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The Japanese hostage crisis in Iraq has ended in the death of Mr. Shosei Koda, a 24-year-old traveler, whose decapitated body was found in central Baghdad on Sunday. He had been detained by Islamic militants demanding that Japan withdraw its troops from the country. The government, having failed in its rescue efforts, is coming under criticism.

“I feel strong anger at this brutal and inhuman act,” Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said in a statement. “We will continue our fight against terrorism with determination.” At the same time, he emphasized that members of the Self-Defense Forces will continue to support humanitarian and reconstruction efforts in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah.

In a video message last Wednesday, a militant group calling itself the “al-Qaeda Organization of Holy War of Mesopotamia” said that it would kill Mr. Koda unless the SDF unit was withdrawn within 48 hours. The government believes that he was murdered by the same group. The slaying of a civilian hostage, a despicable act, is simply unforgivable.

After the message was aired, Mr. Koizumi said that the government would do everything it could to secure the release of the hostage, but he made it clear that Tokyo would not give in to terrorists and would not withdraw the troops. It was the right response. It was also the only choice for Mr. Koizumi, who supported the war in Iraq and sent troops there for noncombat duty.

The government’s Iraq policy remains a divisive issue, but yielding to the threat of terrorism is out of the question. Nevertheless, the fact that Mr. Koda has become the first Japanese hostage to be killed in Iraq needs to be taken seriously. In particular, his brutal death — the result of Tokyo’s rejection of the terrorists’ demands — has given Mr. Koizumi’s political opponents fresh ammunition for attacking him.

The moment of decision is approaching for Mr. Koizumi, as the current troop deployment in Samawah expires Dec. 14. Under the circumstances, the government appears set to extend the deadline. The prime minister says he will make his decision after conducting a “comprehensive” study of the Iraqi situation. If he decides to extend the deployment he should explain his decision to the nation.

It appears that the rationale for the SDF dispatch is becoming less tenable than before. The U.S. administration’s justification for the Iraq war has been seriously weakened by a report from its chief arms inspector that states no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq. The security situation in Samawah is also deteriorating, as demonstrated by a rocket attack on the SDF camp last month and another on Monday. The latest attack resulted in damaged equipment for the first time. It would not be surprising if terrorists were planning to target Japan itself.

Opposition parties are calling for a troop withdrawal. This issue should be thoroughly discussed in the Diet with respect to the chaotic situation in Iraq, the legitimacy of the troop dispatch and other relevant matters. Based on these debates, the government should carefully study whether to extend the Dec. 14 deadline. Perhaps it is time to re-examine Mr. Koizumi’s Iraq policy as well.

In addition to Mr. Koda, four other Japanese have been killed in Iraq. In November 2003, two diplomats died after they were ambushed near Tikrit, and in May 2004, two journalists were shot by gunmen near Baghdad. Five others — journalists and volunteers — were abducted and released on two occasions, the first three in April 2004 and the other two later in the same month.

In the case of the trio, the captors also demanded that Japan withdraw its troops, but the government stayed the course. Fortunately, the abductees were released as a result of negotiations between the militants and local Islamic clerics. This time, however, there was apparently much less chance of freeing Mr. Koda through third parties. The group involved — which is reportedly headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant linked to al-Qaeda — is held responsible for the abduction and murder of more than 10 foreigners, including Americans.

It is unclear why Mr. Koda went to Iraq despite government warnings. Reportedly he visited New Zealand in January in search of volunteer work, but in October he left there for the Middle East. He entered Iraq from Jordan, reportedly ignoring advice from residents and friends. For those traveling to dangerous places, caution is always the best counsel.

Security remains a tremendous problem in Iraq despite the transfer of sovereignty to an interim government. An immediate task for Tokyo is to examine in detail how and why the incident occurred and its response. And the results of the study should be reflected in Japan’s Iraq policy.

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