Facing Hostage Crisis, Australia Won't Budge

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Australia is the latest U.S. ally in Iraq to face the possibility of watching a hostage die or giving in to the demands of terrorists who want foreign forces to leave the country.

Canberra has sent an emergency response team to Iraq to coordinate efforts to locate a captured citizen, 63-year-old engineer Douglas Wood, and that team may seek the help of Sunni clerics or tribal leaders.

But the government, facing its first serious Iraq hostage crisis, made it clear it would neither pay ransom nor allow terrorists to force policy changes.

"We'll be doing everything we can with two exceptions," Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told reporters at the U.N. late Monday.

"We are not sub-contracting our foreign policy to terrorists, and we're certainly not going to have the money of Australian taxpayers expropriated by terrorists."

Downer said any payment to hostage-takers in Iraq would merely encourage more kidnappings in the future.

Almost 200 foreigners have been kidnapped since the end of the U.S.-led war, supported militarily by Britain and Australia, to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

More than 30 have been killed, including some whose murders have been filmed in clips released to media or posted on the Internet. Among those released, some are known or suspected to have been exchanged for ransoms, although governments have generally denied reports of payments.

Wood, who lives in California, is married to an American, and was working on construction projects in Iraq, appeared in a video clip aired on Arabic television channels on Sunday, pleading for his life.

He begged Australia, as well as the U.S. and Britain, to withdraw their armed forces from Iraq.

"I don't want to die," a disheveled and evidently distraught Wood said in the clip, which showed him flanked by two masked gunmen.

The group holding him calls itself the Shura Council of the Mujahideen, and is thought to be based in the Fallujah area. Last September it set free a Turkish hostage after announcing that "he has converted to Islam and has repented for working with the infidel American occupation forces."

Australia has just increased its troop deployment in Iraq by 450 troops, bringing the total to 1,370.

The additional personnel are to provide force protection for Japanese military engineers in the southern Al Muthanna province: Japan's pacifist constitution bars its troops from using force. Dutch forces had been providing them with the necessary protection but were withdrawn, and Australia's agreement to fill the gap kept Japan in the coalition.

Wood is the first Australian threatened with death by terrorists who have tried to use kidnappings as a lever to force coalition governments to withdraw. (An Australian journalist was kidnapped last October, but freed after 24 hours.)

Wood's plight is a test for Prime Minister John Howard's government, which has been critical of other countries' decisions to pull out their troops under threats from terrorists.

"It has been my great dread for a long, long time that an Australian would be taken hostage," Howard said after the video clip was broadcast.

"I feel total responsibility for any harm that comes to anybody as a result of the decisions that the government has taken. It doesn't mean that I step back from those decisions."

The government would do everything it could to help Wood, Howard said, but "we won't alter position - we can't have the foreign policy of this country dictated by terrorists."

Government backed

When the Philippines withdrew soldiers from Iraq in mid-2004 after one of its citizens was kidnapped, Australia was critical, warning that capitulation would lead only to more hostage-taking.

Four months after Filipino hostage Angelo de la Cruz was freed in exchange for the troop pullout, another Filipino was kidnapped. His whereabouts and fate remain unknown.

The Philippines government made its controversial decision, buoyed by strong domestic sentiment in favor of a withdrawal. The seizing of hostages from other countries also has added to pressure on their governments to leave the coalition.

In Australia, so far, it appears the government will be supported in its stance.

The official opposition Labor Party, which opposed the war and Australian involvement in it, has chosen not to use the incident to attack the government.

Labor leader Kim Beazley told Australian radio Tuesday that this was not the time for further debate on the Iraq issue.

"We are as one with the government on this point, and that is you don't shift policy on the basis of a terrorist act against you," he said. "Now is the moment for us to focus on what needs to be done to secure this man's release without compromising essential Australian national interest."

Howard's position also won some support from editorial writers Tuesday.

"We must not allow our sympathy and concern for a fellow Australian in dire need to compromise our logic or our resolve to complete the work we have started in Iraq," said The Australian, a national daily.

"Paying for Mr. Wood's life - or, worse, withdrawing some or all of our troops in exchange for it - would set back the whole delicate process of bringing security and democracy to Iraq."

The Advertiser, a paper in South Australia, said Howard was right to say Australia could not afford to show weakness.

"The insurgents must be stared down," it said. "To blink in the face of terrorism is to demonstrate frailty in the international campaign to ensure the installation of a democratic administration in Iraq."

See earlier story:
Philippines, Australia Wrangle over Iraq Troop Pullout (Jul. 29, 2004)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow