The tragic end to the Shosei Koda hostage crisis may influence Japan’s policy of deploying its ground troops in Iraq, especially as their one-year mission will soon expire, officials and analysts say.
“I don’t think anyone in the government would say, ‘Hey, let’s not extend the operations of the Self-Defense Forces because of this,’ ” said a senior government official.
“But such an opinion could prevail among the public. If so, we may have to respect that because we’re a democracy,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
The government is facing a Dec. 14 deadline of whether to extend the Ground Self-Defense Force’s Iraq mission.
About 600 GSDF personnel are engaging in humanitarian aid and reconstruction missions in the southern city of Samawah.
Amid sharply divided public opinion in Japan, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has deployed the troops as a symbol of Japan’s commitment to its alliance with the United States, which is struggling through the reconstruction process of Iraq amid a continuing insurgency.
Officially, government officials firmly maintain the troops will not be withdrawn if it means yielding to terrorist threats.
But in carefully prepared statements, the same officials keep saying the decision on whether to extend the GSDF mission in Samawah will not be made until just before the deadline.
“Our policy is to consider reconstruction and the security situation from a comprehensive point of view,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda told reporters Sunday, minutes after the government officially confirmed that Koda was found dead in Baghdad.
“We’d like to consider various factors until Dec. 14.”
While the government chose Samawah as the mission site because of its relative safety, local security is increasingly in doubt. While no SDF personnel have been killed or injured so far, an unexploded rocket was launched into the GSDF camp in late October.
Political commentator Minoru Morita observed that the hostage crisis has split the Japanese people into two camps: people blaming Koizumi’s diplomatic loyalty to the U.S. for the hostage tragedy, and others blaming the hostage himself for recklessly entering the war-torn country, where more than 150 foreigners have been taken by militants this year.
“Over the short term, I don’t think (the killing) will inflict crucial damage on Koizumi,” Morita said.
“But over the longer term, as the Dec. 14 deadline comes closer, more people will start questioning (Japan’s diplomatic) policy of siding with the U.S.,” he said.
Morita also said the outcome of the U.S. presidential election on Tuesday will have a major impact on public sentiment toward Iraq-related issues.
Koizumi has steadfastly supported President George W. Bush since he launched the war on Iraq last year despite divided international opinion.
A victory by Democrat candidate John Kerry, along with the hostage tragedy, could provide strong momentum for those people opposed to extending the SDF mission, Morita said.
Some lawmakers in the ruling parties are indeed fearing the political impact from the hostage crisis.
Tetsuzo Fuyushiba, secretary general of New Komeito, the junior coalition partner of Koizumi’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, became furious when he read Friday’s edition of the Tokyo Shimbun, according to a government source.
The paper reported that New Komeito, because of the latest crisis, has withdrawn its support for extending of the SDF’s operations and will start policy discussion on the issue all over again.
Fuyushiba is known as a hardliner pushing for Japan’s engagement in Iraq. Such a party decision, if ever made, would put him in an extremely difficult position politically.
“He came to see me and said that report is totally incorrect,” the source said.
Still, some say the potential fallout of the hostage crisis, despite its tragic end, may not be as strong as it was with the earlier cases of Japanese being held captive in April.
Tatsuo Inamasu, a professor at Hosei University specializing in mass media culture, pointed out that massive media coverage of the recent earthquakes in Niigata reduced the exposure of the hostage crisis in TV and newspapers.
In addition, public reaction may be different than it was in April, Inamasu said, referring to when five Japanese were taken hostage in Iraq in April by local armed groups. They were a trio of a volunteer aid worker, a photojournalist and a freelance writer, and a pair comprising a journalist and a peace activist.
But Koda was a “tourist” who, according to media reports, went to Iraq just to see “what is going on” there.
“As far as we know from media reports (about why Koda entered Iraq), public sentiment may not be aroused,” Inamasu said.
Likewise for government officials in the emergency operation room dealing with the hostage crisis, the latest case was different from the previous one in April, government sources said.
“(The hostage) himself must have understood his own responsibility (in going to Iraq),” said an official at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence.
The atmosphere surrounding the latest case was rather calm, he suggested, unlike in the April cases, which triggered heated public debate over the government policy of deploying troops in Iraq.
Koda’s captors are believed to be a militant group led by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has reportedly abducted 18 other foreigners in Iraq since May, killing 12 of them, including Americans, Britons and a South Korean.
From an early stage, officials in Tokyo feared there was little room for negotiations, unlike the hostage crisis in April when the government managed to secure the release of all the hostages through the mediation of a local Islamic cleric association.
Asked if Tokyo was able to contact the hostage-takers this time, Koizumi told reporters Sunday, “I don’t know at all.”
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