AUSTRALIA: Why Aussie Workers Keep Going Back to Iraq

There are actually fewer than 70 Australians registered with the Australian Embassy in Iraq, but the true number is thought to be more than 200. Many contractors arrive without telling authorities.They include aid workers, security guards, truck drivers
Publisher Name: 
The Sunday Times

Douglas Wood's desperate and very public plea for mercy should have shocked money-hungry workers heading for one of the most dangerous places on earth.

But the truth is not even his agonising appearance in a two-minute video clip, begging for his life and pleading with Australia, the US and Britain to withdraw their troops, is likely to stop Australians going to Iraq in search of lucrative contracts.

Mr Wood is the fourth Australian to be confirmed as kidnapped in Iraq - but he is the first whose anguish is likely to become a full-scale hostage drama.

The Sunday Times revealed 15 months ago how former Perth-based Special Air Service regiment and WA police Tactical Response Group officers were likely to pick up $300,000 for a 12-month contract protecting business premises or working as bodyguards.

Some are known to have come under fire and to have seen mates killed.

One Perth security officer made quite an understatement when he said the war-torn country was "no place for the faint-hearted".

He predicted there would be work for years to come.

There are actually fewer than 70 Australians registered with the Australian Embassy in Iraq, but the true number is thought to be more than 200.

Many contractors arrive without telling authorities.

They include aid workers, security guards, truck drivers and representatives from Australian firms, including Perth-based oil and engineering companies. Australian companies have won some massive contracts in Iraq.

One estimate of their worth is about $1 billion.

Three Australian civilians have been killed - television cameraman Paul Moran, NBC sound recordist Jeremy Little and security contractor Chris Ahmelman.

Workers are told they risk kidnapping for political gain. In fact, kidnapping is almost a business in Iraq.

But there seems to be no shortage of workers willing to take the risk.

The three other Australians who have been taken hostage were anti-war activist Donna Mulhearn in April 2004, Shiite cleric Sheikh Mohammed Naji in September 2004 and journalist John Martinkus a month later.

A fifth unnamed contractor also vanished in September last year, but it is not known whether he was released or simply disappeared.

The beheading of American Nick Berg, 26, in May last year brought a horrific new dimension to the violence.

Berg had gone to Iraq hoping to secure private work as a communications technician.

The worldwide media coverage of his death possibly encouraged more insurgent groups to carry out the 200 kidnappings that have taken place in the past 12 months.

Since April 2003, at least 270 foreigners have been taken hostage.

About 60 are thought to be still held or missing and 33 have been killed.

Those executed include British engineer Ken Bigley and Americans Jack Hensley and Eugene Armstrong, who were at the centre of a hostage drama last September.

Video showed Mr Bigley, 62, pleading for British Prime Minister Tony Blair to save his life after the two Americans were executed.

Mr Bigley was killed in early October, about the same time British-born aid worker Margaret Hassan, who married an Iraqi and had lived in the country for more than 30 years, was abducted.

Mrs Hassan, 59, who was in charge of Care International's Iraq operations, was seized in Baghdad last October while on her way to work. Her body has never been found, but her murder was later confirmed.

Other foreigners executed include South Korean Kim Sun-il, Shosei Koda, of Japan, and Italians Fabrizio Quattrochi, Salvatore Santoro and Enzo Baldoni.

Twelve Nepalese labourers also died in September.

Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena was released, but was shot and wounded by US soldiers as her rescue car sped towards a checkpoint. Secret-service agent Nicola Calipari who was in the car with her was shot and killed in the same incident.

Others were more fortunate.

Italian aid workers Simona Pari and Simona Torretta were released in September.

But Mr Wood may not be so lucky and even the Federal Government has admitted it has little confidence he will be freed alive.

Defence Minister Robert Hill said his best chance could lie in negotiations with Iraqi religious and tribal leaders.

Senator Hill went so far as to say he had "no confidence" Mr Wood would walk away alive.

The Shura Council of the Mujahedeen of Iraq, which is holding Mr Wood, has ties to ultra-radical groups in the Sunni Triangle.

An Australian emergency response team, which includes Arabic-speaking SAS officers and police negotiators, is in Iraq and will try to enlist Sunni tribal leaders and clerics to contact the terrorists.

Mr Wood's brother, Malcolm, who lives in Canberra, pleaded for his brother's release and urged the Australian Government to do all it could to secure his release. Paul Bigley, the brother of Ken Bigley, had urged the Wood family to use Middle East television to plead with the kidnappers.

Mr Wood lives in the US, but grew up in regional Victoria, the second-oldest son of Gilham Wood, who was moderator-general of the Australian Presbyterian Church.

His company, John Watkinson Enterprises, has been contracted by the US military.

He went to Geelong College from 1951-1958 and spent his late teens and early 20s in the Geelong area playing football for the Ocean Grove club.

He was also an accomplished rower and gained a mechanical engineering associate diploma.

He met his first wife, Elizabeth Bolza, in Geelong and moved to Sydney in the late 1960s when he went to work for Bechtel, an American company that builds nuclear power plants.

A decade later, Mr Wood moved to California to work for the company. He is divorced from his first wife and married to American Yvonne Given.

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