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The U.S. military forces and the Iraqi Army have mounted an all-out offensive on Fallujah, where insurgents have been holed up. The situation raises serious concern. Although most residents have evacuated, deaths and injuries have been reported among civilians. In response to the airstrikes and the ground-force assault, which is said to be the largest led by U.S. Marines since the Vietnam War, the insurgents are fighting back aggressively. There are signs the confusion could spread to other areas.

It is clear that containment by military force that results in casualties among the general public only leads to more violence and retaliation. The United States and the Iraqi interim government face the possibility that the escalation of fighting in Fallujah will further deepen the domestic schism, which could prove counterproductive to the democratization process in Iraq.

Before the offensive, the Iraqi interim government declared a state of emergency throughout the country, except for the Kurdish autonomous zone, making it clear that it intended to firmly deal with the chaos. The aim of the offensive in Fallujah is to wipe out the insurgents so that a nationwide election to form a constitutional assembly can proceed in January.

Aiming to obstruct the upcoming elections, Islamic extremist groups continue their terrorist attacks to fan fear and spread confusion in Iraq. Although it may be open to question how successful earlier cleanup campaigns by the U.S. military have been, it is clear that any military offensive that causes civilian casualties will tend to arouse antipathy and provide encouragement to the insurgents.

According to a report by a U.S. research team, the number of “excessive” Iraqi deaths since the war began in March last year is estimated to be at least 100,000. Half the casualties are believed to be women and children. Last April the U.S. military launched a large-scale assault on Fallujah but was forced to pull back after a few days due to domestic and international criticism. Nonetheless, that brief campaign caused several hundred civilian deaths.

Fallujah, located in the Sunni heartland, is a major base for the insurgents. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the terrorist leader thought to have been involved in the murder of Mr. Shosei Koda, is said to be hiding there, if he hasn’t already slipped away. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has emphasized that the offensive will continue until the city is brought under complete control. However, even a successful offensive is likely to arouse a great deal of revulsion domestically and internationally. There is the danger that the political process of democratization will grind to a halt.

Many hurdles must be overcome to turn the Iraqi National Assembly election into a real opportunity for establishing sovereignty. Leading Sunni organizations, such as the Association of Muslim Clerics, have announced that they will boycott the election because of U.S. actions that are causing civilian casualties.

The Iraqi interim government rejects allowing various political forces and religious groups in Iraq to participate, along with major nations and Arab states, in an international conference on Iraq to be held in Egypt at the end of this month. In order to realize a democratic state in Iraq, though, all Iraqi political organizations should be allowed to participate in the election.

The first priority should be not suppression by military power but rather the fostering of a sense of autonomy and sovereignty among the Iraqi people. The driving force behind democratization is the will and attitude of the people. In a recent letter to the leaders of the U.S., Britain and Iraq, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan warned against attacking Fallujah, saying the quickest way to suppress terrorism is to promote democracy and freedom in Iraq through international cooperation.

Meanwhile, the southern city of Samawah, where the Japanese Self-Defense Forces are based, has been placed in a state of emergency. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi announced his full support for the offensive against Fallujah, but regarding Samawah’s inclusion in the state of emergency, he expressed his “understanding” that the city remains a noncombat zone. The remark suggests that he favors extending the mission of the SDF force beyond the Dec. 14 expiration.

It is logically contradictory to say that an area declared as being in a state of emergency is a noncombat zone. Following the murder of a Japanese and the launching of an all-out attack on Fallujah, surely the time has come to think again about the wisdom of keeping the SDF stationed in Iraq. The government should consider the option of withdrawing the SDF or shortening the term of its dispatch.

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