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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:34 03/09/2007
Commentary (June 27, 2005)

Iraq Attack Puts Tokyo Under Pressure

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)

Last 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.

Last Thursday 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 Iraq.

Ayatollah Sheikh Ahmad al-Bahadeli, a prominent Iraqi religious figure, said, "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 investigate this."

On Friday, Koizumi commented, ''We must pay ample attention to [GSDF] safety under the harsh security environment and we have to verify the facts [behind the explosion].''

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."

A British army officer, who recently returned from Iraq, said, "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 worrying development."

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 Japanese people."

Iraq wants 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.

Hours after the attack, the governing council of Muthana Province, that includes Samawah, adopted a resolution demanding the provincial security authorities protect the GSDF.

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.

On a 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".

However, not 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 troops
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.

On Friday, Japanese Defense Agency chief Yoshinori Ono said, 'The security condition in Samawah is relatively stable and it has not become a combat zone,''

The attack 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.

However, 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% he shouldn't.

Washington has informally asked Tokyo to extend the GSDF mission beyond the current December deadline, but no decision has yet been made.

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.

Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. A shorter version of this article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 24 June 2005,, and is republished with permission.

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications