Michael Ware


ABC TV (AUS) Lateline: 'No hope' for British hostage [transcript]

'No hope' for British hostage
Reporter: Tony Jones

TONY JONES: Back now to our top story -- and what may be the last hours of a man who, having seen his two American friends taken away to be murdered on video, has been put in front of the same camera to beg his government to save him.

But the 62-year-old Briton, Kenneth Bigley, is in the hands of the most ruthless killers in Iraq.

The Tawhid and Jihad group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi are simply milking Bigley's life for whatever propaganda benefit they can derive.

One of the very few Western journalists to have made contact with al-Zarqawi's group, and who knows exactly what they're capable of, is Michael Ware of 'Time' magazine.

As many of you will know, a Brisbane boy who's made his name by taking risks few other journalists wouldn't even consider.

Michael, thanks for joining us again.


TONY JONES: Is there anything at all the British Government can do do you believe to save Kenneth Bigley?

MICHAEL WARE: The short answer is no.

Absolutely not.

Anything less than completely voiding or at the very least crippling the Atlantic alliance, you know, seriously undermining the British alliance with Washington would not save this hostage.

Unless they remove British troops immediately, something we all know that Tony Blair is not going to do, there is absolutely no hope, I'm afraid, for the British prisoner.

TONY JONES: So there are no useful backchannels, no ways of influencing al-Zarqawi's people behind the scenes?

MICHAEL WARE: There's absolutely no room for negotiation.

Anything less than a complete political humiliation for the US military here in Iraq will not suffice.

We've encountered this in the past with, for example, the South Korean hostage who was held by the same group, al-Zarqawi's al-Tawhid al-Jihad, as you correctly point out.

There was embassy officials who were turning to counterparts and saying "These people want nothing.

There's nothing we can give them."

I'm afraid that's most likely the same case here and I have had some insight into the negotiations under way, the attempts to negotiate the release of the US prisoners held by this group.

And I can tell you that essentially nothing was offered from the US side.

So I don't think the Brit can be saved at this stage.

TONY JONES: What insights can you offer?

How indeed were any negotiations at all conducted.

Is this all done through third parties in subterranean fashion?

MICHAEL WARE: Absolutely.

Different people are appointed or nominated to speak for both sides.

Sometimes the difficulty is for those two people to link up or to find each other.

There's different ways that that is handled, depending on the case, depending on the hostage-takers.

It's a very, very murky world.

One of the most common mechanisms which is applied almost immediately is putting out the message through the Iraqi clerics, through the mosques, letting people know that anyone who has anything to say on this, anyone who wishes to negotiate can, through us, contact the Americans the Iraqi Government or the companies involved.

However, in this case, that system just does not apply.

TONY JONES: Michael, this is one of the strangest things, in the face of this continuing brutality to the hostages and even tonight we're hearing that perhaps the two Italian women hostages have been murdered as well.

It appears from this side of the world, anyway, that the Sunni Iraqi clerics, the senior clerics who you would think would have some sway over these people religiously, appear to remain mute in the face of all this horror.

Why is that, what is happening?

MICHAEL WARE: Well, they've had a period where the Sunni clerics, the most powerful organisation of which is the Muslim Clerics Association headed by a deeply conservative religious man by the name of Harith al-Dhari.

This is a man who US intelligence widely suspects of his own involvement in the insurgency and the resistance to US forces.

Yet early on this man made it clear that he and the clerics he represents do not support the beheadings.

This has resulted in a feud within the resistance movement.

In fact, I came into possession of some audio tapes, purportedly of al-Zarqawi himself directly criticising and attacking the Iraqi clerics, directly attacking Harith al-Dhari and accusing him of being a coward who is cooperating with the enemy.

We have heard recently of some assassinations and kidnappings between the international Jihadists led by al-Zarqawi and the nationalists and the Iraqi Islamists who are, by and large, a touch more moderate.

So, they're muted right now, because they're under intense pressure.

There is a division, a rift, within the insurgency and this is line upon which it faults.

TONY JONES: So, the last time we spoke to you, Michael, you told us you'd actually spoken to the men who were involved in the execution of Nicholas Berg and also to someone who was there when the Italian hostage was decapitated.

How did these people justify their involvement in acts of violence so gross?

MICHAEL WARE: You know, to their mind, this is part of the great holy war. What has to be done is done.

They feel that it's justified in the purist terms as they see it, the highest sense of jihad or holy war.

This is a matter of enormous dispute within the Islamic community.

Clerics, scholars, feverishly debate these points and I think you'll find that the weight of Islamic academia does not support this point of view.

Which is why certain clerics are so important to these terrorist groups, such as that holding the Brit, al-Zarqawi's group.

They have their own religious committee which issues its own fatwas, justifying or endorsing certain practices or tactics, specifically, if you cannot get the Iraqi conservative clerics to authorise beheading then you have your own religious committee to do it.

The most amazing development on this front in recent days is that a US missile strike last Friday actually hit and killed a vehicle carrying the head of the al-Zarqawi's religious or fatwa committee, so we're seeing enormous developments in this area as we speak.

The British hostage, his fate, as you say, most likely already settled, just one part of this.

TONY JONES: That killing that you've referred to, very little has been written about it but there is some material out there that's just emerging about this American strike on this cleric.

How much is that playing into the current hostage situation do you believe?

MICHAEL WARE: Well, put it this way -- one of the Iraqi resistance sources that I have who has some knowledge of the slim communications that have passed between the US military and members of the resistance who purport to be representing these hostage-takers, he says that in the midst of our conversations, in the midst of whatever negotiations there were, the Americans conducted this strike in Fallujah.

Not only was it in the midst of the conversations but it killed the very men who authorises these beheadings.

They were not seen as unconnected.

TONY JONES: So, what response do you think there's going to be from al-Zarqawi to this?

I mean, this is the man presumably that he reveres above all?

MICHAEL WARE: Well, to some regard no matter who it is, and I would even argue as do some Western analysts that even if you took out al-Zarqawi at this point, it's not going to matter terribly much.

These are groups that have shown time and time again an outstanding capacity for regeneration.

They cocoon themselves, they compartmentalise, they're able to operate with relative autonomy.

They need only the broadest guidelines, individual targeting and operational decisions are made by the cells themselves.

They're able to replace heads as soon as you cut them off.

So, I think that we'll see al-Zarqawi's group, whilst this may be a body blow, at the end of the day, they will recover from this far too quickly and move on.

TONY JONES: Once again, the last time we spoke, you talked about the growing influences of al-Zarqawi as becoming a sort of svengali operating among the emirs in what they call the mujahadeen.

Do these acts of terror that he's perpetrating now, are they ensuring that he remains a powerful force within Iraq?

MICHAEL WARE: He's certainly a force to be reckoned with, both politically and militarily.

Even though he has far fewer numbers of soldiers or agents than the Iraqi commanders or the Iraqi resistance leaders.

I mean, there's more Iraqi nationalists out there fighting Americans than there are al-Zarqawi's terrorists, yet money and the public momentum that he's built up gives him power, beyond his numbers, influence beyond just the number of men that he has.

However, that's not to say that it's an easy fit.

As the Iraqi clerics are having trouble with some of al-Zarqawi's tactics,so too are some Iraqi nationalist commanders.

They're trying to form into an alliance that represents their interests, separate from al-Zarqawi's.

They are maintaining a dialogue and are conferencing, literally, on this with al-Zarqawi's people, but there is still a divide, so, this is not an easy moment, at the end of the day al-Zarqawi maintains the whip hand.

Indeed, look at Baghdad itself.

Within mortar range of the US embassy al-Zarqawi has taken over a suburb.

He's raised his banners in the streets.

Indeed, I encountered al-Zarqawi's men there just days ago and (chuckles) we're lucky to be standing here talking to each other now.

They have come out and said, "We're here, we're defying you.

Come and get us."

The Americans are unable to defeat that.

TONY JONES: Michael, that is a critical point -- the Americans in spite of the strike on al-Zarqawi's cleric, they appear to be operating at a tremendous constraint at the moment, largely because of the US election.

The thing that they're not doing is what many of the military people are now saying they must do which is to go in and destroy these strongholds of al-Zarqawi and the other insurgents and to do so with maximum force.

They're clearly not going to do that.

How damaging is that to the overall plan?

MICHAEL WARE: Well, there's a 'takeback light' version, under way right now.

They're actually attempting to take small cities back from the insurgents.

We saw it begin in Najaf where they ousted the Shia militants and then immediately supplanted an Iraqi administration.

Well that was a Shia area.

Their first foray into the Sunni, the hardline, heartland, came with the town of Sumarra which the Americans surrounded, the insurgents left, and and an Iraqi administration was put in.

It's with mixed results.

We've just seen a missile strike in Sumarra in the early hours of this morning.

We saw a US convoy or patrol ambushed in Sumarra, this retaken city, yesterday afternoon.

It's a very difficult strategy, and listen, there is much talk about a massive offensive that is about to begin.

What we're seeing in these cities is now just a foretaste, a prelude so what we're being told in very private circumstances is to follow the US presidential election, but put that way, if the US forces are going into their town, they'd better be ready to raze them and to bear the enormous political cost of that.

Because that's what's going to take -- maybe some of us have been here too long or have spent too much time and a have a feeling of being under siege but you can't shake the feeling that this is a war that is already lost.

I was with a group of American journalists who last night only jokingly -- but nonetheless tellingly -- were talking about when the last helicopter leaves who's going to be on it.

There's just a very uneasy mood here right now and very aggressive action needs to be taken.

Whether that will work is still really up for question, what can we do.

TONY JONES: Michael, with that question, we'll have to leave you and as always we wish you well and we wish that you are safe until we meet again.

Thank you very much for joining us tonight.