Monday, June 20, 2005

MELBOURNE, Australia — An Australian engineer held hostage in Iraq for nearly seven weeks arrived in his home country yesterday and apologized for his televised plea for coalition forces to withdraw from Iraq.

Douglas Wood, 64, who lives in Alamo, Calif., told reporters at Melbourne’s airport that he supported the coalition forces’ role in Iraq.

“Frankly, I’d like to apologize to both President Bush and Prime Minister [John] Howard for the things I said under duress,” said Mr. Wood, with his American wife, Yvonne Given, and his brothers, Vernon and Malcolm, and their wives by his side.

“I actually believe that I am proof positive that the current policy of training the Iraqi army … works because it was Iraqis that got me out,” he said.

Iraqi and U.S. troops freed Mr. Wood during a search on Wednesday of a house in Baghdad. Insurgents had held him for ransom for 47 days.

Mr. Wood was abducted on April 30 when lured to what he thought was a business meeting. He had been working for more than a year in Iraq as a self-employed contractor.

A day later his captors released video images showing two masked figures pointing automatic weapons at Mr. Wood’s head as he pleaded for U.S., British and Australian forces to pull out of Iraq.

Australia’s top Islamic cleric, meanwhile, said the military operation to free Mr. Wood could have endangered the lives of two Iraqis still being held by the kidnappers.

“The stupid action that was taken last week has exposed the fathers of these families to death,” Sheik Taj El Din al-Hilaly told reporters on his return from Baghdad, where he had tried to secure Mr. Wood’s release. He said it was unlikely the Iraqi hostages would now be freed.

His comments, delivered in Arabic, were translated into English by his spokesman, Keysar Trad.

Australia sent a hostage-negotiation team with elite troops to Iraq to try to secure Mr. Wood’s freedom. The government refused the kidnappers’ demands that Australia withdraw its 1,400 troops from Iraq and pay a reported $19 million ransom.

Mr. Wood described his treatment at the hands of the kidnappers, who kicked him in the head and shaved off his hair, as “a bit intimidating.” He said he sometimes feared for his life. He declined to discuss his captors, saying the ordeal was “too traumatic.”

Clearly elated at being back in Australia, he entered the news conference shouting “Waltzing Matilda,” the title of Australia’s unofficial national song.

Asked if he was feeling fragile after his ordeal, he said: “Not especially. I’ve got some physical ailments, and I’ve been deprived of medication for a bit.”

Mr. Wood suffers a heart condition, but his captors gave him medication apparently passed to them by Sheik al-Hilaly.

Mr. Howard said he received a briefing from the head of the Australian hostage team, Nick Warner, Sunday night. Mr. Warner confirmed Mr. Wood was picked up by U.S. and Iraqi forces in a sweep-and-cordon operation.

Mr. Howard welcomed Mr. Wood’s apology, but said he had not sought it. “After what that poor man has been through, that would be the last thing I would want,” Mr. Howard told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

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