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Japanese Feel that Iraq Is Like Lebanon

J. Sean Curtin, a GLOCOM fellow at the Tokyo-based Japanese Institute of Global Communications, in Japan Focus (April 2004):

The dramatic abduction of three Japanese civilians in Iraq -- hostage bargaining chips -- is reverberating throughout Japan, casting a long shadow over the future of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and his Iraq policy of dispatching troops on a humanitarian mission to help the United States there. It evokes memories of hostage-taking during Lebanon's civil war, cases that dragged on for years with scant progress and abundant tears.

Koizumi is facing his darkest hour, and as one of the US' closest allies, is coming under tremendous pressure to withdraw Japan's 550 troops from Iraq, a move that would further, and very significantly erode the already shaky credibility of the US-led coalition in Iraq. Japanese public opinion -- divided over dispatching troops in the first place -- currently is split over whether Japanese soldiers should quit Iraq. Meanwhile, Japanese and most other foreigners are fleeing Iraq en masse as the country descends into what some fear may become a Lebanese-style quagmire of hostage-taking.

To most Japanese, the sudden explosion of violence and hostage-taking has made their country's strictly humanitarian mission seem futile, since nearly all their troops are now tightly barricaded in a heavily protected fort about 10 kilometers outside the southern city of Samawah. Some commentators are even describing the current situation as Lebanon, Vietnam and the Palestinian intifada all rolled into one.

Dr Pierre Serhal, a leading Beirut surgeon and son of a prominent lawmaker, is pessimistic about the hostage crisis. He believes that the foreign captives may be in for a protracted ordeal because US foreign policy is creating instability in the entire Middle East.

"From a Lebanese perspective, Iraq is turning into the same kind of hostage nightmare we had in Beirut during the 1980s," he told Asia Times Online."I am very worried for the Japanese and other hostages, because I can only see things getting worse. I am a Christian, not a Muslim, but I feel American policy is a complete disaster for the whole region. The occupation of Iraq and the total neglect of any meaningful advances in the Israel-Palestine conflict are inflaming Arab opinion so much that it threatens the stability of every country in the region. Unless things radically change, there is little hope for the hostages, or indeed for the people who live here."