ABC TV (AUS) 7:30: Hostage claim could be genuine, journalist says [transcript]

Hostage claim could be genuine, journalist says
Reporter: Kerry O'Brien

KERRY O'BRIEN: One Australian journalist who has more feel for the motives and make-up of the different insurgency groups involved in kidnappings and murders, And has had regular contact with many of them, is 'Time' magazine's Iraq correspondent Michael Ware, who joins me now from Baghdad.

Michael Ware, it's now almost 24 hours since this kidnapping claim was made.

With no further word from the Islamic Secret Army and no hint of the identity of the four hostages.

What are the odds that this kidnapping is real as opposed to a hoax?

MICHAEL WARE, 'TIME' MAGAZINE: Well at this stage, Kerry, I'd have to say it's still 50/50.

The fact that no video proof of life has yet emerged is not yet a telling factor.

As you say, it's only been 24 hours or so, I've had experience with other hostage situations where it's taken many days, sometimes weeks, before we see the proof of life.

So that in itself doesn't say anything.

It's entirely plausible that this has occurred.

There's just nothing to identify yet whether this is a hoax or whether this is legitimate.

We just have to stay anxiously tuned.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Is it normal for them to give such a tight deadline, 24 hours to get out or they're dead?

MICHAEL WARE: Yes, that has happened in the past.

Sometimes that has been a ruse, sometimes that has been just a tactic to up the stakes or to get wheels in motion.

Other times it has been deadly serious.

We cannot underestimate these people with regards to their fervour or their willingness to carry out their threats or their deadlines.

This is the problem, we've now entered a murky world if in fact Australians have been taken hostage.

There's a range of groups taking hostages for a range of reasons.

The best case is that this is about money and humiliating the Western coalition.

Worst case is that this is a non-negotiable situation with Islamic extremists for whom there is nothing we can offer to save these men's lives.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Well, to the extent that you know about the Islamic Secret Army, where would you position that group?

MICHAEL WARE: At this stage from the little that we know, the Islamic Secret Army has only appeared in relation to hostage taking.

That's the only time it's popped its head up.

We cannot directly associate it with any of the more well known militant groups involved in the day to day combat here in Iraq.

So this seems to be a hostage specific permutation.

My gut, from the little bits and pieces I'm hearing from the Iraqi insurgency as late as this morning, is that perhaps this is a group associated with a more nationalist configuration of militant groups, albeit -- that bodes better than other news that we could have hoped to receive yet at this stage they still remain a relative unknown quantity.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Now, the hostages are supposed to have been taken on the highway from Baghdad to Mosul at the town of Sumara.

Does that make sense, that that might have happened and yet nearly 24 hours later the Australian embassy officials, the private security contractors, haven't been able to pinpoint anyone missing?

MICHAEL WARE: Just on pinpointing people missing issue -- I was reading the wires this morning as it was stating that Foreign Affairs had accounted for all 88 Australians registered here in Iraq.

Well as I was reading that, I was still receiving emails from Foreign Affairs, asking whether I was safe and I am registered with the embassy here.

So that seemed to be incongruous.

I'm not confident that we have been able to account for everybody.

But the passage of time and the fact that this location is thick in hostage taking territory.

I mean, everything is entirely plausible here.

The only question is which groups have them.

That's going to be determining very much the style of negotiations and whether we can hold out any hope at all.

But I mean, one thing is clear -- as the militants I was meeting this morning -- went to great pains to emphasise to me, Australian interests are legitimate targets.

Some militants disagree with the hostage taking but nonetheless, attacking Australian interests, they consider to be well within the realms of the rules of engagement.

They see and the Jihadists, the Al Qaeda-backed Islamic militants, see us, because of our association with the coalition in Iraq, as full blown high value targets.

Our involvement in this war has opened us to this.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Would you -- are you saying that we may be waiting at least days to establish whether there is any truth to the claims?

MICHAEL WARE: That's entirely possible.

I mean, in one incident that I was involved with a Pakistani hostage, I was the person to whom the hostage tape was delivered.

I was unwittingly made the conduit in that negotiation process.

By the time I received that tape it had been two or three days, perhaps four, since that individual had been taken hostage.

It then took a further day and a half for that person's company to confirm yes indeed he was missing.

So these things can take time given the nature of the logistics both on the insurgent side and here on the business side and military side in Iraq.

KERRY O'BRIEN: On the latest bombing in Baghdad today, Michael, at least 30 dead.

Is there any sense really that the Iraqi interim Government has more than the thinnest sliver of control over Iraq?

MICHAEL WARE: Look, in some ways it seems that the Iraqi Government, particularly its security and defence apparatus, is out to lunch.

Now is a classic example.

The chiefs of a number of the security agencies are simply not in the country.

Much of the security apparatus is not in place.

And the location of this bombing was in an area known as Haifa street.

That is an area of about 20 or 30 blocks within the centre of Baghdad.

It is within mortar range of the seat of Iraqi Government.

Within mortar range of the US embassy and yet the American forces and the Iraqi Government cannot set foot in Haifa Street.

The only time they go in, they've got to battle their way out.

That's in the very heart of the capital.

If they can't extend their influence to control their own capital within range of their own houses of power, what is there to say about the extension of central government power into the countryside.

A very tenuous grip.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Michael Ware, thanks very much for making the time out to talk us to.