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The kidnapping of three Japanese civilians by Iraqi militants will challenge Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s policy of supporting the United States, U.S. experts said Thursday.

William Odom, director of National Securities Studies at the Washington-based Hudson Institute, said Japan’s international status will be hurt if it bows to the militants’ threat to kill the hostages if Self-Defense Forces troops are not withdrawn from Iraq.

“When you get into a combat zone, you have to occasionally accept casualties and that may be what happens in this case,” Odom said. “I can’t advise the Japanese government on what to do and what not to do, but Japan’s international status won’t be improved if they do pull out.”

Odom also said that if Japan decides to withdraw the SDF troops from Iraq, it could cause other countries “to be inclined to pull out at the first sign of danger.”

“This issue doesn’t just affect the Japanese, it affects U.S. decision-makers,” he said.

Odom said that if Japan decides to pull the SDF troops out, it would make Japanese nationals “a more attractive target for similar kinds of kidnapping in the future.

“I think that that is a problem that the Japanese leadership has to be concerned with,” he said. “They can easily look for short-term gains that turn into long-term losses.”

Meanwhile, Sheila Smith, a research fellow at the Honolulu-based East-West Center, said Japanese public reaction to further violence connected to the hostages could go two ways — outrage at the kidnappers, or anger at the Koizumi administration for causing Japan to be targeted because of its support of the U.S. war in Iraq.

“Or it could be a combination of both, hampering future decision-making on Iraq policy,” she said.

Smith said the kidnapping issue is “the most difficult test for the Koizumi Cabinet, which is committed to a more assertive foreign policy.”

“The Koizumi support of the war in Iraq has been a very risky diplomatic strategy, but it has also been a fundamental departure from Japan’s past policy on the use of its military,” she said. “Today, Japanese troops are in a theater of conflict, the most dangerous situation they have faced since the end of World War II.”

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