Tuesday, September 14, 2004


Two hostages and an election

Two Australians may have been taken as hostages in Iraq, but confirmation has not been forthcoming. The Guardian has reported on the claims in some detail.
Two Australian security contractors yesterday became the latest foreigners to be kidnapped in Iraq after militants apparently ambushed their convoy on a road outside Baghdad.

In a statement, a group calling itself the Islamic Secret Army said it would execute both men "without a second chance" unless their government pulled its troops out of Iraq within 24 hours.

The group said it had seized the Australians, together with two east Asian nationals, in the town of Samarra, a Sunni militant stronghold effectively in the hands of the insurgents.

The security contractors appear to have been seized while driving from the northern city of Mosul on a road that most foreigners consider too risky to use. "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.

"We tell the infidels of Australia that they have 24 hours to leave Iraq or the two Australians will be killed without a second chance."

The abductions are the latest in a string of recent kidnappings in Iraq which have provoked panic among the few remaining westerners in the country. Most foreigners have left, and the only civilians now in Baghdad are a dwindling band of journalists and diplomats.

Yesterday's kidnappings of the Australians came after a suicide car bombing killed nine people and injured 182 outside the country's embassy in Jakarta last week. [emphasis added]

The reasons for the uncertainty of the claim are twofold: No pictures of the hostages have so far been posted on the internet, and security firms that have been contacted are not missing any Australians. Nevertheless, the Australian government has already dispatched a "logistics" team, whatever that is.

I have followed a number of hostage-takings to date, but I've focussed on those situations in which release of the hostages was contingent upon the withdrawal of a private company from Iraq and have ignored kidnappings that involve demands for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq. In most cases these latter demands have little or no chance of success.

But the Australian kidnapping, true or not, is interesting in that Australia will be having an election on Saturday, October 9—and as the Guardian notes, the kidnapping follows upon the heels of the bombing of the Australian embassy in Indonesia. Given that the two principal Australian candidates for Prime Minister represent almost diametrically opposite views on Australia's involvement in Iraq, this latest kidnapping may indeed influence the withdrawal of foreign troops, though not with the immediacy that the kidnappers are demanding.

Unlike the United States, Australia has a parliamentary system of government similar to the British, but they have an interesting voting mechanism involving voter preferences, which I don't pretend to understand.

John Howard, the current Prime Minister, is of the Conservative1 party, and his challenger, Mark Latham, is from the Labor party. If the Conservatives lose 8 seats, Howard will be unseated.

This election is especially worth watching because of its parallels to the upset election in Spain last March in which the conservative government of Jose Maria Aznar was summarily tossed from office immediately after the Madrid train bombing. Aznar has been described as "Washington's strongest supporter in continental Europe."

Mark Latham, according to the Washington Times, has described George Bush as "the most dangerous and incompetent president the United States had ever had," so it should be no surprise that when Bush was in Australia, the Latham-Bush handshake was somewhat perfunctory. Latham has also vigorously opposed Bush's Orwellian notion of "preemptive warfare." But most significantly, last March Latham promised to withdraw the approximately 850 Australian troops from Iraq by the end of this year.

Howard, on the other hand, is one of Bush's staunchest allies and sent some 2,000 troops to participate in the initial invasion of Iraq.

Aside from parallels to the Spanish election, issues in the Australian election also have parallels with our own—at least insofar as voters view the two candidates and insofar as polls are showing a neck-and-neck election.

Howard, whom we might dub the "Bush surrogate," is viewed as strong on defense, has the advantage of incumbency, favors restrictive immigation policies, and is experiencing some voter doubt as to his credibility after he made a claim in the 2001 election that immigrants were tossing their children overboard in order to compel the Australians to take them. He also signed a free-trade agreement with the U.S. that has caused him some grief with the sugar-growing industry of Queensland. The U.S. insisted on protecting its own sugar growers (they live in Florida, you know), so Howard was seen as caving in to the U.S. during negotiations.

Latham is much younger than Howard and, like Kerry, is frequently portrayed as "untested." Like Kerry, Latham was strongly leading in the polls of only a month ago, but the differences have now evened out. The pundits had expected a bounce for strong-on-security Howard after the embassy bombing, but the latest poll found no improvement for Howard.

Lebovic said Labor also did not appear to have benefitted from the release of its much-awaited tax and family aid policy earlier last week — seen as the centerpiece of Latham's election platform.

"After an interesting week where we had health policies delivered on the Monday, the tax policy by Labor on the Tuesday and then the bombing in Jakarta on the Thursday, we saw absolutely no difference in the two-party preferred vote," he told Sky News.

"People seem to be pretty well locked on to where they're sitting at the moment and things really aren't moving them."

The candidates held a debate Sunday night in which Latham was considered to be the winner. No subsequent poll results have been reported.

If a protracted hostage situation develops, the parity of this race may certainly change in ways that no one cares to predict. I'll be following this through to the election. Check back.

Follow-up posts:
Deadline has passed for Australian hostages
Howard blames the Filipinos and Spanish for Australian hostage crisis
Australian kidnapping update
Australian kidnapping update II
Australian kidnapping update III: The body in the Tigris


1 The name of the party is the "Liberal" party. [back]

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