Thursday, September 16, 2004


Australian kidnapping update

There's still no confirmation that two Australian hostages were actually taken this past Monday, and the Australian government says it has accounted for all 225 citizens that it "knows" are in Iraq.

But lest anyone breathe a sigh of relief, there are some features to this story that I think you should consider.

In the midst of the Australian government's accounting for its citizens comes this strange story:

Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer [Australia's Colin Powell] says he was not aware until yesterday that a Sydney-based Muslim cleric had been kidnapped in Iraq.

One of Sydney's leading Shi'ite clerics, Sheik Mohamed Alsibiyani, also known as Mohamed Naji, was taken hostage by a gang of Sunni insurgents last week and was released on Sunday.

The 60-year-old Sheik was reportedly driving in an area south of Baghdad when a gang stopped his car, beat him and other passengers and kidnapped them.

The Daily Telegraph newspaper said the gang demanded $140,000 and kept Sheik Naji captive for three days before bundling him into the boot of a car, driving him to the town of Mahmoudeya, giving him $2 and freeing him without receiving the ransom because he is a cleric. [emphasis added]

The Australian government says it learned of the kidnapping only after an Iraqi-Australian community leader reported it to the Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC). The Boston Globe carries an AP story stating that the family of the cleric paid a $25,000 (US) ransom and that

a number of Iraqi-Australians had been kidnapped in the past and then freed after a ransom was paid.

This is an ongoing, repeated activity, and the Australian government doesn't know about it? A "leading Shi'ite cleric" is kidnapped, and it doesn't know about it? I don't think so. What I think is that the government wants neither its own citizens nor the insurgents in Iraq to know that there is a successful kidnapping-ransom cycle going on.

Now in addition to the "negotiations" team that I mentioned yesterday, the Aussies have sent a special forces team, according to The Age.

The special unit - which could include elite SAS [Special Air Services] troops - flew out from Perth on a Hercules transport plane.

The unit is in addition to an Australian Federal Police team of hostage negotiators that is standing by in Jordan to help if the kidnap claim is confirmed.

Despite Australian assertions, it is not believable that they're sending a special forces team if they truly believe this is a hoax.

Let's go back to the original statement by the Islamic Secret Army, as reported by the Guardian:

One of our brave brigades ambushed civilian cars belonging to the American army on the motorway from Baghdad to Mosul," the statement said. "It took four prisoners, two Australians and two east Asian nationals who were working as security contractors for important people.

Some points:

And some questions:

This is a political hot-potato for Prime Minister John Howard, with an election only 3 weeks away. But it is also potentially bad news for George Bush.

If Howard loses the election on October 9, it will be one more government that Bush's war has brought down. And the intention of Howard's opponent Mark Latham to bring home the troops by Christmas will suddenly be front-page news.

George Bush's "coalition" has been steadily withdrawing. And the British and Australians have been the mainstay of any claim that the occupation of Iraq is an international effort.

If the Australians withdraw, there will be only the British. And Tony Blair suddenly discovered this week that the environment is a pressing priority at about the same time that Colin Powell discovered that genocide was going on in Sudan.

The American media, of course, are giving this almost no coverage, and even the Left seems largely unaware of the implications of the story.

But the Right hasn't missed it. And their spinners are hard at work. Here's Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute being interviewed on nationwide Australian radio this past Tuesday morning:

This group, they would lose credibility if they make a threat which they're not in a position to follow through on. That said, unfortunately I think Australia's in this position today largely because the Philippine Government and the Spanish Government previously caved in to such blackmail.

Most certainly the Australian election is relevant to this issue. The insurgents tend to be remarkably politically sophisticated. Remember that those home networks, I wouldn't be surprised if people in Australia were emailing some of the insurgents, basically describing the Australian political situation and try to determine how to best affect it.

As I noted in a previous post, John Howard and the international right are going to continue to cast the blame on the Spanish and the Filipinos for withdrawing from Iraq. But note the insinuation ("I wouldn't be surprised") that there are fellow-travelers in Australia trying to undermine Howard's chances for re-election through direct contact with the insurgents. These people are appalling.

And now I will tell you what I believe is the sad but likely outcome of all this. The Australian government will state that it is unable to "confirm" that any of its nationals are missing in Iraq. And in a week or two some bodies of "Westerners" will be discovered in the Sunni area. I doubt they will ever be identified.

Follow-up posts:
Australian kidnapping update II
Australian kidnapping update III: The body in the Tigris

Previous posts:
Two hostages and an election
Deadline has passed for Australian hostages
Howard blames the Filipinos and Spanish for Australian hostage crisis

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