Over 20 years ago, in 1983, a foreign military force arrived in a recently invaded Arab country promising to carry out humanitarian activities and protect the locals.
A truck bomb that killed 241 soldiers put an end to such high-mindedness.
As Japanese troops arrive in Iraq over the coming weeks at the beginning of what Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has called a “noble mission,” it is worth remembering that if the war in Iraq has one thing in common with that attack on U.S. forces in Beirut, it is that there are no neutrals or noncombatants in a war zone.
And yet this is exactly what the Self Defense Force troops propose to be, with the Japanese Constitution specifically limiting them to a “noncombat role.”
“You are going to help the people of Iraq in their hopes to rebuild their country,” Koizumi has told Japanese soldiers. But appearances will tell another story as Japanese armored cars and heavily armed soldiers take to Iraqi streets.
Japanese promises that troops will repair civilian infrastructure will make little difference, and while they may win the gratitude of the people of Samawah, this will mean little to the resistance based to the west of Baghdad, which has heard many similar, ultimately unkept promises from the American administration.
Although the Japanese are to engage in humanitarian activities, to many Iraqis their presence also legitimizes the occupation and allows the U.S. to portray its invasion as an international humanitarian effort.
Their arrival will also relieve an overstretched U.S. military, which plans to reduce its troops from 120,000 to 105,000 over the next few months.
These factors may do much to undermine the purpose of, or reasons given by the Japanese for, coming to Iraq.
For the Sunni-based resistance, striking the Japanese may seem an effective way to strike at the U.S., while the resistance already sees all foreign organizations in Iraq, whether international or humanitarian, as deserving targets for their role in bolstering the U.S. invasion and occupation.
This approach found its bloody apotheosis in the bombing of the Red Cross’ headquarters in October.
Other attacks against the Jordanian Embassy, the U.N. and the Italians in Nassiriyah, as well as the bombing of Kurdish political parties, demonstrate that no quarter is given to those seen to support the U.S.
If such apolitical aid organizations as the Red Cross are targets in this ever more bloody and intractable conflict, then Japanese troops will likely find themselves on the list of targets.
However distasteful, this strategy by the various resistance groups is not mere mindless violence, but has made the task of the U.S. vastly more complicated. Attacks on international targets have successfully drawn attention to the U.S. failure to decisively win the war or to win over the Iraqi people, while also discouraging international involvement in what is seen increasingly as “America’s war,” which is America’s responsibility to “win.”
The arrival of the Japanese provides the resistance with a new and tempting target. How many other countries will wish to join the coalition if the compassionate and peace-loving Japanese are hit? The resistance will be all too aware that a single car-bomb in Samawah could achieve more than a dozen attacks against U.S. troops.
The resistance also is aware that the deployment of troops is intensely controversial in Japan, and that the prime minister’s political survival may depend on a bloodless conclusion to the mission. Iraqis listen avidly to high-quality global news programs, from the BBC to Al-Jazeera, and resistance groups will be fully aware of any domestic Japanese opposition to the troop deployment. This makes them uniquely vulnerable.
Likewise, the Japanese assertion that the southern Shiite town of Samawah is “relatively secure,” in the words of the operation’s commander Col. Koichiro Bansho, is wishful thinking and in denial of the simple fact that the Sunni resistance “have cars, will travel,” as they have shown time and time again by hitting targets deep inside the Kurdish and Shia areas.
A suicide bomber who is prepared to give up his life is scarcely going to be deterred by a 200 km car journey.
From a military point of view the Japanese may also, depending on their instructions, provide a softer target than the U.S. and Britain, who have avoided larger casualties in part because of their unspoken “shoot first, ask questions later” policy toward vehicles, people and inanimate objects.
American troops routinely open fire on cars attempting to overtake military convoys, and soldiers coming under attack invariably fire on nearby bystanders “just in case.”
These tactics, though objectionable, have undeniably worked, and prevented much higher casualties — although at the expense of the goodwill of the local population.
How will a Japanese soldier react when he sees a car careening toward him and his comrades-in-arms? Will he instantly react as a U.S. soldier would, or will he give the driver the benefit of the doubt — perhaps with fatal consequences?
The ruined buildings of the Red Cross, the U.N. and a dozen police stations across Baghdad show what can happen when guards are slightly slow to react to approaching vehicles. Modern Iraq is a place where vulnerability is ruthlessly exploited.
The Japanese force is also arriving as sectarian differences hit a new peak.
The Shia, under their leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani, are becoming increasingly concerned that the U.S. will try to block a Shia government, which is causing an upsurge in anticoalition protests in southern Iraq.
However, Japan’s late arrival in Iraq may yet prove its salvation. Iraqi newspapers are overwhelmingly positive toward the Japanese deployment, and have singled out the Japanese for their peace-loving culture, while the Japanese are also untainted by a history of colonial or pro-Israel intervention in the region.
And they did not take part in the invasion itself.
But perhaps the SDF’s greatest asset in Iraq, is that, unlike those U.S. Marines in Beirut in 1983, they’re not American.