Muslim cleric heads for Iraq in hostage mission

The family of an Australian engineer being held hostage in Iraq offered a “donation” to the Iraqi people today, as Australia’s top Muslim cleric left for Baghdad in a last-ditch effort to win his release.

The family of an Australian engineer being held hostage in Iraq offered a “donation” to the Iraqi people today, as Australia’s top Muslim cleric left for Baghdad in a last-ditch effort to win his release.

Militants who seized Douglas Wood, 63, an Australian citizen and a resident of Alamo, California, released a videotape that was broadcast on Friday demanding that Australia start pulling its troops out of Iraq within 72 hours, although they didn’t say what would happen if the demand was not met.

Reading from a statement at Australia’s Parliament House, Wood’s younger brother, Malcolm, said the family empathised with the struggles of the Iraqi people.

“To this end, out of a sense of moral obligation and solidarity, the family of Douglas Wood will be making a generous charitable donation to help the people of Iraq,” he said.

“This is not a ransom; there has been no demand for a ransom,” he added. “We would hope to make a significant gesture to help secure Douglas’s release.”

Malcolm Wood said the donation offer was being sent with Australia’s most senior Muslim cleric, Sheik Taj El Din Al Hilaly, who earlier today departed for Baghdad to try to win Wood’s release. He gave no details of the donation.

Wood said his brother has a serious heart condition and may not have taken his medication since his abduction more than a week ago.

Hilaly on Saturday urged the militants to release Wood, saying on Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera that most Australians do not support the government’s deployment in Iraq.

On Sunday, he offered to mediate in the crisis. It was not immediately clear when the 72-hour deadline expired.

“We have to take any opportunity that might present itself to secure the release of Mr. Wood,” the cleric’s spokesman, Keysar Trad, told The Associated Press today.

The Egyptian-born Sunni cleric left today, accompanied by Amir Ali, president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, and an Australian guide with tribal contacts, Trad said.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said the government would help the cleric’s visit if it could.

“He is on his way and we wish him well and obviously would do anything to facilitate his visit,” Downer told Sydney radio station 2UE.

He said Australian government staff were working “day and night” to free Wood, but said he was “neither more optimistic nor more pessimistic” than over the weekend that the kidnappers would release him.

On Saturday, Hilaly sat next to the hostage’s brothers and videotaped a statement in Arabic saying he regarded Douglas Wood as his brother, a fellow Australian and an innocent man.

“We value your jihad and your efforts,” the cleric told the kidnappers in his plea, broadcast by Al-Jazeera. “We call upon you to do something for the sake of our community and all Australian society, which does not support (Prime Minister John) Howard’s pro-American policies.”

“We implore you to release him in the name of God, for the sake of the Islamic community in Australia ... and for the sake of the family of Douglas Wood,” he added.

Hilaly has had a hostile relationship with Australia’s centre-right government, which has been a staunch ally in the US-led war on terrorism and contributed 2,000 troops to the Iraq invasion.

The government has accused Hilaly of describing the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US as “God’s work” and of voicing support for Palestinian suicide bombers. Hilaly says his words were misinterpreted.

More in this section

IE_logo_newsletters

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox