TOKYO—The kidnapping of three Japanese civilians in Iraq and the threat to burn them alive shocked Japan on Thursday, rekindling debate about the government's decision to send troops.
Japanese officials vowed to stay the course, despite a threat to kill the hostages unless Japan pulls out its 550 soldiers within three days.
Japan is unlikely to withdraw, several analysts said. But as the spreading violence in Iraq engulfs civilians and troops from a number of countries in the U.S.-led coalition, their leaders face intensifying criticism at home about the deployments.
"Public opinion in these countries is shakier than in the United States," said Eric Heginbotham, an Asia expert in the Washington office of the Council on Foreign Relations, a research center. "There never was broad-based support for the war or the dispatch of troops in many of these countries, including Japan."
The kidnapping of the Japanese and a separate seizing of seven Korean missionaries—who were held for several hours Thursday before being released—appears to be the insurgents' latest tactic to try to divide the coalition. Korea is planning to deploy at least 3,000 more troops, on top of several hundred already there, despite a divided public.
The series of Shiite Muslim uprisings across Iraq this week tested the resolve of several coalition countries, as their troops came under the most intense fire they've faced to date. In one attack, insurgents drove Ukrainian troops out of the city of Kut on Wednesday. After another, a Bulgarian unit asked for protection from U.S. troops.
The insurgents "want to do whatever they can to undermine the coalition and chase the U.S. and its coalition partners out of Iraq," said an American official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "They may be stepping up their activities."
The Japanese commitment of forces is particularly sensitive, because it's the first deployment of troops to an active war zone since World War II ended.
Japanese officials researched the lay of the land to find an area they thought would be safe. They settled on Samawah in southern Iraq and sent troops purely for humanitarian work such as a water-purification project.
Mortars were fired at the Japanese base in Samawah the night before the kidnappings. Though no one was injured, Japan ordered its troops to stay on the base.
From the start, the deployment divided the Japanese public.
A poll early last month by daily newspaper Mainichi Shimbun found that 50 percent supported the deployment, while 43 percent were opposed. But asked if Japan should withdraw if its troops are wounded or killed, 55 percent said yes and 37 percent said no.
"This could be happening to my son," Keiko Kumazawa, 45, said after learning of the kidnapping. "There was no consensus among Japanese citizens to dispatch troops to Iraq. It was a government decision. And Iraq has become more and more of a mess."
Details of the kidnapping were sketchy. Japanese media identified the hostages as Noriaki Imai, 18, from Sapporo; Soichiro Koriyama, 32, a Tokyo photographer under contract with the Weekly Asahi magazine; and Nahoko Takato, 34, an aid worker from Chitose on the island of Hokkaido.
The three apparently were on the road from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad.
Al-Jazeera, the Arabic satellite news channel, broadcast a grainy videotape of the hostages, blindfolded. At one point, a knife was held to one of their throats.
Accompanying the tape was a statement that said in part: "Three of your children have fallen into our hands. We give you two choices: Withdraw your forces from our country and go home or we will burn them alive and feed them to the fighters."
"We will do with them more than what we did with the Jews in Fallujah," the statement continued, a reference to the recent mutilation of four American security workers in that Iraqi city.
"As far as I can see from satellite television, it looks like my son," Naoko Imai, the mother of Noriaki Imai, told a television station. "I want both the Japanese troops and the United States to withdraw from Iraq. I want everybody to take care of their own lives."
Government officials met into the night to determine their next steps.
"There is no reason for us to withdraw," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said. He added that "innocent citizens have been taken hostage ... and we will seek their release at once."
(Doi reported from Tokyo; Moritsugu from Washington. Jonathan Landay in Washington contributed to this report.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.