Japan, South Korea Ponder Losses in Iraq

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Washington's two East Asian allies on Monday were considering their options in Iraq after both lost citizens in terror attacks over the weekend.

South Korea has sent almost 700 non-combat personnel to participate in rebuilding the U.S.-administered country, and is considering whether to include combat troops in a planned further deployment that should eventually total some 3,000.

Japan has undertaken to contribute 1,000 Self Defense Forces (SDF) members but has not said exactly when this would take place.

In both countries the policy of supporting the U.S.-led effort by sending troops to Iraq has prompted strong protests.

On Saturday, two Japanese diplomats and their Iraqi driver heading for a reconstruction conference were shot dead near Tikrit, the first Japanese to die in Iraq since the war to oust Saddam Hussein began last March.

On Sunday, two South Korean civilians were killed in an ambush and two others were injured, one critically. That attack also took place near Tikrit, Hussein's ancestral hometown and a center of anti-U.S. violence north of Baghdad.

The Koreans were electricity workers, driving to Tikrit to build a power transmission tower, according to the foreign affairs and trade ministry in Seoul.

The weekend also saw seven Spanish intelligence agents killed in a mortar and grenade attack as their convoy traveled south of the capital. Two American soldiers and a Colombian civilian were also killed.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun on Monday called the attack on the electricity workers "unforgivable and inhumane," and instructed security officials to take every measure to protect Koreans from terrorists in Iraq.

The 675 Korean troops who have been in Iraq since May are medical and military engineering staff based in the Nasiriya area in the south.

The government announced in October it would send more troops, and the head of a parliamentary fact-finding tour to Iraq returned last week and told the Korea Herald said he would recommend that the additional personnel include combat troops.

Roh's national security head, Ra Jong-yil, told reporters at the weekend it was "not desirable" to link the latest killings with the plan to dispatch more troops.

Nonetheless, critics of the deployment are likely to use the incident to promote their campaign.

More than 350 groups have formed a coalition called the People's Action against the Dispatching of Korean Troops to Iraq. Left-wing groups say they have carried out polls which found more than 70 percent of respondents oppose the troop dispatch.

In a newspaper poll last September, 56 percent of South Korean respondents said they opposed sending more troops to Iraq while 35.5 percent approved. The figures changed to 58.6 percent in favor and 40 percent opposed in the case of a U.N. mandate.

In Japan, meanwhile, opposition to deploying troops also appears significant.

A poll published in the Mainichi Shimbun Monday found that 43 percent of Japanese respondents felt the SDF should not be sent to Iraq at all, while 40 percent wanted the dispatch delayed until the security situation improves. Only nine percent said the troops should go as soon as possible.

The survey was carried out on Saturday and Sunday; news of the diplomats' deaths was reported Sunday.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's government is sending strong signals that the dispatch will go ahead.

"Japan has said it will do what it can and what it should do with regards to Iraq's reconstruction, whether it involves Self-Defense Forces, civilians or government employees," he told reporters on Sunday, adding: "That basic plan has not changed."

Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi told a press conference Japan "will never give in to terrorism," and reportedly conveyed the sentiment to Secretary of State Colin Powell in a phone conversation.

The secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Shinzo Abe, sounded a more cautious note, saying the dispatch would go ahead "in principle," but added that the timing and location of the deployment would need to be chosen carefully.

But the main opposition Democratic Party (Minshuto), which opposes the dispatch, urged the government "to correct its overly-optimistic and mistaken understanding and handling of the situation and drastically revise its stance on Iraq."

"Such words only play into the hands of the terrorists," the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper said in an editorial Monday, in reference to opposition parties' objections.

"If the postwar chaos in Iraq is left unchecked, if terrorists are allowed to walk around doing whatever they like, the entire international community will become destabilized," it said.

"Until Iraqi society becomes stable, Japan must not quit the battle to assist Iraq."

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow