The Six Weeks
Australian hostage Douglas Wood, has been released in Iraq, not through the payment of ransom, but apparently through military action. Here are excerpts from the text of Prime Minister John Howard's speech to Parliament:
Mr Speaker, I am delighted to inform the House that the Australian hostage in Iraq Mr Douglas Wood is safe from his captors. Mr Wood was recovered a short while ago in Baghdad in a military operation that I’m told was conducted by Iraqi forces, in cooperation in a general way with force elements of the United States. He’s now under the protection of the Australian Emergency Response Team in Baghdad. I understand that he is well. He’s undergoing medical checks at the present time. I know that all Australians will be jubilant at this news. ...
I want to place on record the Government’s great appreciation to the officers of the Government who have done such wonderful work. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has displayed superb professionalism throughout this whole incident. The work of Mr Nick Warner who has been the head of the Emergency Response Team has been quite exemplary and I want to pay a special tribute to Nick. He’s an officer who’s known to many of us and he’s done great things for Australia, not only in Iraq, but also in the Solomon Islands. I want of course to thank the Special Forces and the other members of the Emergency Response Team that went to Iraq. Brigadier McCabe and all of the units in Iraq that have been associated with this.
Can I also pay special tribute to the contribution of the Minister for Foreign Affairs who has had the day-to-day carriage of this on behalf of the Government and may I also thank the Opposition, the Leader of the Opposition and the Member for Griffith for their understanding at every stage of the difficulties involved and the need for us to unite to save an Australian and this has brought out some of the best things in our people. I also place on record my appreciation for the efforts of the Australian Islamic community and of Sheik Al Hilaly.
Many people have tried, we are overwhelmed with relief, nothing compared of course with the relief that his family must now feel. Can I also say that at no stage has a ransom been paid, at no stage has the Government compromised its position in relation to our commitment to Iraq, the level of our force commitment and I want to reiterate our commitment to the stability and reconstruction of Iraq and to the Iraqi people who are daily, the victims of terrorism and crime.
I did endeavour before making this statement to contact the Iraqi Prime Minister. I'll do so, I hope very shortly to express my thanks for the efforts of his forces and may I record again our thanks to our American friends for their constant support and availability and cooperation, it is a wonderful outcome for this man who suffered so much and it’s a tribute to the work of our Iraqi and American friends that this has come about.
Howard called Wood's family with the good news four and a half hours ago. New.com.au adds:
Mr Wood was kidnapped around six weeks ago by a group calling itself the Shura Council of the Mujahidin of Iraq. News of his ordeal first became public when his captors released a DVD showing him pleading for his life and surrounded by masked gunmen.
Mr Howard said his release would be met with jubilation by Australians who had closely followed Mr Wood's plight over the past weeks. "This man has suffered immensely," he said. "I want on behalf of all of the Parliament to pay tribute to the dignity and strength of his family."
Mr Wood's release comes just days after French journalist Florence Aubenas was reunited with family and friends following her five-month Iraqi ordeal. While there has been speculation France paid a ransom to secure her release, Mr Howard said no ransom had been paid to free Mr Wood'. "At no stage has a ransom been paid," he said. Mr Downer admitted he had not been overly optimistic that Mr Wood would be released. "Very few have been released by military action of this kind," he told ABC TV.
One part of the story which will be contentious is the role played by Australian Muslim cleric Sheik Al Hilaly, who promised to negotiate the release of Woods but who apparently failed. Tim Blair has described Hilaly's activities in Iraq at some length. The Sheik spent most of May and the early part of June negotiating a release and announced at several points that a deal of sorts had been reached only to rescind his announcements. The most interesting section of Blair's chronology is this:
June 3 “We hope, God willing, that within the next few hours to hear the news of the hostage’s release,” says al-Hilali after attending a Baghdad mosque. In Sydney, Trad reports that the Sheikh has learned Wood was recently moved to a safer location, but could not be released because of ongoing fighting.
June 5 The Sheikh meets Douglas Wood, according to the Federation of Islamic Councils’ Ikebal Patel: “He said to me: ‘I’ve seen him eye to eye’, those were the words he used, eye to eye, it was Douglas.” ...
June 6 Sheikh al-Hilali tells AP that he hasn’t physically met Wood: “I have seen a recent CD video lasting 12 to 15 minutes where Wood is alive and good and in honest hands. He looked normal and said ‘I am OK, I am fine’ and that he needs help from his family and the government.” The Sheikh adds: “God willing, Mr Douglas will be free in a short time.”
Hilaly (or Hilali if you prefer) left Iraq without negotiating any release at all on June 9. Two possibilities emerge. The most likely scenario is that the Sheikh Hilaly was surveilled until the Australian Emergency Response Team (trust Canberra to give a Special Forces unit the name of an ambulance service) felt there was enough info to signal a go-ahead to an Iraqi rescue force. The less likely scenario, but no doubt one that will be peddled in Europe, who cannot conceive of an alternative, is that Hilaly actually ransomed Wood and arranged for a staged rescue. That's extremely unlikely because Hilaly would have trumpeted a successful release had he been able to arrange one and John Howard would never risk being part of a setup that would effectively put his political career in the hands of an Islamic cleric privy to a "secret deal".
So here's how I think (speculation alert) it happened. Hilaly went to Iraq prepared to ransom Wood and return to Australia the big savior of the helpless kuffar. In good faith. But Hilaly gets dusted down with the latest tracking technology upon arrival in Baghdad ("in cooperation in a general way with force elements of the United States") and leads surveillance to links in the chain. Hilaly leaves Iraq frustrated, but has unwittingly provided key parts of the puzzle, for which John Howard was extremely grateful. Brigadier McCabe, possibly the onsite Aussie crisis manager, makes the judgment that the Coalition knows enough to risk springing Wood and calls Howard, who gives the nod. Or something like that. The Iraqi forces move in and when Howard is told everything went well he gives the big speech in Canberra.
More details from the Associated Press:
Iraqi and American forces spotted a form huddled beneath a blanket when they raided a home in a dangerous Sunni neighborhood Wednesday. The residents insisted it was their ailing father - but the unfazed troops knew they'd found their man: Australian hostage Douglas Wood. Wood, 64, wearing a tan dishdasha, or traditional Arab robe, and with his head shaved, was smiling broadly as he was freed following 47 days in captivity.
Tim Blair is all over the Douglas Wood rescue discussing, among other things, the predictable innuendo that Wood had not been rescued but that Australian Muslim cleric Sheik Hilaly had persuaded the "militants" to release the hostage. CNN reported that Wood was found during a routine cordon and search. However, an Australian newspaper (hat tip: Tim Blair) has a detailed version which coincides, in many respects with the surmise I initially had.
Mr Wood was freed by a military operation in Baghdad after seven weeks in captivity. The U.S.-based engineer was rescued by an elite team of U.S. and Iraqi troops at 8.30am yesterday (Baghdad time) at a house about one hour's drive from the Iraqi capital.
Australian SAS troops working with the Government hostage team also were involved in planning the rescue operation. Well-placed government sources said the authorities were tipped off about Mr Wood's location. "U.S. and Iraqi forces knocked on the door and lo and behold, Mr Wood was there," a source said.
... Keysar Trad, the Sydney spokesman for the Mufti of Australia, Sheik Taj el-Din Al Hilaly, last night said it was the sheik who provided the crucial information. The Mufti has campaigned extensively for his release, travelling to Iraq and offering himself in Mr Wood's place.
This squares with the earlier Belmont Club guess that Hilaly provided the crucial information -- without knowing it. Who knows?