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Sunday, January 09, 2005

Roh Moo-hyun's Iraq gamble

It seems as though two South Korean citizens may have been kidnapped in Iraq by a group calling itself 'Jihad in the country of the two rivers' (reports: English - Yonhap, Korean - OhMyNews). The kidnappers released a statement on January 6 saying that the two hostages would "receive the judgement of Allah" if the Korean government did not agree to withdraw its troops from Iraq within 72 hours. This could be an ominous development for Korean president Roh Moo-hyun who has so far managed to avoid too much collateral damage from his unpopular decision to send troops to Iraq.

So tricky was the plan to send troops that the Roh government took almost a year to implement it and sent numerous 'inspection teams' to Iraq to find somewhere that would be safe enough. They finally settled on Irbil in the autonomous Kurdish zone, well away from any insurgent strongholds... or so they thought.

A few days ago Juan Cole covered a story that has got very little, if any, attention in the mainstream media: the mysterious attack by US helicopter gunships on the dormitories of Saladin University in the city of Irbil. It seems that the troops were going after the group called Ansar al-Islam which the US believes may have been linked to the recent mess tent suicide bombing. This operation has upset Kurdish organisations a great deal, to the extent that Juan Cole believes that conflict between US troops and Kurdish militias is "imminent".

The Korean National Assembly has just approved an extension to the mission of the 3600 Korean troops in Iraq, once again in the face of popular opposition. But these sorts of events show just how precarious the positions of leaders like Roh and Blair can be once they have irrevocably hitched themselves to the Bush adventure. Even the most careful precautions intended to ensure that the presence of Korean soldiers never goes beyond a symbolic show of support look like coming apart in the heat of Iraq.


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