Dateline (AUS): "In all regards, we regard ourselves on our own."
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MARK DAVIS: It has been a tough week in Iraq, with bombings and street fighting sweeping central Baghdad. Against this backdrop came reports of Australians being kidnapped. There’s still no confirmation of claims that two Australians have been taken hostage. But if they have, God help them, because in the middle of an election campaign, both Mr Howard and Mr Latham are resolute that there’ll be no negotiations with the kidnappers. I spoke earlier with Time Magazine’s Michael Ware from Baghdad about this crisis and the 100 other kidnappings of foreigners that have occurred in recent months.
Michael Ware, thanks for joining us. I imagine by now every known Australian in Iraq has been contacted. Is there still a chance that two are missing?
MICHAEL WARE, TIME MAGAZINE CORRESPONDENT: It's - it would be entirely possible, I would imagine. The registration list for nationals of any country in Iraq can't be considered 100% reliable. I know, as of yesterday morning, there was still confusion about finally checking all of those in Iraq, when I knew I hadn't been checked at that point. Since then, yes, I have been contacted and I've confirmed my safety. I imagine that's happening with others. There's just no accounting for who could be working for which company unregistered with the embassy.
MARK DAVIS: Well, I guess we can't speculate whether there are Australians that have been taken hostage. But in your meetings and discussions with militants in the recent past, are Australians seen as a sought-after target?
MICHAEL WARE: Well, any foreign national, whatever their reason for being in Iraq, is a target of some value. It's a fact that we were such, you know, flag-bearers for the coalition, particularly in the early days. We are so closely associated with the Americans that we would be a prized catch. Indeed, yesterday I was with an Iraqi nationalist guerilla group and they went to pains to remind me that Australian interests were legitimate targets because of our close association with the Americans.
MARK DAVIS: There are reports that Australia has sent an SAS team to Iraq. Have any of these situations, these hostage situations, been resolved by force to date?
MICHAEL WARE: There was one incident where some foreign nationals were said to have been released by a US Special Forces raid. However, that claim is shrouded in mystery. But it would be extraordinarily unusual for anyone to seek to use military solution to a hostage crisis. Put it this way, Mark - it's extremely rare that we would even know where they are.
MARK DAVIS: You must have seen probably a hundred of these situations since you've been in Baghdad. How are they normally resolved?
MICHAEL WARE: Well, through protracted negotiation. Obviously, it depends on the nature of the group who is holding a particular hostage. It can be anyone from organised crime or criminal gangs who are looking for, you know, kidnap for profit. It can occasionally be nationalist guerilla groups, who are doing it to fund their ongoing operations.
MARK DAVIS: How do the negotiations actually happen - I mean who comes in, who makes the contact, where do the meetings happen, how are the messages conveyed? It's an insight you might have that we haven't heard before.
MICHAEL WARE: The methods of contact do vary. But by and large the most common method is that be it an Iraqi family, trying to locate a family member who's been kidnapped, or international representatives of companies or embassies, it's a matter of putting out the word. Principally, that's done through a number of clerical or religious organisations, peak organisations which represent Islamic clerics, particularly conservative Sunni clerics. More often than not they're a conduit - that if you approach them, they're able to contact their networks of imams and mosques, and invariably, word trickles back and a line of communication opens. That more often than not is the channel that is forged.
MARK DAVIS: If kidnapping has become a business proposition in Iraq as well as a political tool, is there a chance if there are Australians that have been captured, that they're being held and perhaps sold up the food chain, if you like, to another group who could use them?
MICHAEL WARE: That's very likely. In many instances, the people who actually grab the hostages are not the people at the end of the day who are negotiating their release or who finalise their release. Often it will be a criminal gang or it will be an ad hoc situation where low-level militia men, acting on an opportunity, seize an individual. They're then farmed up the chain, be it through a chain of command, if they're in a tightly controlled militant group, or they're sold on to the highest bidder. Now, if that individual's company is the highest bidder or if an al-Qa'ida-aligned group, then that's the way it goes.
MARK DAVIS: It might be one of the reasons why we haven't heard anything as yet - those negotiations still may be going on internally.
MICHAEL WARE: Very much so. But it's not unusual, given it's only, what, 48 hours or so that has elapsed since these fellows were allegedly kidnapped that we haven't heard anything more from the kidnappers. Proof of life in Iraq is generally via videos that are released. It's not unusual for that to take days, occasionally even weeks.
MARK DAVIS: OK. Well, the Australian Government is saying very clearly that it won't negotiate in this particular instance, or any other. Now, if they mean what they say, then presumably if you are an Australian that gets captured in Iraq, you are as good as dead?
MICHAEL WARE: Well, certainly in all regards, we consider ourselves on our own, so we have to take care of ourselves, including in the hostage situation. However, it does not preclude the possibility that, whilst the Australian Government will not negotiate, an employer will more often than not negotiate. Embassies may facilitate that. But certainly embassies themselves do not hand over the cash, it does not come from state coffers - that generally comes from the company that employs the individual hostages.
MARK DAVIS: So who would you want handling your release if you were captured?
MICHAEL WARE: Heaven forbid that the possibility should ever arise, Mark, but I guess that would be my Iraqi friends and contacts themselves. They would best know how to communicate, what kind of a dialogue to open and I would like to think they would have the best chance of understanding exactly what it is the hostage takers are after and find some way to either accommodate that or hopefully to persuade them to secure my release.
MARK DAVIS: Just lastly, Michael, we are becoming, it seems, a little numb to bombings in Iraq, but this week seems to have taken a different turn with attacks happening in central Baghdad. You have to wonder about the prospects of moving towards an election, I imagine, as scheduled.
MICHAEL WARE: I think that's a very shaky notion of trying to blunder on, as you could put it, to an election in January next year. There are entire swathes of this country, as much as a third of the territorial domain of Iraq, which is beyond US coalition or Iraqi Government control. That's enormous parts of the country. How can you have an election in an area like that?
MARK DAVIS: OK, well, thanks again for joining us, Michael.
MICHAEL WARE: My pleasure, Mark.