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Saturday, April 10, 2004


Stay the course in Iraq

Iraq is in chaos. A widespread uprising against the coalition forces has resulted in hundreds of casualties and the targeting of civilians in a desperate attempt to equalize strength through asymmetrical warfare. Kidnapping is the latest outrage, and among the hostages are three Japanese civilians.

To its credit, the government of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi never claimed that the deployment of Japan's Self-Defense Forces to Iraq was risk-free. Even so, the government could not have anticipated that the situation would turn so ugly, so quickly. Despite the dangers, this is not the time to pull the SDF out of Iraq. That would only encourage the forces of disorder in Iraq and terrorists worldwide to increase their violence.

Whatever calm could be said to have existed in Iraq was shattered last weekend when Shiite militias launched an uprising throughout central and southern Iraq.

The spark to the tinder was the March 28 decision to close Al-Hawza, a newspaper with a circulation of just 5,000 that is controlled by the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Coalition authorities justified the move by saying the newspaper incited violence. The decision set off widespread protests throughout the country. The arrest days later of one of Mr. al-Sadr's associates on charges of complicity in the murder of a rival cleric last year fanned the flames.

Amid the rising tensions, four American contractors were attacked and killed, their bodies dragged through the streets of the city of Fallujah and then hung from bridges and beaten. The United States vowed to avenge the grisly killings, and the violence has steadily escalated. Fighting has broken out in eight cities, and now three -- Kut, Kufa and Najaf -- are said to be under the control of Mr. al-Sadr. The fighting is the most vicious since the invasion a year ago. Nearly 40 American soldiers have been killed in the past week, and more than 300 Iraqis, although the numbers are difficult to confirm.

In a grim counterpoint to the fighting with coalition forces, several groups have seized civilian hostages. A previously unknown group calling itself the Mujahedeen Brigades has taken three Japanese hostages -- two aid workers and a journalist -- and threatened to burn them to death within three days unless the Tokyo government withdraws the SDF from Iraq. Japanese are not the only victims: Seven South Korean missionaries were abducted (and later released), two Israelis have been kidnapped, as have a British and a Canadian aid worker.

Prime Minister Koizumi has said he will not bend to the kidnappers' demands. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda, called the abductions "unforgivable," and backed the prime minister's line that Japan could not withdraw its forces. They are right: to do so would only encourage more such violence.

While these acts are horrific, they could have been anticipated. Given the coalition forces' superior firepower, asymmetrical warfare was the only option available to the Iraqi resistance. Guerrilla war tactics were to be expected, as was the targeting of civilians and noncombatants.

The situation in Iraq is grim, but it is not yet lost. At this moment, there is a battle among Iraqis that is as important as the struggle with the coalition forces. Iraq's Muslims have traditionally been divided between Sunnis and Shiites. Saddam Hussein was a Sunni, and his reign was associated with brutal repression of the Shiites, even though they are the majority in Iraq. In the last few days they have made common cause. It is unclear how long that will last.

The Shiites also are divided. Mr. al-Sadr is a young cleric contesting for power with the country's most senior religious authority, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The insurrection is an attempt by Mr. al-Sadr to supplant his rival. Last week, Mr. al-Sistani condemned the violence and the occupation. He may condemn Mr. al-Sadr more forcefully if he feels his own power is threatened. Similarly, the Sunni may break their alliance with the Shiites if they see themselves becoming the next target. In other words, a careful and measured response to the violence that exploits the fissures within Iraqi society may crack the resistance.

In the interim, Japan must steel itself for more outrages. The government is right to point out that Japanese forces are in Iraq to help rebuild a country shattered by two wars and decades of misrule. The groups that are targeting Japan and other coalition forces have no concern for the good of the Iraqi people. They care only about revenge and power. No matter what one thinks of the decisions that created this situation, the situation exists.

Turning our backs on Iraq now would be an even greater mistake than those that have already been made.

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