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     Dec 20, 2005
Japan wears out its welcome in Iraq
By Takeharu Watai

(Republished with permission from Japan Focus)

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi announced on December 8 that Japan's Self-Defense Forces (SDF) would remain for another year in the southern city of Samawa in support of the US war in Iraq. Their mission: to provide "reconstruction and humanitarian assistance".

But what has the 500-member SDF mission accomplished and at what cost? How have local people responded to their presence?

On July 24, the highway between the Kuwait border and Samawa

became the main artery for maintaining the presence of the 140,000 US soldiers in Iraq.

Large trailers and trucks, which have the word "logistics" on them, form a long line with the many tankers carrying crude oil. A "keep to the right three-lane" road has changed into a "both directions six-lane" road to avoid the traffic jams made by the US convoys. Cars cross the lanes from right to left one after another, overtaking slower vehicles. The rule is that if an oncoming car emerges, both vehicles must slow and change lanes to give way.

There are many four-wheel-drive military vehicles in the lanes. But it is hard to tell them from the others - until someone tries to pass and is shown an automatic rifle. Rules of the road are irrelevant here in southern Iraq - traffic order is maintained through "a tacit agreement" that military vehicles and those with weapons are always the priority, and others should stay as far away as possible.

When I visited Samawa, Iraqi military patrols were all over town, instead of the US military. I saw neither the SDF, nor the 600 British and Australian military forces that should have been stationed there. Even during the long "lunch break", there were few people in the town and almost all the shops were closed. Customers started appearing on the streets at about 6pm.

It was common to see Iraqi solders around Baghdad on compact pickup trucks wearing knit masks with holes for their eyes, holding guns at the ready. They were on high alert. But the alert level in Samawa was not as high; there were easy-going policemen directing traffic, sometimes Dutch troops patrolling the town and police security forces at check points.

However, the situation has changed. Iraqi soldiers are now on the lookout for armed "outside" insurgents. Still, Samawa is concerned about the presence of foreign troops in the city, and some residents are growing more vocal in their opposition to the deployments.

"Kahrabaa, [electricity], maa [water], amal [work]" - citizens demanded in Arabic before the SDF were dispatched to the area. But now one hears the resignation, despair and sometimes hostility toward the SDF when residents cry out these demands.

Kahrabaa is the most serious problem. The best-selling product is aircraft generators sold on the commercial avenue in the central square of Samawa when the temperature goes higher than 50 degrees Celsius at noon. The popular, small-sized model that says "Astra/made in Korea" costs 85,000 dinars (about US$65).

"After a five-hour blackout, we can have electricity for only one hour," electronics store owner Abd-Ali said. "This repeats many days. However, because of this blackout more and more people are coming out to buy generators to make ceiling fans and air conditioners work, since they can't stand this fierce heat. However, I cannot be pleased about these good sales, honestly, because it is such a bad condition."

A new electric power station will be constructed with "free financial aid" from the Japanese government. The location is to be decided and construction is still a ways off.

The maa problem is coupled with the kahrabaa situation. Water is pumped by machines. So, if the electricity is stopped, water is also. What's worse, water cannot be pumped into five-story housing developments. Residents want "the maintenance of water and sewerage", not just a water supply.

As for amal, men sometimes repair a road or do construction at the edges of the town, but it's only day labor. There are many jobless, sitting in the shade around town. Repairing or repainting school walls and clinics, as ordered by the SDF, is being done around Samawa.

But such orders spark criticism: "These are jobs that Iraqis can do on their own. What and whom are we doing this for? Instead of this, we need improvement in the problems of electricity and water."

Residents are increasingly directing their anger and dissatisfaction at the SDF.

"The SDF and the Japan Goodwill Association don't listen to citizens' hopes," one jobless man said. "What is the SDF doing in Samawa? I have never seen them working for this whole year and a half. It was a really peaceful town before the SDF came here."

Added a mall employee: "If they don't fix the water and electricity, they are just like the American troops. Recently, many people have come to think that way."

Initially, there was little criticism of the SDF. Before the SDF arrived, rumors had spread around Samawa that Japanese companies such as Sony and Toyota would be coming to the town to help rebuild it. But after the SDF moved in, residents realized that the only chance for economic recovery would come from the troops.

However, two years later their hopes and illusions have faded. And residents now feel that the SDF hasn't solved the problems of blackouts, water failures and unemployment.

Demonstrations by supporters of Shi'ite clergyman, Muqtada al-Sadr, have grown in popularity. Some protesters have been killed or wounded in confrontations with police. Previously, it had been rare to find someone against the SDF presence; many Samawa residents stood back from the demonstrations. But this year, increasing numbers of the young and jobless have joined the demonstrations.

Some of the demonstration ringleaders are suspected of triggering incidents, such as firing shells over the SDF camp, or bombing an SDF car in June. Muqtada loyalists have denied involvement, though they are clear about their feeling toward the SDF.

"As Japan will never forget the [nuclear] bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we insist to the Japanese government that if the SDF continues its presence here, we cannot deny the possibility that we will attack the SDF," said Muhammad al-Galawi, a Muqtada spokesman.

"As long as they keep staying here, we regard them as occupation forces. Thus, the SDF is one of our targets. The friendship between the SDF and Samawa citizens will never be produced. As long as they are one of the occupation forces, we don't see the SDF as the Japanese military. It is Koizumi's army and what has been sent by the US military. I used to like Japan and the Japanese. But because the SDF has been sent here, this friendship has collapsed," said Galawi.

"Keeping the presence of the UK military and the SDF here will lead to a worse security situation, as in Baghdad. It is not troops that Iraq needs, but citizens' power. We will welcome you if you take off your military uniforms and weapons. I would like Japanese people to think about the Iraqi side, not just the SDF side."

Meanwhile, the cost of the SDF mission is now more than 30 billion yen (US$258 million) though detailed costs have not been provided.

Since the deployment began in January 2004, the SDF hasn't been able to show residents any concrete achievements - in spite of the atmosphere of "friendship, goodwill and Interaction" the Japanese government has emphasized.

Now, SDF personnel fear an invisible "enemy", which appears to be growing in numbers among disgruntled Samawa residents. There are concerns those who cooperate with the SDF could be targeted, similar to what has happened to those supportive of American forces. As a result, the SDF and military "areas" are expanding.

The SDF dispatch is no longer an "international contribution" or "humanitarian reconstruction aid", as the government has said; rather now it has become "practical experience" and "practice" for SDF personnel in a hot spot. Their presence in Samawa seems aimed at being a step toward the "next overseas dispatch", with the revision of Japan's post-war constitution, which has curtailed the country's military activities.

Yet there is no reason to maintain the SDF presence in Samawa.

(Republished with permission from Japan Focus )

Japan's opposition leader seeks to woo China (Dec 6, '05)

Where Japan is heading (Oct 26, '05)

Japan's 'Fortress of Solitude' in Iraq - plus karaoke (Feb 19, '04)


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