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Transcript of doorstop interview of the Foreign Minister: Stirling, SA: 16 September 2004: Iraq hostage situation, Latham Iraq briefings, Hicks and Habib.

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DATE: 16 September 2004, Stirling, SA

TOPICS: Iraq hostage situation, Latham Iraq briefings, Hicks and Habib

ALEXANDER DOWNER:Well, let me begin by saying something about the allegation that two Australians have been taken hostage in Iraq. Our Embassy in Baghdad and my department in Canberra have been continuing to investigate this issue and we now have a list of two hundred and twenty-five Australians who are in Iraq and all of those two hundred and twenty-five have been accounted for; so that is encouraging. But we should be careful not to draw too many hard and fast conclusions. First of all, if Australians have been taken hostage, it still could be some time before we hear more about them. And secondly, and importantly, there are probably quite a large number of Australian-Iraqis - dual nationals - in Iraq who are often very difficult to contact and very difficult to track; they may have lived in Australia for some years, they’ve gone back to Iraq to live after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and they can be very difficult to track down. So we’re certainly not at this stage saying that the assertion that Australians have been taken hostage is a hoax; it’s too early to draw that conclusion. We are still continuing with our investigations but, as yet, nothing has turned up.

REPORTER:Given that the deadline was twenty-four hours - it would have elapsed a fair while ago - does that raise your hopes that it wasn’t as it was alleged to be?

DOWNER:Well, that’s a hypothesis, to use a word I often use with these sort of situations, but I don’t think we could say anything more about it than that. I mean, looking at the experience of other hostage-taking, what you frequently get is a delay after typically the capturing of hostages is reported on the Internet; and then pictures are provided of the hostages. Now, in this particular case, the pattern has been a little different from the usual pattern. And you’re right, I mean, the twenty-four hours was spoken of and we’re well and truly past that now. So I think we should just be cautious, it will take several days before we know we’re in the clear.

REPORTER:It was reported (indistinct) this morning that a Muslim cleric went to Baghdad and was taken captive there. Can you confirm those details, whether he did get into that situation and his family actually paid money to have him released?

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DOWNER:We can’t confirm any of the details because neither the Embassy in Baghdad nor the department in Canberra have been able as yet to make contact with him. The department tells me that they heard some rumours from within the Australian-Iraqi community in Australia that Sheik Mohammed Naji may have been taken captive, but for what reason, whether he had been taken hostage and a ransom demanded; or whether he was simply, you know, hijacked by people because he had a lot of money on him and robbed? We don’t know the answer to that until we’ve had the opportunity to talk to him. And this information to the bureaucracy only came from the Australian-Iraqi community in Australia. The family of Sheik Mohammed Naji made no contact with the department; and nor did anyone else make any direct contact with either the department or the Embassy in Baghdad to say that he had either been captured or he had simply been beaten up and robbed. So we’ll have to wait until we’ve had the opportunity to speak to him before we can draw any conclusions about it. I’m sorry we can’t be more precise about it at this time.

REPORTER:Are you considering issuing any warnings to the Iraqi community in the eastern states not to travel to Iraq at this time?

DOWNER:They all know that. I mean, our travel advisory is very clear; we’ve told people, please, don’t go to Iraq. But there are, sort of, two or three categories of people essentially who go to Iraq. Number one, people like Australian government officials, a small number of Defence personnel, aid workers; secondly, there are people who go there because there are good commercial opportunities, they work as contractors or work in security firms; and thirdly, there are Australian-Iraqis who want to go back to Iraq now that Saddam Hussein’s regime has been overthrown and many of those people are people who fled from Saddam Hussein’s regime. Now, all of those categories of people know only too well that Iraq is a dangerous place and we recommend people don’t go there, but, you know, our … this is our recommendation, that is our advice. People, of course, in the free world can do what they want.

REPORTER:What’s the state of play with the SAS troops on the ground in Iraq?

DOWNER:Well, we’ve sent a Defence supplementation team and that team is obviously in an appropriate position; they’re appropriately prepared to assist if we find Australians have been taken hostage and we need to implement our contingency plan in order to try to get the Australians released. We’d obviously be very vigorous in our endeavours to get any Australians who are taken hostage anywhere on earth - including in Iraq - released. And we have obviously worked through … or perhaps not obviously; we have wisely worked through a plan of what we would do if Australians were taken hostage in Iraq and that contingency plan has partly been put in

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place. But until we know whether anyone’s been taken hostage, then we can’t, of course, fully implement the plan.

REPORTER:Should Labor have been briefed on the plan?

DOWNER:Well, I think that, to be honest with y o u , t h i s p l a n w a s a g r e e d a t t h e National Security of Cabinet … Committee of Cabinet several months ago. I think that it has to be said that it would be impossible to imagine that the Labor party wouldn’t support us using every resource available to us to try to get Australians released as hostages. I would have thought it was obvious … to avoid making a party political point here, it is obvious that the Labor party would support what we’re doing. And I think it’s a terrible indictment of Mr Latham’s personal behaviour that he should think that it’s worth spending a whole day of an election campaign carrying on like a small child over an issue which is a significant security issue, and where there would obviously be bipartisan support, we just take that for granted. We’d never have thought the Labor party would be opposed to sending a defence supplementation team, and they’re not saying they are opposed, in which case, you know, of course they’re welcome to get information if they contact us, and we’ve always had our door open during the caretaker period, and before. I’ll make one other point about this; I said to Mr Latham back in late March after he made his off-the-top-of-the-head comments about bringing troops out by Christmas that I appreciate he’s very inexperienced in these areas. He doesn’t really know anything about them, but we’re always happy to give him proper briefings. So, for example, he can find out what Australian troops are doing in Iraq, why we do have some military personnel there. And, Mr Latham has consistently refused to take up any offers of briefing by the government. And through the course of this year until yesterday, when he came close to becoming catatonic about not getting a briefing. I have to say this kind of politicking is not … if I could be gratuitous about it, is not going to be helpful to him if he wants to become the prime minister of our great country.

REPORTER:(Indistinct) the Sheik who was supposedly caught. Kidnapped. When did the Department of Foreign Affairs find out …

DOWNER:Well, we don’t know whether he was… where he was kidnapped or he was robbed or …

REPORTER:So, when did the Department of Foreign Affairs find out? And then when were you told? Is there some lag between when you were …

DOWNER:Well, what happened was I understand that they heard from … indirectly by the way, from sources in Sydney, in the Iraqi community in Sydney that Sheik Mohammad Naji might have been detained somehow in Iraq at 8.00pm on Monday evening. At 11.00pm we had the story that two Australians had been taken hostage,

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and obviously they directed their resources to that. They heard again sometime later from the same sources … or from Iraqi sources in Sydney that apparently Sheik Mohammad had been released. And so they did nothing more about it. And I can understand that. I’m not being critical of them. There was nothing for any of us to do in the circumstances. They did ask the Ambassador in the embassy in Baghdad to follow up and see if they could find anything more out about this incident, but not surprisingly, and quite rightly, the department and the embassy put all of their resources into the issue of whether two Australians had been taken hostage. So, I think it would be mean-spirited for anybody to criticise them on the basis of the way they’ve handled this issue.

REPORTER:So, you think you were informed early enough? You don’t think …

DOWNER:Well, (indistinct) there was anything that I could do about it or the government could do about it. I mean, given that they’d heard … got some information in Sydney, they asked the ambassador in the embassy to follow it up. But then, three hours later we had the hostage story arrive and the next day or so they heard that Sheik Mohammad Naji had in any case been released, at least from the same sources in Sydney, but not still to this moment not having been able to get any real confirmation of what has happened. They focused on the central issue here, and that is getting the two Australian hostage issue resolved, and they’ve obviously put their resources into that. I am not critical of the department, no.I think they’ve done a … Look, they have been under enormous strain during the course of this week, and I just ask people to think about this. They’re at the embassy in Baghdad in difficult circumstances. They have been desperately trying to track down a large number of Australians, they didn’t know how many there were, they thought there might be eighty-eight to start with. They built up a very big, now, resource of the Australians who were in Iraq. They’ve been going to enormous lengths to contact these people, they’ve been deeply worried about the possibility of Australians being taken hostage. They’ve been working day and night on trying to resolve this issue. And I think they’ve done a pretty fantastic job, so I’m certainly not critical of them.

REPORTER:There’s talk in Sydney, I believe, that this sheik was targeted particularly because he was an Australian. Would that concern you?

DOWNER:Well, you’d have to know what that meant. You’d have to know more about it. I think at this stage we just have to wait and see what Sheik Mohammad Naji has to say when people are finally able to contact him. I’m sure the media are working vigorously to try to contact him. And of course in these circumstances you get rumours and counter-rumours and so on and we’re always trying to deal with them. We do our best to be upfront and frank with the public and pass on information as it comes forward, but in all of these situations it’s a bit of a moveable feast and people have to understand that. And so we haven’t had the opportunity to speak to Sheik Mohammed Naji, so we are not sure about the circumstances. There are a couple of

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rumours around and some … one rumour is there are said to be what you’ve described, and it doesn’t really mean very much until it’s elaborated a bit. And another rumour is that he had a certain amount, a substantial amount of money on him, and we don’t know whether these rumours are true and so I can only, you know, say that’s what we’ve heard, and we need to speak to him and we haven’t been able to contact him yet.

REPORTER:Minister, what about a situation which we’ve been following up, which is that claims are being made that Australian-Iraqis are apparently tipping off people over in Iraq when rich Australians are about to travel there and actually giving them a tip-off that there might be a clean target for them? Have you heard anything along those …

DOWNER:I’ve never heard that. I’ve never heard that said. Of course it would be something we would roundly condemn. I’d hope that that isn’t happening. I think Australian-Iraqis … I spent a bit of time with the Australian-Iraqi community myself in both Sydney and Melbourne … it’s not very big in Adelaide, but in Sydney and Melbourne and I find that they are very responsible people. I mean, these are, in the main, they’re not all, but in the main, people who are trenchant opponents of Saddam Hussein and his barbarous regime, and they are good people who are working well in the Australian community. If there’s a crook or two amongst them, there’s a crook or two amongst most communities, I regret to say. So, I wouldn’t start picking on the Iraqi community in Australia. And I haven’t heard what you’ve described.

REPORTER:But the leader of the Iraqi community in Sydney is actually saying that some Iraqis who are travelling over, back to Iraq, are reluctant to let Foreign Affairs or anyone know of their movements in case they become such a target. I mean, is that a concern? Does that make your job harder?

DOWNER:Well, if Iraqis are going back to … if they’re Australian Iraqis, they’re dual nationals, I think it is true that quite a lot of them since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime have gone back to Iraq, sometimes for a short period of time … short periods of time, sometimes they have stayed on there. And what motivates them to go back and what they do when they’re back there and how they get there and so on, look, it’s entirely they’re prerogative and their business. And we ask people who go to Iraq to contact us so if anything goes wrong (indistinct) this week we’re able to get in touch with them and make sure they’re okay. But, more to the point if they get into some difficulty they can get in touch with us and we can help them out, which we would always do if they were Australian citizens, whether they’re dual nationals or whether they’re not dual nationals. But, you know, people will … some people do register with Foreign Affairs and some don’t. I mean, that’s always been thus, and whatever motives they have they might vary a little.

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REPORTER:Do we need to maybe alter that system to give them more confidence to notify the authorities?

DOWNER:Well, I think in the main they would be confident in our authorities. I mean, we have just an awful lot of very hardworking an decent public servants. These aren’t people who are politicised or involved in the nefarious activities of any kind. They’re just entirely decent and hardworking people. If some people feel uncomfortable with them, let me put their minds at rest. Everybody in our embassy in Baghdad from the ambassador down … his name is Neil Mules. I was speaking to him for quite some time to him last night on the telephone. These are good people, these are good, reliable, efficient, and dedicated people. I don’t think anyone needs to worry about that.

REPORTER:Just on another note, in the last week or so ago (indistinct) representations about military commissions to the US. Has that been done and have you heard back from the US?

DOWNER:I know that the ambassador has made some representations and obviously the Americans are considering them. The Americans haven’t … I mean, they’ve had meetings and talked about it and the Americans will get back to us as time goes on.

REPORTER:Does the Lasry report change that in anyway?

DOWNER:I don’t think so. I think the representations we’ve made have been based on the advice we received from the observers we’ve sent to the preliminary hearing from the Attorney-General’s department and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. They came back to us and gave us some advice on how they thought the process could be clarified and improved. And, we naturally enough, and it would have been wrong for us not to have done so. We responded to that by me authorising the ambassador … to asking the ambassador to raise this issue with the Pentagon, which has responsible … responsibility for the military commission process, and he’s done that. And, so that’s a work in progress.

REPORTER:Did you read the Lasry report at all yourself, or …

DOWNER:I haven’t yet. The Attorney-General has I believe, and he’s handling the Lasry report.

REPORTER:Is there a report from the Attorney-General so it can be made public about (indistinct) …

DOWNER:Well, it’s an internal government document. We weren’t planning to do that.Well, I mean, we have an enormous amount of information that we don’t make public if it’s sensitive in security terms or sensitive in diplomatic terms. All

Inquiries: (02) 6277 7500

Inquiries: (02) 6277 7500

diplomatic issues here with the United States, I think, most Australians … certainly I’m not pretending all, but most Australians would know that we believe in a fair outcome in the military commission hearings. We negotiated … I mean, our critics conveniently forget this and deliberately ignore it, but our critics need to understand we spent a long time negotiating the restructuring of the military commissions with the Americans before the military commission was finally set up. I think also the Americans have taken far too long to set up the military commissions, but nevertheless it’s happened and we’ve had the preliminary hearings so we’ve been able to see how it works, and there are some reservations we have about how it worked in the preliminary hearings. So, when we get to the hearings themselves, the case proper, which is I understand going to be early next year, we’d like the concerns that we have to have been taken into account. It’s a bit early to say, I mean, that’s not til January.

REPORTER: Just a quick one. Habib’s charges, have you been getting further news about that?

DOWNER:No news today.