of Giuliana Sgrena and the shooting which occasioned her release. It was the first public pronouncement the Italian leader made since the attack by American soldiers which left a high-ranking Italian intelligence officer dead and two others wounded. His remarks were long on outrage and regret and short on much anticipated specifics. He did address some of the rumors which surround the incident dismissing the worst and assuring the people of Italy that the joint Italian/American investigation would be exhaustive and its findings would "clear everything up." Berlusconi did however drop one bomb: No ransom was paid for the release of Giuliana Sgrena.
In doing so Berlusconi cast himself in the heroic light of pugnacious defiance of the bloodthirsty, terrorist kidnappers and their unsavory demands. Images of early Soviet paintings and sculptures of Lenin came to mind as I listened to the Prime Minister laud his own efforts in the nationally broadcast speech. However, the revelation of this fact came only after the "leaking" of contradictory information and the publishing of startling accusations made on an unauthenticated video tape purportedly from Sgrena's kidnappers.
After a month of intense negotiations with the kidnappers by National Security Agent Nicola Calipari, slain in the attack, the Italian government announced that it had reached an agreement with the insurgents and had secured Sgrena's release. At this point a video of Giuliana Sgrena prepared the night before her hand-over was made by the kidnappers. In it she is seated at a table and standing behind her are hooded insurgents who read their statement announcing her release. Sgrena makes a statement saying that she has been treated well and thanks her well-wishers back home for their support. She then promises her loved-ones big hugs when she returned home.
Contemporaneously, a figure of $1,000,000 is leaked to the press as the ransom ammount. The number circulates for a day or two before Sgrena's release with not a word of protest coming from Berlusconi's government. The figure and its payment are debated around Italy with most Italians being supportive of the move because it secured the release of a beloved journalist and, undoubtedly, because it was seen as an act of defiance against American interests in this war which has never been popular with rank and file Italians.
Then comes the disputed events surrounding the shooting of Giuliana Sgrena and her co-passengers as they were on their way to the airport in Baghdad. The American and Italian governments and their loyal servants and their respective national media are currently trying to reconcile the conflicting accounts of the participants, such is the specious nature of the discussion today, but the truth of what happened there is not relevant to this discussion. It is what happened immediately thereafter which provides background to Berlusconi's uncharacteristically frank admission and his desire to recast the journalist's release in a different light.
As reported by the Roman daily, La Repubblica
sca/viderisca.html), a second video emerged after the shooting. It was sent to the paper and it purports to be from the kidnappers and is a second part to the video made with Giuliana Sgrena the night before her release. However, in this video the kidnappers make some stunning accusations which stand the conventional understanding of the war in Iraq and the nature of the insurgency on its head.
The kidnappers, if indeed this video is from them, claim that they never wanted a ransom. They knew of a CIA plot to kill Giuliana Sgrena and they took her into their protective custody to prevent her murder. They say they support the activities of all journalists be they Muslim or not. They imply but do not say that the attack on Giuliana Sgrena by American soldiers was premeditated.
They weren't done. They claim that they, the Islamic Resistence of Iraq, are not guilty of attacks on innocent Muslims and cite a passage from the Quran which prohibits such things in addition to the killing of women and children. Then came the most startling assertion: They accuse the US of deceiving the world as to the nature of the insurgency in Iraq and the kidnappers angrily charge that there is an "army of occupation in Iraq under the name of Al Zarqawi" and that it was sent there to destroy the Resistence by causing a fratricidal war among them. They did not actually say, but certainly left open the idea, that Al Zarqawi was Washington's man.
La Repubblica's report left many in Italy bewildered. The idea the the US was hostile to Sgrena came as no shock but the rest seemed so counterintuitive. Was the video from the kidnappers and if so could their claims possibly be true? Or were the insurgents trying to exculpate themselves in the eyes of the world's Muslims from all the horrible violence by blaming their enemy? If it was true why go public with this now? The timing seems suspicious. Italian Muslims quickly verified the Quranic passage cited by the insugents but the Quran is hardly a secret document, what does the accuracy of the reference prove? And if the video wasn't produced by the Kidnappers, who did make it? And why aren't the kidnappers refuting it?
The video was shown in hospital to the convalescing journalist and she was quite insistent that the video had been doctored. Viewing the new second part of the video gives the impression that the later comments were made while Sgrena was sitting at the table. Sgrena, who speaks Arabic, said categorically that it did not happen that way. This challenge to its authenticity apparently was enough to keep media outlets worldwide from reporting on its existence and sharply diminished the ammount of chatter it got around the country. People began to speak of it dismissively.
Sgrena did confirm that she was told of the CIA plot to kill her by her captors, true or not. And viewing the tape it is not clear, some have said, that the kidnappers are trying to convince people that the new statements in it were made contemporaneously to the making of the original tape. This latter interpretation goes that the kidnappers may have used the tape because they knew that there was nothing on it which would reveal their identities or location. It had already been vetted, so to speak. It was a safe means of distributing their new message.
In any case, the controversy regarding the mysterious tape was given new life when Berlusconi confirmed that no ransom was in fact paid. The video was released when media, including some in the United Staes, were circulating the then uncontested story of a payment of $1,000,000. The
video makers, whoever they may be, knew that this was not the case.
Does this mean that the video is genuine? Not necessarily, and even if it is from the kidnappers it doesn't mean their other claims are true. They might have meretriciously thrown a fact into the video to lend credibility to what was otherwise a disinformation effort, perhaps a part of their own fratricidal war.
And if it wasn't they who made the tape then who did? It would have to be some person or group fairly high up on the Italian or American Iraq intelligence food chain. What was their motive? The most outlandish theory along these lines is that Berlusconi himself is behind it. Advocates of this intrigue believe if Berlusconi can provide an face-saving excuse to withdraw from Iraq he might just be able to save himself from the fate of Mr Aznar in Spain and win the upcoming election.
Well maybe, but so far he has been supportive of the Americans warning his people not to "fall into anti-americanism." If Berlusconi performs a public seperation ritual from Washington and times the withdrawal of Italian troops for the election then this interpretation may have some merit. Right now it seems a bit much, although I do imagine Signor Berlusconi is tiring of Washington's tough love vis a vis all matters Iraqi.
Does the release of this tape represent a palace revolt in the White House? This administration has no shortage of in-house enemies. And if so does it mean that the accusations are true. Again, not necessarily. The depth of anti-Bush sentiment within the government is high enough that maybe somebody is running a black-op against him.
The tape was handed over by La Repubblica to the Italian government and so far they have not said a word about it. What is certain is that people intimately connected with the Giuliana Sgrena hostage negotiations have produced a video whose content implies that the government of the United
States is behind at least some of the terrorist attacks in Iraq. On the surface it seems too incredible to be true, and may very well not be, but it does explain some things which have thus far appeared anachronistic.
For instance, it has been generally acknowleged that from day one of the invasion the American military has been extremely lax in securing military sites. This is made all the more disturbing when one considers that the stated reason for the war was to find weapons of mass destruction. The US left armories unguarded and allowed the Iraqi army to melt back into the civilian population. It strains credulity to its limits to think that the folly of this passed undetected in Washington. US postwar policy was a recipe for insurgency.
But why? If Bush's intention was, as many have speculated, to establish permanent military bases in the oil rich region then a strong insurgency would justify a continued American presence until such time as the Iraqi situation passed from the public's gaze and the US military could quietly take up permanent residence. Also, the atrocities committed by the insurgents such as the beheadings continue to bolster Bush's idiotic claims about fighting "evil" in his global war on terror. It simply would not do to have an orderly, international law-abiding insurgency which never targeted civilians while the US military went around using DU and other chemical weapons and torturing innocents in prisons like Abu Gharaib. The allegations made by the people behind the video may not be as preposterous as they first appear.
I don't know what to believe but what is undeniably true is that the existence of this tape is the best kept media secret in the world. Even La Repubblica has let the story pass from its pages. Why?