This week's deadly attack on Italian troops in Iraq is causing U.S. allies in Asia -- Japan and South Korea -- to have second thoughts about sending troops to help with security operations.
Shocked by Wednesday's attack in Nasiriyah that killed at least 18 Italians, including 12 members of the Carabinieri paramilitary police, Japan said that it was reconsidering a promise to send its soldiers to Iraq and that the deployment, if it happens, would not be this year.
"There should be a situation where our country's forces can conduct their activities fully," Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda told a news conference Thursday. "But to our regret, the situation is not like that."
South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun also has made a series of public statements in recent days, suggesting that he was hesitating on an earlier pledge to send soldiers to Iraq.
"Even if we decide not to send troops to Iraq, there would be no significant problems in maintaining our alliance with the United States," Roh was quoted as telling reporters in Thursday's Korea Times. "I don't think there is anything to lose regarding the timing of our decision, so we should take our time to go over all important details before finalizing our stance."
Roh's spokesman, Yoon Tai Young, said Thursday that South Korea was still planning to send troops, but no more than 3,000. The force will probably be noncombat personnel. The Pentagon is believed to have asked South Korea to contribute about 10,000 troops, according to sources here.
The Bush administration has been trying to expand its so-called coalition of the willing to relieve the burden on U.S. forces. So far, U.S. officials have not been able to enlist significant numbers of foreign troops. India and Pakistan have both rebuffed requests for military help. Last week, the U.S. and Turkey formally abandoned plans for Turkey to deploy as many as 10,000 troops in large part because of opposition from Iraqi Kurds.
In comments to reporters traveling with him to Asia, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld made it clear Wednesday that he was making the trip to win contributions to U.S. efforts in Iraq.
"My pattern on these things is to let the world know what we'd like," Rumsfeld said. "We'd like assistance, we'd like troop assistance, we'd like humanitarian assistance, we'd like financial assistance -- for countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. We want as many countries as possible to participate because we think it's good for them. It's good for peace in Iraq. It's good for the 23 million liberated Iraqi people, and for other countries to have a commitment to them."
Rumsfeld arrived Thursday in Guam on the first leg of a six-day tour that will also include South Korea and Japan.
In Washington, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice said President Bush understood Japan's decision not to dispatch forces to Iraq for now.
"Japan has said that it wants to think about the timing of doing that. We understand that," Rice told reporters, playing down any rift between the close allies.
The U.S. has banked much of its hopes on South Korea, which has one of the largest and best-trained militaries of any U.S. ally and a reservoir of gratitude to the United States for its intervention against communist North Korea in the Korean War.
The South Koreans had hoped to announce the number of their troop contribution before Rumsfeld's arrival -- hoping that it would smooth the way for difficult negotiations over changes in the deployment of U.S. forces on the peninsula. The Iraq deployment has proven more politically treacherous than expected for Roh, who is facing a possible referendum on his presidency next month.
A South Korean diplomat was briefly kidnapped at gunpoint in Baghdad in October in what was widely interpreted in Seoul as a warning that Iraqi guerrillas would retaliate if the country sent more troops. South Korea now has 464 noncombat medics and engineers in Iraq, stationed less than two miles from the Italian base in Nasiriyah that was bombed Wednesday. Since the attack on the Italian barracks, South Korean personnel have been confined to their compound, the South Korean media reported.
"We all thought this was a safe area. Now we are hearing what we thought was safe is in fact not and that is really undercutting President Roh's decision" to send troops, said Moon Chung In, a South Korean academic who is advising the government on the troop deployment. "It is not that [Roh] is waffling, but he is really in a difficult situation."
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is in a similar political bind as his ruling party saw its majority shrink in a general election last weekend.
"Many people question the legitimacy of the Iraq war itself and feel we should not support America's military occupation of Iraq," said Satoshi Morimoto, a professor at Takushoku University in Tokyo. "There is also the danger and the risk."
The Japanese are particularly sensitive to military involvement by their soldiers, who under their post-World War II pacifist constitution are restricted in their use of weapons overseas.
"The situation [in Iraq] is returning to a state of war," Naoto Kan, the head of the opposition Democratic Party said Wednesday.
Japan had been planning to send noncombat forces to deliver water and humanitarian aid in Samawah in southern Iraq, about 50 miles west of Nasiriyah.
Times staff writer Esther Schrader in Washington and Times wire services contributed to this report.