|Iraq attack takes aim at
By J Sean Curtin
On Thursday, Japanese troops in the
southern Iraqi city of Samawah were targeted by a
roadside bomb and only narrowly escaped injury.
The incident is a significant one for Tokyo as it
marks the first direct attack on Japanese Ground
Self-Defense Forces (GSDF) outside of their
heavily fortified camp and renews pressure on
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi over the
controversial military dispatch.
Opposition leaders are already demanding
that the troops withdraw immediately, a request
Koizumi is likely to ignore. Six non-military
Japanese citizens have so far been killed by
insurgents in Iraq, and on each occasion Koizumi
has refused to consider bringing his forces home.
Japanese soldiers, whose actions are restricted by
a pacifist constitution, have so far sustained no
casualties, nor even fired a shot in anger.
The contentious deployment is the
country's first overseas venture in an active
conflict zone since World War II, and critics
claim it violates Japan's war-renouncing
constitution. Polls indicate majority public
opposition to the mission, which may increase
after this latest episode.
morning, four military vehicles were on their way
to a ceremony to mark the completion of
Japanese-funded road repairs in Samawah when an
explosive device detonated as the convoy drove
along a desert road. Although the windscreen and
side door of the third vehicle caught some of the
blast, the troops inside escaped unharmed and were
able to return to base. Since arriving in January
2004, several rockets have also struck their camp.
According to the Japanese Defense Agency,
two booby-trap devices were set along the roadside
- about five to six kilometers east of the
Japanese base - but only one detonated. Currently,
Japan has about 550 troops stationed in Samawah on
a strictly humanitarian reconstruction mission,
which has generally been very warmly received in
Ayatollah Sheikh Ahmad al-Bahadeli,
a prominent Iraqi religious figure, told Asia
Times Online, "The Iraqis have a great respect for
the Japanese and regard those who have come to
Iraq highly." He added, "Since they started
offering services and assistance to the city of
Samawah, they have done an excellent job."
Despite Iraqi praise, the troop dispatch
remains so politically sensitive that Tokyo
initially tried to play down the incident. At a
news conference after the attack, chief cabinet
secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said, "It is still not
clear what kind of situation it is and whether or
not it was an intentional attack. We would like to
However, from live news
broadcasts of the blast site, it was apparent that
the attack was deliberate. A young Iraqi boy
interviewed at the scene reported, "I saw the
explosion just as the convoy passed by."
British army officer, who recently returned from
Iraq, told Asia Times Online, "We can clearly see
that the explosive device was placed in an area
where there is nothing but desert road. This leads
to the conclusion that it was a deliberate
targeting of the Japanese convoy. I don't think
there is any other interpretation." He then added,
"This kind of deadly roadside attack has been
frequently used to target the Americans in
Baghdad, its use against the Japanese is a
In an interview
broadcast on Japan's NHK evening news an
unidentified Iraqi colonel said, "The roadside
bomb must have been targeted at the Japanese ...
The incident is shocking and truly regrettable. I
want to apologize to the Japanese troops and the
Iraqi want Japanese
troops to stay
Iraqi leaders have
apologized for the attack and requested that
Japanese forces continue their activities in
Samawah, where there is overwhelming support for
their presence. Local opinion polls indicate 78%
of residents want them to stay, with just 4%
demanding an immediate withdrawal.
Ayatollah al-Bahadeli said, "We are
getting real benefits from the Japanese presence
and we really appreciate their efforts."
Tokyo is strongly financially committed to
the Iraq mission. At an international meeting
co-hosted by the European Union and the United
States on the day before the attack on the convoy,
Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura
offered further monetary support for Iraq,
pledging US$5 billion in aid to help rebuild the
country. The figure represented $1.5 billion in
grants and $3.5 billion in yen loans.
recent visit to Tokyo, Hajim al-Hasani, Iraq's
Speaker of the National Assembly, told Koizumi he
hoped the Japanese troops would stay "until they
complete their mission".
everyone is so welcoming, and a small band of
insurgents appear determined to drive Japanese
forces out of Samawah. Recently, anti-Japanese
literature was distributed in Samawah, branding
Tokyo and its forces as American puppets who
should leave the country immediately.
War-renouncing constitution limits
Ironically, Koizumi's main headache
has not been the insurgents but Japan's
war-renouncing constitution that prohibits
Japanese forces from engaging in military
conflicts. Critics say the Iraq deployment
violates the pacifist constitution, even though
the GSDF are solely engaged in humanitarian work
and under strict instructions only to use their
weapons for extreme emergency defensive purposes.
A special law was enacted specifically to
allow Japanese forces to be deployed in Iraq, and
this was subsequently renewed in the face of
bitter opposition last December. The act
stipulates that soldiers can only operate in a
so-called safe "non-combat zone". The latest
incident highlights how difficult it is to define
what constitutes a "non-combat zone" in a county
where violent attacks are a daily occurrence. In
the 24-hour period around the attack on Japanese
forces, insurgents claimed the lives of 35 people
with another 117 being injured.
also underlines the difficulty Tokyo has in
dispatching its forces to global trouble spots and
may weaken its military credentials at a crucial
juncture in its bid for a permanent UN Security
Council seat. One advantage of the deployment was
meant to be that it would give Tokyo a way to
project a higher global profile and cast off its
image as a purely economic power.
this is a risky strategy as polls indicate that if
a member of the GSDF were to be killed, it would
be extremely damaging for the government. A Kyodo
News poll conducted in January showed that in the
event of troops being killed or wounded in Iraq,
65.2% think Japan should withdraw immediately.
Asked about Koizumi's responsibility in such a
scenario, 40.9% said he should resign, while 46.5%
With strong backing for the
deployment from both Washington and Baghdad,
Koizumi should be able to ride out the current
political storm, provided no troops are injured.
The major casualty will be GSDF activities in
Samawah, which are already severely restricted and
are now likely to be curtailed still further to
reduce the political pressure on the government.
Troops have been ordered to temporarily halt
reconstruction work and are confined to their
isolated and fortified base. It could be some time
before they are allowed to venture out again.
J Sean Curtin is a GLOCOM fellow
at the Tokyo-based Japanese Institute of Global
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