Asia Enters the Fray

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The military convoy arrives just as the sun is starting to set. Four vehicles rumble to a halt atop a partially destroyed bridge spanning the Euphrates River. As children swarm and grownups stare, one soldier cautiously surveys the crowd. Four others inspect the damaged bridge. Their commander strolls with a man from the Iraqi Ministry of Housing and chats about the repairs they will be making over the next few months. After ten minutes of discussion and handshakes all around, the soldiers remount their vehicles.

These soldiers in green fatigues have accomplished nothing of note here, but as soon as they pull away, a dozen cars and trucks filled with photographers, TV cameras and reporters chase after them in a dizzying, almost reckless, pursuit. As members of the Ground Self-Defense Force, the troops are part of Japan's first military dispatch to a genuine hot zone since World War II. Every move they make is historic—and a source of intense interest to the scores of journalists who trail their every move, every day.

Japan's small advance team is still acclimating to the heat, the bugs, the dust—and to the danger that hangs over them like a permanent haze. And now, the first wave of a combined air, sea and ground force that will grow to roughly 1,000 troops has begun deploying out of Komaki Air Base near Nagoya in central Japan. "Our mission is to support the development of water-purification projects and the reconstruction of schools and medical facilities," says Colonel Masahisa Sato, commander of the Samawah advance group. That might sound like a modest agenda. But for Japan, it is an epochal turn of events. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi recently compared this mission to Japan's 19th century Meiji Restoration, when the country reopened its doors to the outside world after 300 years of isolation. "Are we going to be a peaceful country in solitude?" he asked in a radio speech. "Or are we going to build our country's peace by joining the international community?"

Japan is the 38th nation to respond positively to U.S. President George W. Bush's call to join a "coalition of the willing" to rebuild Iraq—following a war waged by just five countries (the U.S., Australia, Britain, Poland and Spain). Already, 443 Thai troops are stationed in the southern Iraqi city of Karbala. Some 700 South Korean engineers in Nasiriyah, further to the south, are soon to be joined by more than 3,000 compatriots, including 800 combat soldiers.

A 96-member contingent from the Philippines is training Iraqi police recruits in Hillah, 80 kilometers south of Baghdad. There is even a force of 130 Mongolian troops working guard duty on bases and strategic installations in Hillah and neighboring Babylon.

Asia's soldiers are not off to war, at least not technically. Each country has assiduously tried to avoid that inflammatory step by saying that their contingents are limited to humanitarian and relief efforts. But this is not exactly a carefree Mesopotamian amble. Since Bush's now infamous declaration on May 1 last year that major combat operations have ended, not only have 391 American soldiers died, but so have 24 British soldiers, 4 Bulgarians, 19 Italians, 2 Japanese diplomats, 2 Poles, 2 South Korean engineers, 10 Spaniards and 2 Thais, not to mention dozens in attacks on nonmilitary organizations such as the U.N. and the Red Cross.

And if the real rockets, bullets and bombs are not worrying enough, Iraq might prove to be a geopolitical minefield for each country putting boots on the ground. In recent years, Asian soldiers and civilian volunteers have been dispatched to several violence-wracked lands—Cambodia, East Timor, the Golan Heights, Haiti and Somalia—but they were part of U.N. peacekeeping missions. The soldiers wore distinct blue berets, the civilians rode in white jeeps emblazoned with the U.N. insignia, and their governments at home had the cover of a nonpolitical, international mission. In contrast, the rebuilding of Iraq—like the war proceeding it—is run by Washington. The Asian governments that cooperate will absorb the hatred of anyone who opposes the U.S. occupation, from angry Baathists in Iraqi cities to terrorist groups that target America and its allies. Oppositionists at home can accuse the governments of cravenly bowing to U.S. pressure. If reconstruction takes much longer than expected, it's not hard to imagine such cooperation straining ties between Asia and the U.S.—especially if lots of body bags start shipping east. Since the capture of Saddam Hussein the frequency of terrorist attacks may have tapered, but their destructiveness has increased, as the suicide bombing in Arbil that killed more than 100 people last week demonstrated. U.S. soldiers are being killed at a rate of one a day on average. Says Yi Sung Phil, a South Korean activist who has protested against sending troops to Iraq: "Many South Koreans died during the Vietnam War. Now, more South Korean soldiers look to lose their lives. Must we help America with every war it gets into?"

Public opinion on the operations in Iraq has been volatile in Asia, often changing with major news events. Protesters against troop dispatches have taken to the streets in Bangkok, Seoul and Tokyo. Not every citizen is opposed, of course, and sentiment is positive so far among the troops and their families. "I think the Philippine contingent is doing well," says Lydia Tulawie Ikbala, wife of Colonel Sukarno Ikbala, who is training Iraqi soldiers. "They are doing our country proud." Cho Kyu Kwon, the father of a South Korean private who volunteered for duty in Nasiriyah, says, "I never opposed his decision. My son is helping the Iraqis recover and alleviating their burden." Cho, a property developer, also notes that South Korean construction companies stand to gain mightily from rebuilding contracts in Iraq: "What he's doing is good for South Korea."

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